Adam Scott's TV performances can generally be split into two different categories: the incredibly sweet and dutiful love interest and the antagonistic dick. For Mike Schur, he's played both: first as calzone- and Leslie Knope- loving Ben Wyatt on Parks and Recreation, followed by The Good Place’s resident demon dirtbag, Trevor. Getting Adam Scott character whiplash is common, as he excels at both archetypes; but as Ed Mackenzie in Big Little Lies, he gets to marry these conflicting traits into one complicated, compelling guy.
As the husband to the so-called woman of his dreams, Ed is the calm to Madeline Martha Mackenzie’s (Reese Witherspoon) storm. In the first season, his reliability was emphasized, but so was the notion that he could harbor a darker side. In one of the police interview talking heads, this is referenced overtly: “Scratch the surface of any Jimmy Stewart ... Charlie Manson.” Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan (James Tupper), even starts calling him “Psycho Ed” after a heated conversation between the two.
A lot of this was in service to the overall mystery plotting of Season 1. By having Nathan repeat his suggestion that there is something “off” about Ed, echoed the gossipy Greek Chorus of parents and teachers, it gave the audience one more person to suspect. At one point, Madeline says, “Don’t be ridiculous, Ed doesn’t fight,” a Chekhov’s Gun of a comment, which was ultimately a red herring. In Season 2, the new assertion is Ed won’t leave Madeline. The more it is said, the more it seems like they are heading for inevitable Splitsville.
Because Scott has played such wildly differing parts in the past, the potential for Ed to unleash a mean streak is easy to believe, even if before this week there was little evidence beyond Nathan’s say so. In the second episode of Season 1, Ed makes the case for stability. This “Steady Eddie” speech veers toward Nice Guy territory — that uncomfortable dynamic where a man will weaponize his niceness in order to manipulate women — but as with a lot of Big Little Lies, it is the performance that turns these obvious platitudes into a nuanced discussion. Unfortunately for him, stable isn’t sexy. “I love you and I like you” might be a turn-on for Leslie Knope — who had a lot of the same control freak characteristics as Madeline — but this Big Little Lies marriage lacks passion.
Referring to yourself with a nickname like “Steady Eddie” could border on sociopathic, yet this whole stable vibe has seemed pretty sinceret. Again, because Scott has proved to be quite the chameleon, it is hard to read Ed at times. Sure he’s supportive, but he also possesses a petty, petulant streak best demonstrated in this week’s episode, “The End of the World.” As Madeline spirals on stage during the school meeting, he stands at the back of the room on his phone like a disinterested teen. Earlier in the episode, he notes that being cruel is a new tactic he’s trying out. He has just cause to be shitty, as he has just found out Madeline cheated on him. However, at the moment it feels like he has Freaky Friday’d with step-daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton), as she is now being uncharacteristically reasonable.
In the same way that Madeline is unable to control her Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) envy, Nathan seems to think Ed exists just to annoy him. Every conversation between the two simmers with passive-aggressive remarks boiling over into insults. It isn’t only the Monterey moms who think they have something to prove to each other. Ed is at his most superior when talking to Nathan, although he could breathe and Nathan would see it as an affront. In the Season 2 premiere, Nathan asks Ed if he can get through to Bonnie, which is a strange request considering their dynamic. Ed, of course, points this out and earns a new insult from Nathan, referring to him as a “snide fuck.” To Nathan, this version of Ed is like a smug Ben Wyatt, but Ed is as insecure as my other favorite Adam Scott role, Henry from Party Down.
Ed does meet Bonnie for coffee in “The End of the World”, which he remarks is a twofer in that he’s pissing off both Madeline and Nathan. And while he does have a good relationship with Bonnie, it is impossible to view this coffee date as an altruistic act of friendship. In couples therapy, Ed’s actions are put under the spotlight as indifference could be a factor, but he is quick to note he has always been devoted. In not wanting to rock the boat, Ed has been left behind entirely.
“Sometimes that's the essence of a happy marriage, the ability to pretend,” Ed told his wife in Season 1. Well, last week it all came crashing down when he found out a number of secrets his Madeline has been concealing. To make matters worse, his kids accidentally divulged the details. Ziggy’s parentage is one thing, but the affair is another story, even if deep down it's something he was already aware of — there was a point last season when he stopped Madeline from confessing. When he quips to Celeste (Nicole Kidman) about getting coffee so he can find out what else he has missed, Renata (Laura Dern) is concerned he knows the biggest lie of them all, luckily for them he is still very much in the dark about this, but for how long? And what will he do if and/or when he finds out?
When Ed shaved his beard off in the Season 1 finale, no one commented on it. Not his wife, his nemesis, nor any of the other parents. It's odd that this dramatic grooming statement went verbally unnoticed as it transformed his look completely from sensitive dad vibes to a colder aesthetic. It is also worth noting that he’s bearded in Madeline’s horny flashbulb memory, which is now mixed in with the Joseph (Santiago Cabrera) images that plagued her last year. The inevitable Madeline affair reveal takes place long after the beard has gone, but the unraveling began at Trivia Night when he debuted his clean-shaven appearance. This visual duality goes to show that with or without the beard, Adam Scott as Ed is delivering a layered performance that continues to keep us guessing.
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Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.