Big Little Lies, HBO’s devastating exploration of privilege and pain in an enormously wealthy Californian beach town, sold itself as a murder mystery, a premium cable Desperate Housewives with a pedigree. With the pilot’s title, “Somebody’s Dead”, the show seemed to announce itself as a salacious, twisty drama, a high-income whodunit that would find most of its propulsion from the question of who died and who did the killing. It’s a title that, like the show’s advertising, promised scandal.
The very ambiguity of that title, however, speaks to the way that the show endeavoured — and often succeeded — in turning the genre inside out, changing the goal posts in ways that practically made the resolution of the central murder a moot point. By the time the corpse was finally revealed and the culprit was known, Big Little Lies had already told the audience what it was really about: compassion, community, and the power of shared life experience.
This isn’t to say that the show didn’t, on its surface, offer its share of soapy delights — the combat of words between Renata (Laura Dern) and Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) was cattiness at its most thrilling — but in many ways it was actually about smashing the notion that women’s narratives have to be essentially soapy. The above-mentioned snippy female conflict neatly revealed itself to be nothing but a red herring; a single gender battle to distract them from a dual gender war.
Whilst other shows may have reveled in these two rich, beautiful women’s ideological and personal differences, Dynasty-style, Big Little Lies insisted that those differences were actually similarities: differing expressions of shared fears and frustrations. Although the five female protagonists were repeatedly presented as unalike, they were equally repeatedly shown in each other’s orbits. At restaurants, in theatres, at school, on the beach, and at parties, these women were forced together, as if they were cosmically destined to become a team, an idea that eventually became the biggest clue of all.
To be fair, Big Little Lies‘s story sounds flimsy on paper. Based on Liane Moriarty’s fantastic but tonally different novel, it follows Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) as she moves to the upper-class coastal town of Monterey with her young son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) in order to escape the memory of a horrifying sexual trauma. Despite being solidly middle-class in a world of the wealthy, Jane quickly makes friends with Madeline, a pushy and argumentative mother at Ziggy’s new school who’s trying to bring up a sullen teenager (Kathryn Newton) and a precocious, music-loving tween (Darby Camp) whilst dealing with the emotional aftermath of an affair and sharing a town with her ex-husband (James Tupper) and his beautiful, universally liked wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz).
Madeline’s best friend, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a retired lawyer, lives a seemingly ideal life with a handsome, rich, charismatic husband (Alexander Skarsgård), a beautiful house, and two good-natured twins. However, Celeste is a victim of awful domestic abuse that’s becoming more frequent and more shocking, a secret that she’s protecting at all costs, even when it’s threatening her life.
There are two inciting events that kick the narrative into high gear. First is the accusation that Ziggy’s been physically bullying Amabella (Ivy George) the daughter of the powerful, highly strung CEO Renata. Then there’s the revelation that somebody has been killed at a school fancy dress fundraiser. By virtue of the fact that the show is told in a non-linear way, the audience is provided with few details about this murder, other than that it’s being investigated and that the victim fell to their death. In one of the plots smartest, and in retrospect, most obvious, twists these two events are linked in a heart-breaking and deeply profound way.
Renata’s daughter is actually being bullied by Max (Nicholas Crovetti), one of Perry and Celeste’s twins. He’s re-enacting on the playground the violent gender dynamics that he experiences at home, a sure sign that violence has permeated his worldview, despite Celeste and Perry’s insistence that the kids don’t know about the violence that’s happening under their roof. It’s this realisation that convinces Celeste to leave her abusive marriage — she now has an external reason to stop her husband — but before she can escape, Perry discovers her plans and attacks her in front of the other women. In trying to protect their friend from the vicious abuse, Bonnie runs towards Perry and pushes him off a cliff.
In a sense, a lot of the world of Monterey is presented as a playground, one revealed to be the site of extreme, unflinching violence. Perry is killed on the school grounds and Max expresses his extreme frustration and violence on the playground; the metaphor is neat and clear, although never cloying: men learn to attack women and, as demonstrated in Celeste and Amabella’s refusal to admit what the males around them are doing, woman are taught to remain silent. The school’s shown to be ineffectual, as is the police force.
The adult characters both inspire and reflect the reckless behaviour of the children they should be raising. In the sixth episode, “Burning Love”, Jane jabs Renata in the eye after a tertiary adult character resorts to bullying tactics to upset Ziggy and impress Renata. It’s shocking, but it’s also funny because of how infantilized these two women look; it’s an outlandish, cartoonish outburst that wouldn’t feel too out of place on Saturday morning children’s television. They are modeling the behaviour that so horrifies them in their offspring.
Renata and Jane do find common ground in their mutual desire to protect their children’s well-being; Dern, who’s found a way to make aggression feel profound and enlightenment play out like a battle cry, let’s Renata’s mask of pettiness slip to show that, despite her CEO trappings, the character is simply a child fumbling her way through motherhood. It’s through finding some commonality that these two characters can approach a viable adulthood; even before Renata is certain that Ziggy isn’t attacking Amabella, she’s able to see the humanity in Jane’s struggles as a single mother fighting to preserve her son’s reputation.
In the finalé episode, “You Get What You Need”, Renata is only there to witness and participate in Perry’s final explosion because she’s apologising to Jane for accusing her son of being a bully. With hindsight, audiences may see this as another signpost to the dynamics and specifics of Perry’s death; the script cleverly and regularly suggests that these women will only be able to weather the upcoming storm if they accept their similarities and push aside their differences.
This is part of what makes the finalé so powerful, and the school fundraiser such an adroit stage for the mystery to play out. The theme is “Elvis and Audrey”, which feels like an arbitrary combination but which serves as a powerful delineation between the men and the women of the show. After Perry has been pushed, and therefore half of the mystery solved, the camera swerves upwards to show the woman standing together. They’re all dressed as Audrey Hepburn, a neat visual signifier of the fact that they are five separate expressions of a singular, united womanhood. They are different people, but their experiences make them the same.
This visual signifier is further reinforced by the fact that Celeste and Jane have both decided to dress as Holly Golightly at the beginning of Breakfast at Tiffany’s: black dress, gloves, and pearls. These women have both been victims of Perry’s abuse, they’re both mothers to his children and are thus bound together in violence and motherhood. Golightly — and Hepburn’s interpretation of her — is an endlessly discussed and dissected figure, but essentially her story is that of a woman who finds some sort of peace through embracing responsibility for her own life. Golightly has to stand up for herself, and that story has implications for Jane and Celeste: they’re forced into a position in which they’ve no choice but to be brave, and through that bravery, it allows the women around them to reveal their own.
Just as the show seeks to interrogate, and ultimately blow up the soap opera genre, the final two episodes also seemed to take aim at another genre whose feminist credentials are picked apart: the horror movie. As the finalé begins, director Jean-Marc Vallée focuses the camera on a ventilation unit, which reveals the sound of a particularly nasty fight between Celeste and Perry. The stillness of the camera, and the violence of the soundscape, share an impulse with the very best horror: it feels subversive, incredibly tense, and understands the power of the unseen. The most shocking act of domestic violence is kept at an arm’s length until it’s revealed to the audience through brief, unflinching flashbacks, which is itself a comment on the ways that trauma infiltrates people’s everyday lives.
This opening image refuses to treat Celeste’s abuse as spectacle; her disrupted body is kept out of sight at the moment when a horror movie would traditionally linger on it. After a particularly tense scene between Perry and Celeste, she runs through the fundraiser looking desperately for somebody to help. It has all the hallmarks of the slasher genre and positions Kidman as a slasher victim. Yet it neatly slips the signifiers of the genre; instead of running to an abandoned warehouse alone to get murdered, she runs to her friends to get saved.
The finalé flirts with the idea that the murder would be somehow gun related. Gordon Klein (Jeffrey Nordling), Renata’s husband, makes finger guns at a secondary character, Renata makes a reference to being shot, and Jane carries a gun in several episodes of the series. The distance and separateness of gun violence are antithetical to what actually happens, however. Perry’s murder is anything but cold and clinical; it isn’t even premeditated.
The denouement is choreographed so that the women look like a pack of lionesses protecting the pride from an outside aggressor; it is, in some instinctual way, a natural image, which is backed up by the cuts to the tide that frequently interrupt the action. The waves grow more aggressive, as if the earth is rearranging its atoms in order to help the women protect themselves and each other. Some critics have commented that this water imagery feels a little hokey in a show that so deftly sidesteps cliché, but it speaks to one of the essential truths that, it seems to me, the show is trying to unveil: people helping each other is more natural than people tearing each other apart.
An inclusive matriarchy is positioned as preferable, linked to images of water and sand. Much has been made about the aspirational lifestyle blog aesthetic of the show; the houses are so gorgeous and so grand that they sometimes feel like jokes in search of punchlines, which makes it significant that the final image we see of the women in out in nature. All of the female leads stand together on the beach as a makeshift family, playing with their children and discovering the similarities they all share.
The little lies of the show’s title are too numerous to list, but the big lies seem to be two-fold. First, on a narrative level they lie to the police about Perry’s death. More importantly, and the lie that the show spends time dismantling, is the one that suggests woman have to be seen to be living perfect lives. Perfection poisons the women against each other, whilst vulnerability allows them to bond. Perfection comes with secrets; vulnerability brings things to light. By shunning the lie of a perfect womanhood, Big Little Lies suggest that perfection can be replaced by something better: wholeness.