Deeper Dive: Big Little Lies, Walk a Mile in Their Shoes
The Monterey Five have returned! It’s been nearly two years since the premiere of Big Little Lies, the HBO series that details the thrilling tale of mischief, motherhood and murder in the seemingly idyllic seaside town of Monterey, California. Big Little Lies reeled in audiences with its strong, female-lead cast and a story that examines the lives of women and motherhood, in a way we haven’t seen before. The series was adapted from Lianne Moriarty's novel of the same name. It stars Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz. Witherspoon and Kidman not only star in the show, but also had a pivotal role in bringing the story to the screen. Witherspoon optioned the screen rights to the novel in 2014.
On the surface Big Little Lies appeared to feature petty wars over social standing and other female stereotypical archetypes. But it quickly took on a much bigger narrative that explored the depths of trauma, guilt and shame, and the deep kinship women have when sharing these harbored hurts. With the second season set to premiere June 9th, I decided to take a deeper dive into what made Big Little Lies one of the most compelling drama series in recent history.
The first episode introduces us to an unnamed murder victim, revealed in the final episode. The plot that takes center stage concerns the lives of three mothers: Madeline (Witherspoon), a controlling helicopter mother and wife whose friendship loyalties conflict with fierce rivalries and whose ex has moved on to a younger yogi (Kravitz); Celeste (Kidman), a kind, former lawyer turned full-time mom in denial over spousal abuse, Jane (Woodley), a single mom, new to the community, whose youth and lower-income render her fodder to the gossips. The murder looms over the series through reminders that come in the form of interspersed shots of police interviews with the locals (which also serves as our chance to see how all the moms and dads of Monterey really feel about our protagonists), but it’s the interweaving lives of these women and their relationships to their husbands, children, peers and their past that engage us. Director Jean-Marc Vallée (DALLAS BUYERS CLUB) leads us through the beautiful world of Monterey through shots that navigate between window-walled houses, shabby-chic harbor-side cafes and the lion’s den of the Otter Bay Elementary School drop-off station. After high-powered mom Renata (Dern) accuses Jane’s son, Ziggy, of bullying her daughter at school, Madeline and Celeste take Jane under their wing. As we the story unravels, we learn of an infidelity, a manipulative domestic abuser, post traumatic stress syndrome and a sexual assault – secrets that threaten to disrupt the town’s fragile ecosystem.
There are so many different avenues one could take to discuss the show and what it does right, not the least of which is it’s terrifyingly honest look at the complicated sides of domestic violence and manipulation. But in my opinion, Big Little Lies is at it’s best when it is exploring depths of its characters and their choices, many of which are rooted in the fear of being judged by their peers. It’s a show that paints women as full, complete humans so that we understand the reasons behind why they act, and in doing so it reminds us why we should always be empathetic – you never know what someone else is going through.
It is also worth mentioning that the #metoo movement erupted just a few months after the show’s release, underscoring the show’s themes. In my opinion, the juxtaposition of this new movement with the release of Big Little Lies played a huge part in its success. It resonated with so many of us. Even the title is reminiscent of the way women conceal pain. The story, which deals with living in a world where harassment, assault and coercion are omnipresent, forces the characters, and the viewers alongside them, to decide whether speaking out is worse than bearing the pain. Fear of being judged is at the heart of every character’s actions, and ultimately puts our characters lives in danger.
For example, at the center of our story, Madeline’s obsession with what others think of her is wildly apparent. While she is fiercely loyal and well-intentioned, she is also quick to to develop an “us versus them” mentality that’s rooted in her own insecurities. This includes her disdain for her ex’s new wife, Bonnie who plays the cool, perfect step-mom to Madeline’s overbearing mom to her contrarian teenage daughter (Kathryn Newton). Despite having moved on to a kinder, more thoughtful husband (Adam Scott) who seems actually quite a good match for her, Madeline struggles to see the positive aspects of her life, instead focusing on what it lacks compared to others’. Another sore spot for Madeline is her decision not to work full-time. She resents other women’s ability to parent and work full-time, drawing lines as the “haves” and “have nots,” particularly toward Renata Klein.
As a high-powered working mother in a world that still demonizes women who choose to work instead of stay home with their children, Renata too struggles to feel fulfilled in the life she has chosen and the success she has achieved. When her daughter, Amabella, is bullied on the first day of school, Renata’s strong reaction is understandable. Feeling the weight of expectations of motherhood that other people put on her and feeling powerless to protect her daughter, she feels the guilt she places on herself for not being as “on-duty” a mother as others, and reacts by going to great (and public) lengths to ensure that the accused bully (Jane’s son, Ziggy) doesn’t get to hurt Amabella again. Unfortunately, Renata’s wrath is misdirected, and while the hostile backlash would take a toll on anyone, it is especially tough for Jane.
Having just moved to Monterey with no friends or contacts, Jane has neither the happy nuclear family unit she’s surrounded with in Monterey nor a partner to share parenting duties with. Not only that, but her son, Ziggy, was conceived through rape. While we know this and admire the strength it took not only to carry the child of her rapist to term, but to choose to keep him and raise him to be a kind and thoughtful boy, Renata doesn’t and to us (and Madeline), her accusations seem cruel and insensitive. Despite being everything they typical Monterey mother isn’t, Jane is actually is actually the character who is least impacted by what other people think of her. She has developed an impenetrable exterior as a traumatic coping mechanism, and only the judgement that reaches her core is the judgement that is directed toward her son, an extension of herself Having has never told anyone the truth about Ziggy’s conception before, the bullying accusation is likely what is forcing her to recognize her trauma for the first time, something that challenges her hope that her nurturing approach to motherhood may ultimately lose out to the violent nature of Ziggy’s father, a fear that Celeste harbors as well.
We have discussed the struggles that Madeline, Renata, and Jane deal with, and noted how their obsession with what other people think of them has kept them from finding peace and happiness. But Celeste’s situation and her fear of confronting it is one that is actually life-threatening. The perfect husband that her peers and friends see is actually a manipulative, controlling, wife-beating monster who keeps her in a constant cycle of fear, shame and guilt. His manipulation is so severe that she constantly denies the severity of the abuse, even alone to her therapist, writing it off as simply passion that is so strong that it occasionally crosses over into violence. The most engaging scenes that portray this dynamic are those when Celeste and Perry go to see a couples therapist (Robin Weigart), who immediately understands that the narrative that Celeste has built and defended so vehemently is not just a twisted desire for rough sex, it’s full-blown domestic abuse. It is in these scenes that we see the depth of fabrication that Celeste is willing to craft to keep her secret and it is in these scenes where Celeste herself finally comes face to face with the realization that she and her children are in severe danger. And yet, she is still terrified to take action, terrified to rupture the image of her life and admit to not being as perfect as she appears. As she herself says: “Perhaps my self worth is made up of how other people see me.”
What is really remarkable about Big Little Lies, and what is the strongest argument be empathetic, is the extent to which everything changes once everything is on the table, secrets revealed and apologies spoken. With the insecurities behind their actions out in the open, the women are able to communicate with each other and very quickly put their feuds to rest. The series unfolds as each woman slowly releases bits and pieces of the secrets they have so tightly kept clenched in their fists out of fear, shame or guilt. It is only in the wake of small, bigger, big confessions that they can catch their breath in relief, and allow their peers to understand the reasons for their actions better.
A great example of this is one of the first apologies spoken between the feuding women: after approaching Renata at Otter Bay in a violent fury over the petition to expel Ziggy from the school, Jane drives to Renata’s house to apologize for shoving her. She immediately takes ownership of her actions and recognizes that her reaction was not the right way to address the situation, but explains that she was acting out of frustration for Renata’s treatment of her son. She also explains that she is as sure as any mother that Ziggy is telling the truth about his innocence. Renata listens, accepts the apology and apologizes herself, saying that perhaps she too reacted out of turn. They both recognize that they are struggling, feeling as though they are failing to protect their children from getting hurt. Their ability to be vulnerable in front of each other, despite a bad history, shows growth. It is a beautiful moment that feels refreshingly real, and reminds us that yes, communication really is key. This scene is reprised when the real identity of the bully is revealed to be Celeste’s son, Max, which leads to a string of apologies all around, and even a kind word from Madeline:“It takes a really big person to apologize like that. You’re a really big person, Renata.”
On a less on-the-nose scale, there are several smaller moments of touching unity throughout the series. I mentioned earlier the show’s ability to capture the universal understanding of how normal the constant threat of male is in every woman’s life. There are several moments of women’s intuition when one of the characters senses or understands that something dangerous is lurking beneath the surface. To name a few: when Jane discusses her history with sexual assault at the cafe, and Celeste’s eyes flick up and hold Jane’s – it’s a brief, wordless exchange of innate understanding, and a testament to Kidman’s incredible eyeball acting; when Celeste and Jane hear sirens in the distance after Madeline reluctantly left the cafe with Joseph, who showed up unannounced and in a very stalkerish manner (another Emmy-deserving moment to Nicole Kidman’s eyeballs); when Celeste and Perry return home from the hospital after she shatters his urethra with a tennis racket in self-defense, and their nanny locks eyes with Celeste, barely whispering if everything is okay, very likely sensing that abuse goes on behind closed doors and reluctant to leave her employer alone with her husband.
But the biggest, most powerful moment comes at the very end of the series, during the night of the school fundraiser. At the behest of her therapist, Celeste has made moves to get out of the house – she’s rented an apartment, fully stocked the fridge with food and the bedroom with toys, and Perry is supposed in the morning on a business trip. She just needs to make it through Trivia Night at Otter Bay with him at her side to exchange pleasantries with her neighbors (her therapist points out the hypocrisy of this scenario: “It’s one thing should he kill you, but god forbid you miss a party”). She’s leaving him, and the catalyst was discovering that one of her twins, Max, was the schoolyard bully.
The abuse that she endured, from marital rape to being bludgeoned in her bathroom, all occurred behind closed doors, and Celeste withheld acknowledging her situation under the pretense that it wasn’t harming the kids (unless of course, Perry was to one day kill her). But Max is revealed as the bully, it becomes clear that she is no longer the only victim in the equation. As she tells Perry: “What are you going to say to him, that that’s not the way to treat a woman? That men should never hit women? If they haven’t seen it, they’ve heard it; they know what their father does to their mother.”
Having just barely wriggled out from Perry’s grasp (he’s seen a text from the realtor and figured it out) and found Madeline, Jane, and Renata in a quiet spot on the terrace, Celeste rushes to them, notably flustered. As Perry approaches, pleading with her – he just wants to talk, he swears – Celeste backs away, shakes her head, leans into her friends, tells him “no.” Madeline, who knows Celeste better than anyone, has never seen this side of her friend before, nor this side of Perry. Instantly sobering up, her instincts kick in and she puts an arm in front of Celeste. Jane, who has never met Celeste’s husband before, hears his voice and freezes. Her PTSD-driven visions link with reality – Perry is the man who raped her years ago. In the span of ten seconds, through body language and locked eyes, the truth is out, to everyone, and Perry lunges to kill his wife.
What follows is a masterful montage set to Agnes Obel’s heart-wrenching, piano piece “September Song,” flashing between shots of violent self defense and powerful waves crashing against a rocky shore. With the secret out, Perry pummels Celeste, and Madeline and Jane and Renata pile onto him. It’s like watching a pack of wolves try to tear away a giant bear from a wounded member of their pack – they get thrown off, swiped at, shoved to the ground, but they get up again and again to pull him off of their friend. The final blow comes from Bonnie, who noticed Perry’s iron grip on Celeste’s arm in the shadows, her wrenching herself away and Perry haunting after her. As Perry delivers blow after blow to Celeste, able to shake off the other three women, Bonnie runs in from behind and shoves him with an echoing scream down a flight of stairs to his death.
I hesitate to call a murder beautiful, because well – you know. That being said, the scene is beautiful. Bonnie, Madeline, Renata, Jane, they all know what it is, in some capacity, to be Celeste at that moment, and it was Celeste’s final ability to be vulnerable that allowed her to be. It proved that when we ask for help, when we speak up, we will be heard. And women will
find the commonalities that make them stronger together, and that’s what Big Little Lies was about all along.
Season two starts the following school year. The Monterey Five are united in their fabricated story that Perry lost his balance and slipped to protect Bonnie. However the police and Perry's grieving mother (Meryl Streep) aren’t too sure.
Things I’m hoping to see (or not see) in Season two:
The Aftermath of Trauma: In the first season, we saw a very accurate depiction of denial, whether through Jane’s PTSD and her assurance that she was fine, or Celeste’s blind manipulation by Perry. All too often, television glosses over the knitty gritty details of recovering from trauma. I want to see tense therapy sessions and meltdowns and shame and guilt – normalize that it’s ok to not be ok! Can’t wait to see how they tackle it.
Madeline Martha Mackenzie Burns: I’ll just say it – I live for Reese Witherspoon’s iconic quips. There’s a reason they hype up the trailers with lines like “she’s just young – you know, like you used to be?” and “I don’t even like to chew, I just shove it down. Why don’t you give Warren here [a cupcake] so he can shove it too?” It’s hilarious, it’s satisfying, and it’s a role Reese was practically born to play (especially because she doesn’t let it become a caricature of petty women). Let’s save the ice only for those assholes who truly deserve it, though.
The Vengeful Mother: This is the trope I’m worried about. We get it, your son is dead, and you sense it wasn’t an accident. But he was also a wife-beating rapist and monster. I will be very, very disappointed to see Meryl Streep’s character turn into a one-dimensional, revenge-at-all-costs villain, though I’m sure the show-runners have some tricks up their sleeves for playing this out.
Star Power: Honestly, can you really lose in a show where Reese, Laura, Meryl and Nicole are sharing the screen? Nah. Bring on the Emmy noms!
I’ll be honest, I’m equal parts over-the-moon excited and dubious about the upcoming season. I firmly believe that the first season was perfect, and didn’t need a follow up. However, stories can always be explored further!