Warning: LOTS OF SPOILERS!
How it challenged our instincts about women on TV.
I’ve never seen anything like Big Little Lies on TV before. But prior to its premiere, I had at least three conversations with TV journalists who were dismissive of it because it was about a group of rich women. I was shocked — are the tribulations of women’s lives and motherhood fodder for a trove of TV shows hidden away from me somewhere? Because personally, I’m more tired by crime and conmen.
Prestige television as it currently exists has largely skipped over stories about communities of women — Desperate Housewives and Sex and the City addressed women’s problems and friendships early on in the new Golden Age of TV, and Orange Is the New Black and Jane the Virgin are still doing it. (Gilmore Girls, which was never considered Golden Age, is another exception.) But think of how rare it is to see a group of women in a scene talking about their lives. The stakes are so high on TV these days, almost no one talks about their lives! (The doctors on Grey’s Anatomy do sometimes, but then they’re inevitably interrupted by a surgical emergency.) Big Little Lies offered something different, as the final scene of the miniseries showed in almost comic relief. While the road to that frolicking-on-the-beach ending wasn’t a feminist utopia — there was sniping and competitiveness and jealousy along the way — it is possible for women to come together to try for something better. Or not, actually — I would also gladly watch shows about women coming together to try for something worse! —Kate Aurthur
One of my favorite parts of Big Little Lies is watching the characters listen while someone else is talking. It’s the kind of acting that’s usually thankless — all we tend to get is a quick shot of someone generically nodding their head.
On Big Little Lies, however, listening is such an integral part of the story. It matters how Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) absorbs Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) matter-of-fact explication of her rape; how Celeste (Nicole Kidman) takes in Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgård) careful elisions regarding his abuse in their first therapy session; and how Jane receives the child psychologist’s positive assessment of Ziggy (Iain Armitage). And in each of these scenes, Witherspoon, Kidman, and Woodley do some of the best work of their careers.
As does just about everyone else on this show! Adam Scott allows Madeline’s husband, Ed, to be wounded and prickly and kind of dull in the same moment, so you can understand why she would be drawn to him but not all that thrilled by him. Skarsgård somehow manages to keep Perry from becoming a two-dimensional villain without ever shying away from the monstrousness of his behavior. Even Zoë Kravitz is able to give shape to Bonnie, the character given the shortest shrift on the show, especially considering her all-too-relevant backstory in Liane Moriarty’s novel. (Spoiler alert for the book of the show you’ve already watched: Bonnie was abused by her father.)
And then there are the kids. All of them so kidlike in the most real way — I believe that Madeline’s daughter Chloe would be so self-possessed and musically astute because Darby Camp totally convinces me of these traits.
It will be fun, if a little reductive, to watch the Television Academy scramble to sort out how to nominate all of Big Little Lies‘ superlative performances — the Leading Actress in a Limited Series category alone will be insane. For now, though, we can just revel in a show that allowed so many talented people so much room to breathe so much life into all of these messy, compelling, deeply human characters. —Adam B. Vary
How it nailed the insidious threat of men.
There’s something haunting about Big Little Lies, and it’s not just the fact that death hangs over the entire series. Its creeping feeling is palpable — and it hinges, at least in part, on the role of men in this series about women.
Though Big Little Lies is not about misogyny per se, there is an underlying sense of male threat embedded into its narrative — most dramatically in every scene between Celeste and Perry. But it’s also there when Ed’s eyes linger on his teenage stepdaughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) — an action never spoken of or confronted — and when he watches Bonnie exercise, then comments that he “just love[s] sweat on women.” It’s there in the tenor of how Renata’s (Laura Dern) husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) threatens Jane, and in the feeling of foreboding when Madeline’s ex-lover Joseph (Santiago Cabrera) screams at her, moving toward her in anger while they’re alone. It’s there when Madeline is alone in her car, breaking down in tears after hearing about Jane’s rape. It’s even there in the children: the way Renata and Gordon’s daughter Amabella (Ivy George) comes home with bite marks, but is too afraid to tell her parents who hurt her.
In big and little ways, Big Little Lies shows what so many women learn through experience. It’s not a problem that can really be solved in seven hourlong episodes of an HBO series, but the finale of Big Little Lies brings one of its driving themes together in a genuinely moving way: Throughout the episode, we see both the subtle and momentous moves women make for each other when they sense that something is, indeed, off. It’s in the way Madeline jumps in to defend Jane when Gordon confronts her, and in the body language between Renata and Celeste after the former witnesses the latter run from Perry. It’s in the way Bonnie follows Celeste with her eyes when she senses Perry is a threat. And it is, of course, in the literal manifestation of all of this tension, when Perry attacks his wife and all of the women come to her defense. Because while the show has fun with its wealthy helicopter moms, it comes alive through the shared language — and in this case, the eventual shared bond — that accompanies surviving the nagging threat of men. When we think about Big Little Lies years from now, we’ll see all of those women united on the beach — at least, I know I will. —Alanna Bennett
My parents, now retired, spent much of their adult lives as mental health professionals (my mother was a clinical social worker; my father, a psychiatrist). Some of their patients were grappling with issues similar to what Celeste has to confront in Big Little Lies. But until “Once Bitten,” the episode in which Celeste’s therapist, Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert), carefully guides her patient to face the truth of the abuse her husband Perry inflicts on her, I had never seen any TV show or movie so thoughtfully capture what my parents did every day in their offices.
Far too often, therapists are used as convenient tools for conflict, breaking ethical boundaries without a second thought and behaving wildly outside of the interests of their patients. I get it — that kind of depiction can make for easy drama. But like every other facet of Big Little Lies, in Celeste’s sessions with Dr. Reisman, this show chose instead to pursue the great drama of real human behavior. Even more than HBO’s late 2000s series In Treatment, this show nailed the empathic precision therapists employ to help their patients slowly, sometimes arduously, disentangle themselves from the thorny traumas weighing down their lives. I’ve never seen anything quite like it, and after that scene in “Once Bitten” was over, I was so overcome with emotion, I had to pause the show for a second to recover. —ABV