I just binge watched the whole of Big Little Lies, the new drama mini series based on Liane Moriarty’s book and written by David E. Kelley. The series is set in Monterey, a wealthy beach town in America, and focuses on three women whose children are starting school together. First we have Madeline Martha Mackenzie, highly strung perfectionist, part-time theatre producer, and mother to teen Abigail and six-year-old Chloe. She is struggling with her children’s growing autonomy and her own obsession with her ex-husbands new life and new wife, Bonnie – something which grates at her current husband, Ed. Celeste Wright, Madeline’s best friend, has twin sons and is married to a young, handsome, successful businessman who seems to worship her. Their passionate sex life is the envy of her peers, but Perry shows signs of being violent, and by the end of the first episode they have agreed to try counselling. Finally we have Jane Chapman, single mother of Ziggy and newcomer to the town. Flashbacks to Jane running on a beach and her current day caginess suggest she is hiding some trauma from her past.
Madeline takes Jane under her wing in the first episode and the friendship between the three women is both beautiful and frustrating. They support each other so fiercely, yet each is keeping secrets from the others. The ‘big little lies’ of the title exist in each woman’s life, and what they choose to hide and from whom speaks volumes to both the general pressure they feel to be perfect, and their own individual values.
The frame to the examination of these women’s lives is that from the opening episode, we know that a murder will be committed at the school fundraiser. We don’t know who the murderer is, or the victim. But the meat of the series is not about solving the murder, but about exploring motherhood, friendship, marriage, the pressure on women to be perfect, and small town gossip and pettiness. The actors’ performances were outstanding across the board, but Nicole Kidman steals the show as beautiful, brittle Celeste – although in the opening episodes it feels like Madeline is the principal character, by the final episode the balance has shifted. Alexander Skarsgard is fantastic as Celeste’s husband Perry, at first seen as a great father and loving husband, charming and confident, and then cycling through irritability, anger, and guilt.
The series overall felt like a more thoughtful and serious version of Desperate Housewives. I think there is a tendency to dismiss dramas that focus on the struggles of stay-at-home mums which is discounts the fact that being the primary care giver to a child is an experience that a huge swathe of the world’s population can relate to, even if they are not as wealthy as the women on the show. Although some of the women’s problems are less common, domestic violence is still experienced by thousands of women worldwide, and there are many more common issues that arise – the need that many women feel for a purpose in life beyond motherhood, the loss of the romantic spark in a marriage, the decision to be a stay-at-home or a working mum and what that actually means in practise (Madeline, for example, identifies as a stay-at-home mum but volunteers 20 hours a week).
I highly recommend this show, go watch it and then come back and read my spoilery thoughts on the finale.
END OF FAIRLY SPOILER FREE SECTION, SPOILERS AHEAD
OK, I have to say I enjoyed the finale and I was on the edge of my seat hoping Celeste wasn’t going to end up a murder victim, after seven episodes of broadcasting vulnerability and Perry’s worsening violence. The decision to kill off Perry, by this time clearly the most villainous figure on the show, allows for a neat ending where the women have banded together to support one another and the men are either toxic and dead, or somewhat irrelevant. I think the show had built to a point where any other murderer-victim combination wouldn’t have fit the themes of the show, and would have led to a much darker viewpoint.
However, I reserve the right to feel that the revelation that Perry is also Jane’s rapist felt overly neat and unrealistic. It also undermined the last remaining good point that Celeste had to say about Perry, that he was always by her side during her pregnancies, and Perry’s own reasoning behind his violence, that he is aware of how amazing Celeste is and insecure about losing her. In order to conceive Ziggy, Perry was clearly not only travelling but also seeking sex with other women. Now obviously it is not necessary that Perry be in any way an OK person, but I preferred hating him for being a domestic abuser whilst allowing him to remain a nuanced character.
Hillary Kelly, who recapped the finale for The Vulture, disliked the friendship between Renata, Bonnie, Madeline, Celeste and Jane at the end : ‘aggressively endorsed the notion that females will bond merely because they are female’. I think that there is a more interesting interpretation of this scene. To me, it was less about gender, and more about the idea that secrets shared can bind people together. The main secrets of the plot were all isolating – the affair, the rape, the domestic violence – but the act of sharing them bonded people together – Madeline and Abigail are brought closer together when she admits her infidelity, and Jane, Madeline and Celeste become closer once Jane tells them about her rape. The women are all friends at the end not because they are particularly similar people (although obviously they all share parenthood of six year olds who are themselves friends, which often bonds adults) but because they all share the secret of knowing how Perry died. I hope this is the reading the director intended because I think it is a much more interesting way of looking at things! What do you think?