On Sunday, HBO aired the final episode of Big Little Lies, a narrative so all-consuming that I went from not knowing it existed to watching the entire miniseries and reading the book it’s based on in less than a week. And the series, created by David E. Kelley and directed by Wild’s Jean-Marc Vallée, hews pretty closely to Liane Moriarty’s novel. There are a few notable changes (not least the move from Australia to California), but none that alter the core thesis of the story, one that is much less scandalous than HBO’s marketing department would have you believe.
See, Big Little Lies pretends to be about murder, but it’s not about that at all. It’s about friendship, and the lengths women will go to in the name of protecting each other.
It's set in the small community of Monterey, home to a prestigious public school called Otter Bay around which most of the story is centered. Each episode is scattered throughout with flash-forwards, witness testimonies of a violent event that will take place the night of Otter Bay’s charity trivia night. We hear gossip and rumors and misinformation, insight into the weirdly politically fraught environment surrounding this elementary school. But through the first six episodes of seven, we never hear who will die, or how. Big Little Lies takes its delicious time parceling out this information, leaving us increasingly concerned for the well-being of our favorite characters.
Stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are also credited as executive producers on the series, and it’s not hard to imagine either of them reading Moriarty’s book and thinking, “This role is mine.” Witherspoon plays Madeline Mackenzie, a bright, glittery, Type-A mom with a ferocious, junkyard dog approach to standing up for what she believes is right. Kidman is Celeste, often described in both book and series as one of the most beautiful women anyone has ever seen, so beautiful it's hard to look at her. Kidman has, of course, an otherworldly loveliness that suits the role, but she’s also heartbreakingly adept at portraying Celeste’s diffidence and skittery delicateness. Kidman and Witherspoon are both brilliant on the show, giving likely career-best performances, and Kidman's already garnering much deserved Emmy talk.
And they’re matched by the women who surround them, if never the men. Sure, Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott and James Tupper are great actors, and they’re great here (Skarsgård in particular giving a courageous performance as Celeste’s abusive husband Perry), but their characters are so deliberately outshone by the women in their lives, these ineffectual men circling bright beacons of womanhood. Shailene Woodley plays the third in Madeline and Celeste’s unbreakable team. Jane is a single mom to Ziggy (Iain Armitage), a woman with a traumatic history who moves to Monterey seemingly on a whim. On the first day of school, Ziggy is accused by a little girl of bullying, and though Jane knows gentle Ziggy couldn't have done it, a war has already begun. Laura Dern plays the little girl's mom, Renata, a force of nature and the worst possible person for Jane to accidentally alienate on Ziggy's very first day. Renata is a powerful CEO, and some of the age-old tension between working moms and stay-at-home moms comes into play as the parents of Otter Bay take sides.
It sounds silly, and the school drama certainly is, but Big Little Lies uses the carefully appointed strata of childhood politics to mimic the inner lives of these women. Some of the bickering is petty, but we soon learn the deeper meaning behind it. It seems Madeline is viciously jealous of her ex-husband's new wife Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), but we learn that Nathan (Tupper) abandoned Madeline with an infant daughter and no child support, just walked out of the door one day, telling her he couldn't handle it. So when she sees him playing daddy to his new daughter with Bonnie, and worse, when Madeline's now-teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) seems to prefer Nathan and Bonnie to Madeline, she is daily forced to remember that abandonment, the trauma of being left utterly alone, no one to help her with the prodigious task of raising a human.
It's real trauma, one that Big Little Lies never makes light of in comparison to what Celeste and Jane have suffered. Celeste's marriage to Perry seems perfect: they are stunning, rich, wildly attracted to one another, mushy to the point of irritating in public. But at home, when Perry feels slighted, when he believes his masculinity has been threatened or when he thinks his perfect wife is not giving him his due, he turns violent - and that violence is escalating. She's told no one - even when Jane confesses her own tragedy, that Ziggy's father raped her, a one-night-stand that turned into something much darker, but that also resulted in Ziggy, the great joy of Jane's life.
These three women are so instantly, inextricably linked. On Ziggy's first day of school, Jane sees Madeline twist her ankle on the side of the road, and she stops to give her assistance. Madeline is delighted by the gesture, and by Jane's wry, quiet way, and she takes her under her cheerful wing, introducing her to everyone at Otter Bay. When Celeste arrives, Madeline says in this artless way, "Come meet my best friend, Celeste," and it feels like such a schoolgirl thing to say, charming and open and young. The three women have coffee, and that's it: a gorgeous friendship is forged, made only stronger when Celeste and Madeline stand up for Ziggy and Jane after he's accused. We see the three of them stand up for one another over and over, dropping everything to help each other without a second thought. Madeline helps Jane with a school project in the middle of the night. Celeste refuses to listen to another mother speak ill of Madeline. All of the drama and politics of Otter Bay never touch their love for each other. Their friendship is of stronger stuff, beautiful and pure.
But the remarkable thing about Big Little Lies' final episodes (and I will only get into the vaguest of spoiler territory here) is that it reveals the strength of character of all of these women, even those like Renata and Bonnie who seem, at first, to be antagonists to our central three. In the end, Big Little Lies is about womanhood at large, the roles we have to take on in order to survive, the silly dramas we endure because they represent something much bigger and more important to us. Dern and Kravitz are both so good here, given less to do onscreen than Witherspoon, Kidman and Woodley, but making as much of an impact by the final episode.
Kravitz's role, in particular, is interesting. Bonnie's the only black character (other than a few smaller roles whose names we don't catch), but her race is never discussed - and her character was blonde and fair-skinned in Moriarty's book. But Kravitz brings a subtle awareness of her otherness to the role. Bonnie is extremely cool, zen, into yoga and meditation and flowy garments with long beads, a perfect fit for Kravitz's aesthetic and a perfect contrast to Madeline's buttoned-up prettiness. The casting makes so much sense, but it's a shame we never see any of Big Little Lies' story from the eyes of its one black character, particularly considering the way that story concludes. We learn more of Bonnie's past and motivation in the book, and it's a mistake that her history didn't make its way into the teleplay, but Kravitz plays the character with such nuance and depth that we can almost see it all under the surface, even if it's never spelled out for us.
In the end, every one of these women is more than she seems. "We're all fucked up," Jane tells Madeline, and of course she's right, but this isn't a story about their flaws. We're reminded, again and again, that these Monterey moms are fallible, because that's what makes them real to us, but Big Little Lies is much more interested in shining a light on their strength. When a man hurts one of them, he hurts all of them. When one of them is in danger, they all rise. Pettiness and jealousy fall away, oceans of alienation are crossed, past arguments are forgotten. They drop everything else they are - mothers, wives, CEOs, lovers, enemies - and turn into an indestructible wall around each other, one unyielding force made up of five formidable women. In its final minutes, Big Little Lies reveals that the mysterious death its been teasing for seven episodes isn't the point. It's about the women who were there when it happened, and how they handled it - just like they handle everything else.