Big Little Lies was many things. Topical. Unafraid. Unapologetic. Originally designed to be a 7 episode miniseries based off the book of the same name, a complete story was told. A story that if you allowed it, could entertain you all while forcing you to question many things about your own life. Why lie? Not only to others but to yourself. What impact do those lies have not only on you but on those around you? The domino effect was very much in play in this narrative, with the smallest of lies rolling into larger ones. Hearts were broken, families tested, cycles created and ultimately, a death that comes with potential larger consequences. Why lie?
The Illusion of Happiness
Reese Witherspoon played Madeline, the show’s main character who on the outside is the always in control mother of two, who balances being a parent with doing a job she genuinely enjoys. Maddy draws the irritation of others by trying to fix, manage and control issues in the lives of those in around her. Maddy is married to Ed (played by the brilliant Adam Scott) who not only adores her but has taken on an active role in her children’s lives. From the outside looking in, Madeline has a perfect life and perfect family.
The old wounds never quite healed from Madeline’s first marriage. Her now ex-husband and father of her children remarried, to a much younger woman who Maddy’s eldest daughter can relate to more. As if the feelings of watching the father of her children be a better husband, working on all of the things he wouldn’t address while married to her wasn’t enough, Maddy now finds herself in competition with the younger and more modern, Bonnie (played by Zoe Kravitz). The feelings of competition are intensified by the fact that Maddy’s oldest daughter is at an age where Maddy has to work harder to be involved and the experiences she wants to share with her daughter are being given to someone she already resents. Despite her outward strength, Maddy finds herself in competition with the other women in her life—something American culture unfairly promotes. Maddy looks at Bonnie and see’s that she’s closer to middle age than her youth. She looks at Celeste (portrayed by Nicole Kidman) and questions her physical beauty and her marriage’s decreasing sex life. She looks at Renata (portrayed by Laura Dern) and questions her career choices — should she have pursued more ambitious goals or is she as happy as she claims to be working part-time for the local community theater so she could be there for her children? Maddy’s lies are that she’s OK, that her outer strength can carry her through whatever may arise. While spending so much of her time worrying about making sure her family and friends are taken care of, she’s missing the point that the lies she tells to herself are what’s really causing their pain.
Ed’s love for Maddy is never questioned, but the growing distance between the two of them is clear from the start. This escalates from Ed feeling lonely in the marriage to Ed becoming more and more clued in on Maddy’s on again, off again affair. He loves her and when he says that he gets to wake up next to the woman of his dreams every day, it is believable. However, the looks he gives other women show that his feelings are moving past hurt towards self-protection. He doesn’t want to be a victim to his wife’s lack of connection with him anymore. He doesn’t want to feel less than, like she can move on but he can’t. So his eyes begin to wonder, searching for a band-aid to cover a gaping wound.
Why lie? Maddy’s inner turmoil was real. The issues that caused her stress—feelings about her previous marriage, feelings about her children growing up, feelings about her life choices and the pressure society puts on mothers and woman as a whole is a lot to deal with. Maddy’s intentions were always good; she wanted to do right by the people she loved but as that stress mounted things like the affair became an additional weight upon her shoulders. That’s when she went from just lying to herself to lying to people she did love, such as Ed. I don’t think the show was making a judgement here on Maddy at all. She made mistakes, and the pain that followed was real. True to life, nobody is perfect, mistakes are made and people get hurt as a result.
One of the major themes throughout the season was cycles carrying over from one generation to the next. The story of cycles was told in two different ways, through the eyes of Jane and then also through Celeste and her family. With Jane, we saw how fiercely defensive over her son she was from the beginning of the story. When her son was accused of bullying a female classmate, Jane outwardly denied it but in moments alone you could see that she feared the idea of it being true. As we learned that Jane had been raped and that her pregnancy was a result of that rape, it became completely understandable why she feared the idea of her son bullying a girl in his class. The fear of her son carrying on any of his assailant father’s characteristics was a frightening thought for Jane. We, as an audience, knew how much she loved her son despite the traumatic way in which he was conceived. The show never bothered explaining Jane’s thinking behind keeping the pregnancy—it was understood that it was her choice and that was the statement being made. The fear of her son being anything like the man who impregnated her was a cycle Jane desperately hoped to avoid, watching for warning signs all while the pain and emotions from her rape bubbled to the surface because she was now watching for these warning signs with her son.
While Jane was mindful of cycles, Celeste was not. Living in a physically violent marriage, Celeste presented her family to the world as a picture of perfection. Her friends knew of her and her much younger husband’s intense sex life, leaving out the detail that sex always followed physical violence, almost as if the intercourse served as an entrance into denial. Celeste appeared to hold onto some false hope that things could get better, that Perry could change and that all of the sacrifices she was making (physically, emotionally, giving up a career she loved and also control of her own life) were for a greater good. While the lies she chose to believe made her feel OK for a while about staying in the marriage, her children were watching. They saw and heard the violence and that it was almost accepted in their house because nobody spoke of it afterwards and that their parents still appeared to be in love. Perry’s actions and the lies Celeste told to herself helped a new cycle form: One of their twin sons was the one bullying the girl at school, choking her and threatening her if she ever told. Our children are watching. Our actions, our words, our attitudes — that’s their normal, that’s what’s acceptable to them. Celeste was unaware of the creation of this cycle until it was too late. Once she became aware, it was her final call to action in the season finale. The lie she told herself for so long, the lie that things could get better and that she shouldn’t leave had impacted one of her children.
Together We Can
So much of what Big Little Lies was about was a sense of community and needing help from others to heal and move forward. Sometimes even making an admission out loud to another person is all we need but ultimately, none of us can overcome life’s major obstacles alone. A prime example of this is Celeste telling Maddy in the car that she feels horrible for even saying this but she needs to be more than just a mother — she misses her career. That scene was a turning point for Celeste in trying to leave her abusive marriage. While it’s completely common for a man to say and pursue multiple interests in addition to parenthood, there is still a stigma for a mother to say that. That being a mom isn’t enough for her, that motherhood doesn’t define her as a person. Celeste needed Maddy at that moment, and while so much of this article has been documenting the negative domino effects, that was a positive one.
Jane’s admission of her painful past certainly brought a lot of her pain and assorted feelings to the table but is what ultimately started her path towards dealing with her rape. She wanted to run but she didn’t. When she finally sees the face of her rapist and the connection is made that was Celeste’s husband, I’m sure few in the audience were shocked. That’s not what the scene was about though. The scene was about this group of women coming together to literally fend off a man who represented so many of the problems women face today—sexual abuse, domestic abuse, being told that they should stick to traditional marriage roles, that their career and their dreams weren’t as important as staying at home raising children — Perry represented all of that. The decision to have Bonnie, the much younger object of their husband’s eyes and in Maddy’s case, the cool stepmom to her teenage daughter, be the one to deliver the fatal blow to Perry was an interesting one. A decision that I think best can be read as the importance of togetherness. In a cultural climate where women are speaking up, now is not the time to pick and choose who can stand on the front line with you. If change is the goal, all willing participants are needed because we never know where our help is going to come from.
While Maddy and Renata weren’t directly involved with Perry, they both needed to be a part of that final encounter. For Renata, she didn’t choose to be isolated. She knew the other moms talked about her because she was a successful businesswoman. She knew that she could both pursue her career goals and be the mother she wanted to be. She also knew that would come with a price — exclusion — because of this ridiculous competition we put women in. Are you a mother or a successful career woman? Renata was both and she suffered because of it. Celeste discovering that her son was the one abusing Renata’s daughter brought Renata to this ultimate moment of bonding and for Renata, was the right place at the right time.
For Maddy, she needed this connection with these women. She needed to move past her anger with Bonnie. She needed something in her life that wasn’t connected to her children or either marriage. While she wasn’t directly responsible for Perry’s death, she does get to be there for both Celeste and Jane and be a part of their healing and moving forward. She needed something outside the cycle of lies in her life so she too could move forward and begin to heal as well.
The Ultimate Irony
While Perry’s death brought these women together and also on a path to both individual and collective healing, it was all based on a lie. A lie concocted to protect not only Bonnie but all involved and they were all complicit in this cover-up. The final image of the season (while originally supposed to be a mini-series, Season 2 is now filming) showed the women and their children together, seemingly happy and healing together on the beach. In the distance, the detective that had been interviewing witnesses all season long was watching them, still putting her case together. Perry’s death might have ended some chapters, but the show told us that life goes on and apparently, so does this criminal investigation.
Big Little Lies took the position of no matter how big or small, lies add up and become something bigger. No matter what our intentions are, no matter if we’re lying to ourselves or others, people we love and ourselves can and will get hurt. So what does that mean for the lie told about Perry’s death? Sure, he was a violent, horrible human being who hurt everyone in his life. Will the women be able to truly heal now that they have this lie to keep with the police looking over their shoulder?
I really enjoyed this series. I was captivated by the characters, the plot, and despite never feeling like the mystery itself was that strong, it didn’t need to be. This was definitely a character driven show and these women’s individual and collective journeys were the story being told. In addition to the themes previously discussed, the social commentary in this show was strong. As a society, we are watching women stand up and say enough is enough to many societal injustices. While the theme of lying was certainly a central component of the series, the fact that change only comes with unity was another. These women all had their differences. On paper, they had many reasons not to get along. However, when the call to action came, they didn’t pick and choose who could fight alongside them. They put their differences aside and fought the fictional symbol of male oppression, Perry, together. What happens now that the symbol has been defeated is anyone’s guess—life goes on, and they’re left with the lie.