Review: Big Little Lies



I don't know if it’s a genre just yet or still a trope but I am here for this Women with ~*Secrets*~ thing.

Explaining Big Little Lies to my friends isn't easy. On the surface, and from the first episode, it reads like a standard murder mystery among pretty, rich, white women who just so happen to have *~secrets~*. And the *~secrets*~ are the same among that demographic: lying, gossiping, cheating, and sabotage. Of course, I love that kind of campy drama whether I relate to being a pretty, rich, white woman or not. But if you keep watching, the *~secrets*~ start including rape and murder and the characters become less cliched and more layered as each episode unfolds.

Even if there are a lot of names and characters in this ensemble piece, the premise of the miniseries isn't complicated. Jane, a single mother, comes to Monterrey, CA to find the man who raped her and gave her Ziggy. She befriends queen bee Madeline and lawyer-turned stay-at-home-mom Celeste but makes an enemy of high strung working mom, Renata, when Renata's daughter Amabella accuses Ziggy of choking her. The events of the first episode lead up to a murder mystery at Otter Bay Elementary trivia night/talent show, but you don't know until the finale who murdered whom.

Rather than give a blow-by-blow of the series, I'd rather give me thoughts on each of the 5 main characters. This is in order of appearance, not favorites:

  • Madeline: I knew I loved Madeline (Witherspoon) the second after her fight with Renata in episode one. Her fiery pronunciation of REN-A-TA! just tickled me. Madeline's strength is in her words: whether that's telling someone off or comforting a hurting friend. It's hard to find a character like Madeline who can vacillate between aggressive and confrontational to warm and protective without leaning too shrewish or too schmaltzy. The cracks in her tough exterior show up midway through the series when we learn about her affair with Joseph the theater director. Like Celeste, she's unhappy with her life in spite of its supposed perfection. She's finally able to bond with her eldest daughter, Abigail, only after admitting her flaws. It's a bold and brave step forward portrayed with excellent nuance.
  • Jane: It wasn't difficult to guess that Perry raped Jane (Woodley) and fathered her son, Ziggy. He was the only husband she didn't meet. Nor was it a surprise that Ziggy wasn't the one assaulting Amabella, Renata's daughter, at school. But the journey wasn't figuring out the whodunit; it was watching Jane fighting with herself about Ziggy. She knows her son is a gentle, quiet little boy who would never hurt another person. But she knows, based on his DNA, that he could be like his father. I appreciated the subtle but thorough exploration of nature versus nurture between Jane's son and Celeste's son, Max (who was really hurting Amabella). In spite of Madeline and Celeste's troubles dominating the series, Jane's story shouldn't be ignored. This is an excellent step in Shailene Woodley's career -- I hope to see more of this type of acting from her in the near future.
  • Celeste: The turning point for willowy, whispery, wood-nymph Celeste (Kidman) was the moment she tearfully confessed to Madeline that being a mother wasn't enough for her. Of course she loves her twin boys and her abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), but having just a taste of her previous life as a corporate lawyer reminded her that she's unfulfilled and riddled with guilt. This show is filled with fantastic performances but Kidman's Celeste conveys a tidal wave of emotion and thoughts with a single, mournful look. While Madeline is verbal and quick to snap a comeback, Celeste is contemplative and restrained and lets her eyes do the talking. The build to her leaving Perry and ultimately his death was a gradual, tense journey, Even if it didn't come at her hands, I still breathed a sigh of relief for her when I saw him lying on those stairs.
  • Renata: Poor Renata (Dern). She's right when she says she's being targeted for being a working mom, but not for the reasons she thinks. First, no -- she's not the only working mother with a child at Otter Bay. She may be the only working mother who brags about how many board meetings she had to attend over the summer, but Bonnie, Jane, and to some extent, Madeline also have jobs. Second, the other women don't hate her for being a working mother; they hate her for being glib and obnoxious about it. Renata is a working mother who confuses other working mothers for working mothers' nannies. Renata is a working mother who threatens other working mothers' children. Renata is a working mother who somehow still has the time to attend arbitration (with the mayor, no less) about the community theater's choice of musical.
  • Bonnie: Last but certainly not least is Bonnie (Kravitz) who spends most of the story on the periphery. Perhaps this is on purpose in order to keep the possible perpetrators to just Madeline, Jane, and Celeste (and possibly Renata). But her involvement felt like an afterthought to me. What was her motivation for coming to the rescue of 4 women who, for all intents and purposes, wouldn't have done the same for her? I think it's because, unlike the four women above, Bonnie is a good person. She puts up with Madeline's vitriol, her bratty stepdaughter, Ed's creepy lurking around her yoga studio, and random men objectifying and fetishizing her. She owes them nothing but steps in at the last minute to help and at the end she's on the beach, bonding happily with the women who once spurned her.

The series culminates in a spectacular, satisfying ending -- and I don't mean the murder. Although, yes, I did like that the show didn't go the way of ladies-killing-ladies because that would have sucked. I'm talking about the very last scene, where the 5 women and their children comfortably and happily relax and play by the ocean, bonded by this incident even as a detective spies on them from across the beach. Gone are the petty rivalries and differences; they're in this together.

I should also point out how Madeline, Celeste, Jane, and Renata all used their white privilege to protect Bonnie. The show repeatedly reminded the audience just how easy the four of them had it with their wealth and means. I can't imagine any of them getting away with their behavior had they been women of color. Even Jane, who decidedly lacks the money the others do, can get away with speeding and smoking pot after she gets pulled over. Though the detectives are skeptical, I don't foresee them pursuing charges as light as involuntary manslaughter against Bonnie had they known the truth.

I'm betting at least 2 women from this cast are up for Emmys this year, particularly Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman. Both give fabulous performances for polar opposite reasons. But that doesn't take away from the other actors as well. No, we probably won't get a second season either; but that's ok. This should stand on its own as a capsule. I certainly wouldn't this turned into a full series but with different actors/characters. Turn it into an anthology series about Women with ~*Secrets*~, even. I'm on board already.