Big Little Lies is currently on HBO as a mini-series. It’s based on the book of the same title written by Liane Moriarty.
The story starts out with a murder. I’m five episodes in and the victim and the alleged murder (or murderers) have not been revealed. I don’t really know whether it’s important who was killed or who the killer was. Rather the murder serves one significant purpose, which is to see the five distinct women through the eyes of their neighbors, each of the observer bringing their own perspective and impression of these women (and the men in their lives).
Madeline–the busybody. The one whose into everybody’s business. She’s the woman that organizes the PTA, who judges the mom that only shows up twice a year, and who according to her, maintains her full time mommy status so she can “lord over the career moms.” This sums up both what kind of woman Madeline is, and how, in spite of her failings, is self aware enough to make fun of her own less malevolent motives. But Madeline is also maternal as she is controlling, generous and loyal to her friends, to the exclusion of other women. Madeline’s lies was her affair and her fear that someone will find out and break up her less than perfect family.
Celeste–beautiful, smart, rich woman married to an equally beautiful, smart perfect man. In fact, she’s so beautiful that it’s mentioned in the show twice in the first fifteen minutes. But herein lies Celeste’s tragedy. Madeline’s second husband, Eddie, succintly summarizes Celeste “there’s something tragic about her.” And he’s closer to the truth than he thinks. Celeste is a battered wife. Locked in a marriage full of rage–his and hers, she justifies the violence by saying she partakes in it too, and that her husband, Perry, is a wonderful father. Nicole Kidman is breathtaking in this role. From the movement of her head to the way she shrugs her shoulders, she inhabits Celeste and her tragedy, especially when she says separating from her husband would be like “tearing flesh.” Her scenes with her therapist, with the camera poised squarely on her shows ever nuanced of her tragic situation.
Jane–young, frumpy, and mysterious. Jane is a single mother. Unlike Madeline and Celeste, Jane’s history and background is peeled in layers with each episode. From the first episode we know her son, Ziggy, will be central to this story. A product of rape, and accused of bullying a girl, the show skirts, sometimes even suggests but it also quickly moves away from the idea that psychopath behavior can be inherited, rather than learned, and Ziggy epitomizes that behavior. So Jane is dealing with a son, who may or may not be violent. Though her defense of him is complete, she is still relieved when the child psychologist says she thinks Ziggy is not violent. Who can blame Jane, really? Surely, she had wondered about her son. But Jane is also angry. In denial from the violence of her rape, it’s all now catching up to her, occurring in flashbacks, trapping her in rage that sooner or later will most likely consume her.
Renata–a career mom, brilliant, beautiful, and indulgent. Renata makes no apologies for her success or her rabid defense of her bullied daughter. She will also beg for her daughter such as when she calls Madeline to ask her to come to her daughter’s birthday party despite of Madeline’s intent to ruin the little girl’s party when Ziggy is not invited. Renata plays nice, until she doesn’t. This is probably the key to Renata’s success–she uses her influence when she has to, and she uses her charm when needed. Unlike Madeline who has no middle, Renata uses power sparingly and effectively. She’s not angry like Madeline, rather she’s driven. Of all the women in the show, Renata is probably the most centered.
Bonnie–the young, hot, hippie second wife of Madeline’s first husband. A peacemaker to the core, her attempt at befriending Madeline, and creating a relationship with her stepdaughter, Abigail, means she’s always at the crossfire of Madeline’s rage and resentment. Madeline herself said she is resentful because her ex-husband, Nathan, left her and Abigail to struggle on their own. But what Madeline doesn’t admit is that she is also jealous of the kind of husband and father Nathan is now to Bonnie and their child. Of the five major women in the show, Bonnie is the least formed, and is also shown to serve a contrast to Madeline’s relationships with her daughter and her ex-husband.
At first glance, Big Little Lies looks like a series about cliches, of women and their competitive nature, of mommy wars. But it’s so much more than that. It shows different facets of each of the women in the show–what drives them, what motivates them, what shapes their actions and decisions. This is not your typical story of suburbian competitiveness as it peels away the layers of perception and expectations. Although, each woman is deeply flawed, I see the show as a swan song, a homage to the steely determination of every woman, of every mother trying to keep it together in this culture of perfection, or rather the perception of it.