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The real fantasy in ‘Big Little Lies’

It’s not that gorgeous beachfront property.

CREDIT: HBO
CREDIT: HBO

This story discusses the plot of the ‘Big Little Lies’ finale.

What do you know: Big Little Lies turned out to be an escapist fantasy after all.

At first, the HBO miniseries seemed like delectable brain-candy: thick with movie stars — Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman (both co-producers), Shailene Woodley — and set in Monterey, a gorgeous cliffside town with West Side Story battle lines drawn between the moms making bank in high-power corporate America and their stay-at-home counterparts who opted out of the workforce to helicopter above their Pinterest-board kiddos full-time. There’s a murder mystery set into motion by, of all things, a bullying incident among kindergartners at the too-adorably named Otter Bay Elementary. There’s a Greek chorus of community members, like modern iterations of those villagers chirping about that most peculiar Belle, trying out their best one-liners on police officers who have a remarkably high tolerance for irrelevant gossip. And the identity of both the killer and the killed were unknown, to be revealed as the seven episodes unwound. This was the kind of stuff to fill your wine glasses to: a fast pass out of reality.

But then, twist! For those unfamiliar with Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name upon which the series was based, the story revealed its depths. The series seemed to abandon its central plot driver — the murder mystery — altogether as more of these characters’ history emerged. For all the eye-roll-worthy use of children’s birthday parties as pawns, there was a careful, extended appraisal of all the ways in which women experience and inflict violence. It’s the way some of these women manage to extricate themselves from violence, or get their own version of justice and closure, that’s the real fantasy here.

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Kidman’s character, Celeste, is the abused wife of the younger, showily passionate Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). At least from the outside, their marriage is the envy of the neighborhood: A beautiful couple that still has the hots for each other, with towheaded twin sons, a perfect house, a perfect life. Celeste knows this myth and, in part, buys into it — enough to not look too closely at the physical fights that escalate into sex that isn’t exactly consensual, and enough to accept the, as Celeste puts it, “see-saw” of their power balance that shifts in her favor in the immediate wake of his assaults and tips back into his hands as soon as her bruises fade. The scenes of Celeste in therapy, as the incontrovertible reality of her situation seeps in, are raw, emotional, and unbelievably tense.

CREDIT: HBO
CREDIT: HBO

Woodley’s Jane (possibly the weakest link in the cast; she always seems more like her son’s babysitter than his mother) is connected to Celeste in more ways than either character realizes. The father of Jane’s son is a man whose identity Jane does not know; she met him only once, when he raped her. Jane’s son, Ziggy (…I know) is accused, in a very Salem witch trials-y way, of attempting to strangle a female classmate during kindergarten orientation. Ziggy maintains his innocence, though Jane has her doubts. At one point she allows that violence could be “in Ziggy’s DNA.” She came to Monterey to start fresh, but abuse and its aftershocks won’t leave her alone.

The series went on like this, a rumination on sexual and domestic violence, on intimacy and passion (or lack thereof). No one’s life, it seemed, was left untouched by some kind of physical cruelty. But just as it appeared the series was leaving behind its escapist bonafides completely, last night’s finale brought them back.

On the guidance of her therapist, Celeste sets up an apartment for her and her sons. Though she has maintained to her therapist that her sons have no idea what goes on between her and her husband — he is a doting father, that’s all they know, she’s sure of it — she learns from Jane that one of her twins is the bully who choked his classmate on the first day of school. He’s been bullying this girl ever since. Celeste knows exactly where he learned to hit, bite, and choke. The illusion that she has successfully shielded her sons from the impact of their father’s abuse vanishes — particularly because, the morning before that revelation, Perry delivers one of his most astonishing beatings to date. Her sons can hear her cries through the vents while they play video games in an adjacent room.

If Big Little Lies were sticking to the gritty realism of Celeste and Perry’s marriage until the final credits rolled, only Perry would make it out alive.

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But that’s not what happens. It turns out the real fantasy in Big Little Lies isn’t that even supposedly-strapped Jane can afford “humble” beachfront property near crazy-rich techies. The fantasy is that when Celeste gets caught in the act of escaping her abusive husband, she’s the one who survives.

CREDIT: HBO
CREDIT: HBO

In fact, it’s a two-for-one female fantasy: Not only is an abusive husband offed, but a rapist is, too.

The murder, we’ve known all along, occurs at a school fundraiser, a swanky costumed affair where the women dress as Audrey Hepburn and the men dress as Elvis and also perform really professional-sounding karaoke renditions of Elvis songs because, sure. Though we’ve seen glimpses of this fundraiser since the premiere, lit by the alternating blue and red lights of police flashers, the full story of that night isn’t shown until the finale.

At the crux of the episode, Perry chases Celeste outside the event, where she is already surrounded by Witherspoon’s Madeline (needed some air while her devoted second husband sang “The Wonder of You,” on account of adultery-induced guilt), Jane (who followed Madeline out), and Renata (Laura Dern, apologizing for wrongly accusing Jane’s son of bullying her daughter). Jane has never met Perry before; as he rushes Celeste in a rage, Jane recognizes him as her assailant, Ziggy’s father. Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), witnessing the commotion, takes a quick break from being a peace-and-love crunchy-yogi to shove Perry down the stairs to his death.

When it comes to abusive relationships in which a male partner is violent to a woman, the plainest response to the natural but infuriating question, “Why doesn’t she just leave?” is this unavoidable truth: Because that’s when she’s most likely to be killed.

Plenty of male critics dismissed Big Little Lies as a frivolous soap opera. This, first of all, suggests there’s something wrong with escapist television — we need it now more than ever, honestly — and implies that a show can’t have elements that are frothier existing alongside more substantive material. But what’s really chilling about that categorization of Big Little Lies is the fact that critics were given all but the last episode to review, which means that “frivolous” apparently includes all the scenes of Perry brutally beating Celeste, and of their time together in therapy, dissecting a vicious dynamic they both feel drawn to and repulsed by.

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Guess anything in the domestic sphere — even domestic violence — scans as light and unimportant. Sure, the packaging isn’t grim, but the lives within certainly are. Chances are, if Perry and Celeste’s fight scenes were transplanted, unaltered, to a war movie, with Celeste as a prisoner of war and Perry as her out-of-bounds interrogator, those male critics would not consider the violence therein to be the stuff of soaps.

Much of that condescension stemmed from the age of the actresses and the “clichéd” nature of their problems. Really? More clichéd than the travails of Don Draper, a dad in his forties who just felt oh so trapped by his perfect life which, deep down, was anything but perfect? More clichéd than the challenges faced by Coach Taylor, another father in his forties, who just wanted to be a good man and do a good job? And why are the Big Little Lies women, whose identities are driven by far more than their relationships to their children, so readily referred to as “Monterey moms”? I don’t recall any reviews of Breaking Bad that called Walter White as an “Albuquerque dad.” (Keep in mind Walt claimed he only got into the meth business so his family would be provided for after he died.)

CREDIT: HBO
CREDIT: HBO

That’s not a knock on any of those characters or their respective shows, which all deserve their spot in the TV Mount Rushmores in viewers’ hearts. But lots of celebrated series operate on essentially the same premise as Big Little Lies — no one has a perfect life, and the most beautiful surfaces can hide complicated, even hideous depths — and the most obvious difference between them is just that our culture takes men, and everything typically coded as masculine, more seriously than we take women. And so the middle-aged malaise of men seems like prestige TV whereas the inner lives of women over 40 scan as self-indulgent sudsy trash. And maybe the reason the problems that plagued the women of Monterey feel like clichés is because they are, in fact, quite common: Intimate partner violence accounts for 15 percent of all violent crime.

Speaking of prestige TV: Big Little Lies marks a one giant leap forward for HBO when it comes to stories about women and sexual violence. HBO has a ways to go when it comes to depictions of rape and assault. Gratuitous is too small a word for a track record that includes Game of Thrones and Westworld. (There is no loophole for Westworld. Graphic, borderline-pornographic rape scenes that are actually a commentary on your network’s other graphic, borderline-pornographic rape scenes are still… graphic, borderline-pornographic rape scenes.) The cost of entry to any show worth watching should not be tolerance for a bunch of rape scenes shot to look sexy instead of scary— that is, scenes that some of the viewers are clearly expected to enjoy. But this is a start. Wonder if the fact that the show was produced by women (Kidman and Witherspoon), based on a novel by a woman, with women as the central characters and men as their satellites instead of the other way around, had anything to do with that.