Nobody’s lives are perfect. In a time of Instagram gloss and social media announcements, we feel more inferior than ever, but we’re missing the true reality. Big Little Lies, a seven-part HBO drama based on a Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel, presents us with that glossy contentment and breaks it down to unveil the secret traumas and hidden conflict below.
However, persuading people to see past that facade long enough to try the first episode is a little tricky. Prompted to give a rough summary, I’ve found it hard to go beyond the basic set-up of ‘wealthy mothers in central California’ before people are tempted to write it off as shallow fiction. This very setting seemed to lead to a lot of sniffy reviews of episode one from male critics, dismissing it as pulpy fiction, although the same can’t be said for female critics and viewers.
Produced by and starring Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon in the roles of their careers (not a statement said lightly), it brings together a primarily female cast in a story that really gives light to female friendship and rivalries, as well as the complexities that prompt them to share, or to conceal, personal struggles.
Witherspoon plays Madeline Martha Mackenzie, whose character suits her perfect alliteration with a determined need to get the world the way she wants it. She’s a fearless opponent, sweet friend and often interfering confidant. As her husband Ed (Adam Scott) puts it, she has a tendency to adopt ‘broken people’ as friends, one of which is Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman).
Celeste is a mysterious character to the other mothers – almost impossibly beautiful, she’s married to the handsome Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). In public they raise eyebrows for their displays of affection, showing an outward blissfulness that frenemies find downright offensive. It’s all a mask – Perry is a severely abusive husband, and Celeste’s journey to facing that fact becomes the heart of the series.
Finally, the new addition to Madeline’s friends is Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), a young single mother who has come to Monteray to escape her past. When her young son gets accused of hurting the daughter of Renata, a high-flying Silicon Valley executive (Laura Dern), soon Jane has to contend with a hostile neighbourhood and the re-emergence of a trauma she’s trying to forget.
It’s all artfully directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, who recently made Dallas Buyers Club and the wonderful Wild, another book adaptation starring Witherspoon as the lead. He’s always had a skill for truly beautiful shots, as well as an excellent knowledge of music to make the soundtrack another character in whatever film he’s making. That he’s been brought into television is only a blessing, allowing us more time with his masterful direction. As the drama has escalated, recent episodes have become a near-constant source of tension, with shots speeding up and sharp edits leaving viewers on edge.
Above the artistic value, Big Little Lies has been exceptional for how it tackles issues in a way that isn’t glamourised or glossed over. Jane’s traumatic incident rightly shows the long term fears that it can instill, whilst the characters are constantly troubled by their ability to ‘mother well’. There’s no clear answer – Renata envies the stay-at-home mums for their freedom, whilst ex-employees such as Celeste long for the days when they had autonomy and power. All are terrified that like Jane, their child will be accused of something and suffer social exclusion.
In a pivotal scene this past week, Madeline came clean to her teenage daughter about mistakes in her past, recognising with a bare honesty that nobody is flawless. These woman live in the kind of houses most of us can only dream of, but that doesn’t change the human nature of the occupants, who are just as imperfect as the rest of us.
Of all the different character studies that Big Little Lies gives us, the most important is Celeste. Faced with a dangerous husband whose fits of rage escalate into moments of sexual passion, Celeste does what she can to appease him. As Emily Naussbaum of the New Yorker pointed out in a review, ‘it’s hard not to suspect that Celeste is consenting, in part, so that she doesn’t have to admit that if she didn’t agree he wouldn’t stop.’
Despite some horribly judgemental reviews decrying Celeste, stating that someone should ‘shake her silly’ so she sees sense, Celeste’s response is real among those suffering from abuse. People who can’t empathise will find her frustrating, but the show and Kidman do an excellent job of showing the way that abuse survivors get used to adapting themselves, reminding themselves of all the good days and worrying over all the difficult ties they’d have to cut to leave. It’s not foolishness – it’s fear of judgement as seen in reality through that TV Fanatic review, and of being without a clear answer to turn to.
The scenes with the therapist are heartbreaking. In just a few scenes, we see Celeste without anywhere to turn, protecting her current home life in the fear that it’s all she has. The therapist sees through this, and tries to bring the reality home that without change, Celeste could lose her life. The violence is so unrestrained, so difficult to watch, that to viewers it feels like the escalation won’t ever stop. When the possibility of an escape is brought home to Celeste, it’s a difficult but tiny light in what had felt like a hopeless situation.
This is the portrayal of domestic abuse that needs to be seen on television. Newspapers may try to trivialise the scenes, but there’s nothing glamorous about the moments between Perry and Celeste. The genuine love that they still have for each other exists but it’s turned completely toxic by the way Perry deals with an uneven balance of power and insecurity.
Celeste’s response – of carrying on and hiding the evidence – shouldn’t be decried but recognised. Abuse survivors need people like the therapist in Big Little Lies to help them gain perspective of the situation and to find a way out, not to be judged for staying with someone. There is no clear answer for the multitude of complex abusive situations, but there can (and should) be advice and support.
Big Little Lies isn’t the ‘chick lit’ fiction that cynical critics attempted to reduce it to. Instead, it reminds us that even the lives that seem glossiest on the surface can share the difficulties, traumas and secrets that we see in our friends, relatives and acquaintances, whether that’s through worries around motherhood or an abusive relationship. It’s also a reminder that the response to pain can’t always be out of the pages of a blunt advice column – that no one’s response to their own situation is the same, and it never comes without a lot of inner conflict.
Big Little Lies should teach us about empathy, in a time period where we’re all too tempted to simply judge by exteriors. When it ends, viewers can expect more of the trademark honesty we’ve seen so far, as we say goodbye to some of the most intelligent, insightful and complex television in recent years.