The opening minutes of Big Little Lies are as familiar as they are misleading. Cop cars and ambulances shine a spotlight on a grisly murder, the show setting itself up as a murder-mystery surrounding the lives of the privileged elite. The proceeding interrogations of those involved reveal a procedural, but what the show is actually investigating isn’t murder, but the seemingly Plain Jane life of domesticity. Big Little Lies examines the pain and vulnerability that women share, and the bruises they’re attempting to mask beneath concealer and Instagram filters. Because marriage takes work. And work is murder.
Jane Chapman and her son Ziggy are the new residents of Monterey, a community that prides itself on being tight-knit as they are tightly wound. She only wants what’s best for her son and has enrolled him at the prestigious Otter Bay, a school renowned for its private education at a public-school price, and it is here at Otter Bay where Jane is introduced to the schoolyard politics that dictate the lives of the entire town.
It’s clear early on that Jane is running from something. She sprints across parks and cliffsides in a vain attempt to outrun what’s haunting her, which she physically cannot do (she can only go so far). As fate would have it, she winds up in another emotional hurdle when Ziggy is accused of choking a classmate. The young girl’s mother, Renata, threatens Ziggy, and Jane’s parenting is soon called into question. Madeline steps in to defend her. Battle lines are drawn, and its only orientation day.
No one is at fault for their actions; they are all doing what any mother would do for their child. It’s a fierce, unwavering love, sometimes a suffocating one. Big Little Lies is very much about mothers who insert themselves in their children’s lives to safeguard their best interests, the children themselves having no part of that conversation.
Madeline takes a liking to Jane like a long-lost sister. Through Madeline, Jane meets Celeste, and there’s a quiet understanding of the other from the moment they lock eyes (a recognition of wounded souls, perhaps?). Madeline quickly gives Jane a rundown of who’s who in the community, saying of a particular person, “Oh, we don’t like her” (is it “we” already?). Perhaps Madeline just wants to be her tour-guide. Or maybe she recognizes the solemn duty of single parenting, Madeline herself having been a single mother in a previous marriage. Being a mom is all she knows, which is why she resents Renata, a career-mom whose financial independence is both a point of envy and disgust. They wield their children like daggers, electing to not have any more playdates and refusing to attend birthday parties like a stab in the back.
Madeline partakes in this suburban drama like a lifeline. It keeps her tethered to a world that’s spiraling rapidly out of control. She wants to be more than just a mom; she’s caught in the same social circles as her ex-husband; and her children are growing fond of their stepmother. “Don’t start,” is a common refrain at the dinner table, where conflagrations are but a condescending comment away from bursting into flames. But with so many grudges to keep track of, where does it end?
For all this talk of secrets and gossip, Big Little Lies is not a tale about desperate housewives. As much as the drama concerns the women involved, there is something to be said of those who gossip endlessly (and candidly) about them in the present-day interrogations. The Greek chorus of everyone else in Monterey seem to implicate all four women – a unique plot device critiquing the gender bias that pervades so much of society. The main characters are only referred to as mothers, thus they are approximated by how well they raise their families. And when they are seen as women, the assumptions are much worse. Madeline is perceived as crazy, Renata as bitchy, Jane, damaged, and Celeste, sexy. There’s very little sympathy for them because they are rich moms, even less because they are women who should know better and thus are subject to never-ending judgement. They are all living in glass houses and confined by glass ceilings.
Big Little Lies chronicles the burden and blessings of motherhood and femininity, but the show reveals a far more vulnerable core as a haunting meditation on trauma. Very little is known about Celeste across characters, but as viewers we discover her in real time. Celeste is a lawyer turned stay-at-home mom. A mother to twin boys with a model husband in a model home, she is the fantasy of everyone in Monterey. Of course, this is the outward appearance she has projected for herself (she tends to her social media like a garden). Beneath the sheen lies an unspeakable horror.
Celeste is a wife to an abusive husband. We don’t see it as abusive, at first (I suppose that’s how it starts). Their first instance of domestic abuse ends in sex, so we interpret it as some psycho-sexual current between them. But as the series goes on, the violence begins to escalate, the bruises growing darker and more frequent (the aforementioned choking at the school essentially a miniature version of this scenario, detailing the horrifying things children pick up on). Their ensuing “love-making” is no longer seen as passionate, but an extension of Perry’s need for dominance. There’s also the question of consent as Celeste is increasingly put in a position where she can’t say no, and the escalating violence soon becomes an even greater cause for alarm knowing the show’s endgame.
What’s particularly impactful about Celeste’s story is how the viewer is subjected to her trauma. We are forced to relive the moment again and again through brief but haunting flashbacks intercut amongst the present – the very nature of abuse and how it goes on to psychologically torment the victim long after the act is said and done. It’s the same way Jane is forced to relive the night of her rape (making Ziggy the product of unforeseen violence).
Virtually every character is fighting a battle within. Renata is dealing with an uninvolved husband, Madeline dealing with the memory of an absent husband, Jane wrestling with the memory of a violent sexual encounter, and Celeste literally wrestling with an abusive relationship. They are connected in some peripheral way and there’s often a quiet acknowledgement of what the other is going through like a kinship. Even Bonnie, the stepmother who threatens Madeline’s foundation, is wracked by her own experiences of abuse (a connection made clear when she’s the only one who sees Perry’s abuse in plain sight). At some point or another, each character finds themselves staring out into the distance, pensive and vulnerable and desperate for an end to their anguish. They are all survivors trapped in darkness.
All five women may put up walls amongst themselves, but the most poignant moment in the series is when these walls come down and they set aside their differences to stand in solidarity. The reveal at the end is told with such silent urgency that to say who bites the dust would rob the moment of its power. What’s more important is that these women come together through their shared sorrow, becoming a force to be reckoned with. The very bias of their gender dictates that they’re supposed to remain enemies. Because they’re women, and women need a man to keep them steady or they’ll tear each other apart. That’s the biggest little lie of them all.