Magnificent Little Lies
Warning: Spoilers Out The Ass
The inner lives of women, for all their kaleidoscopic complexity, have historically not gotten a great deal of screen time. Romances sell, of course, but the sixty billion other emotional factors women contend with on a daily basis — maternal guilt, the navigation of social hierarchies, body image issues, the hopeless struggle for perfection unfairly demanded by society — are constants of real life and virtual non-factors onscreen. It’s not entirely a matter of sexism: detailed character studies are a tough sell as entertainment even when the main character is a man, let alone when they’re of a gender we’re all conditioned from birth to despise. The conventional wisdom among studio bosses is that general audiences want gunfights and car chases, and female audiences put up better box office numbers for catfights and man chases.
The brilliance of Big Little Lies, other than Reese Witherspoon, is that it turns one of those audience-pleasing catfights into a Trojan Horse for emotional investment in the kind of “woman’s problems” that Hollywood never had much interest in. We’re set up from the beginning to think this is Pretty Little Lies, believing we’re watching social rivals getting so worked up over banal domesticity that one kills the other. The Greek chorus of witness interviews gives us glimpses of the event through the same sexist lens that we presumably see it. We’re sold a frivolous, deliciously bitchy Katherine Heigl-type scenario, but by the end, we’re watching Dolores Claiborne with a fabulous wardrobe.
On the topic of those witnesses: this show has more claim to being True Detective Season 2 than the actual second season of True Detective. The movie-star-driven, single-director, short-season template established by TD made this show possible, but both series share the theme of the horrible things men do to women and the same tantalizing structure. We didn’t know who had been murdered, or why the cops were interviewing Marty and Rust, and while hearing their story was certainly compelling, the really fascinating part was seeing their story diverge from the reality we saw, and wondering why that was. In the same way, as funny as the Greek Chorus was in the early going, they got really interesting once they started with the “women are incapable of being friends” crap and playing up this grand rivalry, when the story was showing these women coming together. What didn’t they see that we’re going to? We simply had to know.
Every arc of the show is crafted not only to confound lazy audience expectations, but to put us in the same emotional space as the character and share that pain. Rather than define her as a character entirely by her trauma, Shailene Woodley spent two hours being the best mom she could be in an difficult situation and trying to make it through the day, allowing us to see her as a person before we see her as a victim (and find out that her difficult situation is in fact an impossible one). Also, I loved how Liane Moriarty removed the usual questions of sexual purity from the rape scene by making it clear that she was going to sleep with Perry anyway, before he got violent.
Reese Witherspoon spends four episodes being perfect-ish in a solid marriage before we learn of her sins — we learn to value her and her home life before we find out she put it at risk. If we learned of it in the first or second episode, it would’ve been easy to write her off as a cheating rich bitch whose marriage is a sham. By episode four, we care about her too much to turn on her for her mistake. On the flip side of the same coin, we spend the same amount of time seeing Bonnie from Madeline’s perspective: negatively. In the early going, she’s aloof, pretentious, and above all, a permanent interloper. We only see her as the fully realized, decent person she is once Madeline reaches that point of understanding herself. Again, come for the catfights and murder, stay for the exploration of their rich inner lives.
The presentation of Nicole Kidman’s arc is the most ingenious in that respect, backed up by her virtuoso performance. Celeste’s first few fights with Perry are filmed as intense, primal expressions of passion, framed as if she’s equally responsible for the violence, and the great sex they have gets more screen time than the fighting. Their decision to seek counseling is shown as a joint recognition that they have workable problems, and in the session, Perry is the one who volunteers the information that the fights have gotten physical. Most of the time he’s onscreen, he’s a conspicuously attentive father. We are made to believe that it’s her fault too, that he wants to get better, and that leaving him would be bad for the children, because she believes that.
The show grooms us to share in her denial, because if we didn’t, everyone who watches this show would scream “Ugh, get over your self-pity and just leave his ass!” in frustration six times per episode. Instead, by the time the violence gets genuinely visceral, we’re trapped in that house with her. We know why she can’t leave and why she keeps taking it, and it gets that much harder to watch. We’re even allowed to see Alexander Skarsgård’s vulnerability and desperate rationalization after his monstrous nature is laid bare, because he’s just human, albeit dismally so [Being the child-eating living personification of evil is his little brother’s thing].
The cleverest bait-and-switch, in my mind, is how the last episode substantiates the original momma drama of the first episode. It looked like over-the-top histrionics when Renata accused Ziggy of hurting her daughter, and while she certainly didn’t handle the situation well, it turned out that a child really was being abusive and violent, in the image of his violent, abusive father, and Amabella really was being hurt. Renata Klein wasn’t really a scenery-chewing villainess, she was a loving mother who’s just a bit much, as some of us are consigned to be (screamers in particular). When the ferocity of Perry’s public attack on Celeste washed off the last suds of this brilliant drama’s soapy façade, the erstwhile antagonist was right there with her friend, fighting back against him.
Honestly, when Laura Dern affectionately laid her hand on Shailene Woodley’s shoulder in the final scene, it killed me. As I recently turned 30 and I am a dude, statistically, I’m probably incapable of making another close male friend ever again (it’s just not our strong suit), and there was something that hit me down deep about watching these women truly find each other in these circumstances, and something so beautiful about their kids running around, playing together, unburdened by their mothers’ prejudices, happy and untroubled. Needless to say, I was crying like a bitch.
P.S. the one thing that bothered me: that binocular shot. As if the cops are going after 4.25 rich white women who were attacked by a known violent rapist, who fell down some stairs? I like an ambiguous ending as much as the next film school grad, but give me a fucking break.
P.S.2. Also, I can’t say enough good things about Adam Scott in this, but his penis was incompatible with the larger thesis of the write-up.
P.S.3. Nicole Kidman looking that good naked at age 49 is the firmest proof of Tom Cruise’s rumored homosexuality that I’ve yet seen.