From the start of the series, the murder framing Big Little Lies—the intended draw—somehow became its least compelling element, in favor of exposing the intimate lives of this group of first-grade moms. Some of the things they turned out to be hiding were psychological, like Renata’s abject fear of failure. Some were potentially damaging to their household, like Madeline’s affair. And some were absolutely life-threatening, like Jane’s rape and Celeste’s abuse, which, as it turns out were crimes committed by the same monstrous man.
But Perry’s behavior is in a string of horrific male behavior this episode: Joseph’s abusive rant toward Madeline, Gordon’s threat against Jane, Nathan and Ed puffing up their chests at the talent show. While on the surface it might seem like a ridiculous parade of idiot men, I think it’s meant to show where the women find strength, and where the men do not. Even Nathan’s initial chat with Ed back in episode one goes awry. They don’t have the bond that these women have, the ability to draw strength from each other. We only see them confiding in their wives, and even then, that often leads to fights. Renata correctly chastises Gordon for threatening Jane, and is welcomed into the mom circle with a heartfelt apology. Gordon only encourages Perry to drink more at the open bar, resulting in disaster.
The ending is the ending we all knew was coming. And it’s a major departure from the book. In the book, all the parents are out on the terrace, husbands as well. Perry slaps Celeste, and the rest of the group is shocked. It turns out that Bonnie has an abusive past, and is the one who then pushes Perry to his death. But in the series, that fatal push comes after Perry attacks all of the women in a shocking, dialogue-less sequence. Bonnie’s past is alluded to in the series, but her involvement becomes more of a pivotal, dramatic moment. The staging is a bit off: The other women appear to just be standing around as Perry kicks Celeste, but they had to be steps away from him, otherwise they would have gone right over with him. And as well as Shailene Woodley’s face expressed terror, it still seems a bit unlikely that everyone would immediately clue in to the fact that Perry was her rapist, just by the look on her face.
But it all plays into the series’ perfect final sequence. The five women bond together to protect Bonnie, and Celeste, and in that bond, find safety, security, and strength. And so do their children. Perry attacked Celeste, and then attacked all of them; more than a few of the women at the end can still feel his fingers on their neck. But in a way, all of Perry’s attacks were an attack on all women: A teaching moment for a possible next-generation abuser like Max, a reminder that so many women are in this situation and are helpless to get out. Nicole Kidman was amazing throughout, but possibly never more so than when she has to kiss her attempted murderer. With this episode, she’s shot to the lead in my way-too-early Emmy pool. Sorry, Susan Sarandon.
Which is why the episode begins with Celeste, another too-painful-to-witness attack, the perplexing shot of the beautiful woman in the luxurious bathroom, who’s unable to get up from the floor. We start the episode off in this horrible position of discomfort and tension—tension that somehow just builds throughout the episode. I have read the book, so was pretty sure how this was going to end up, and I was still unbelievably stressed just watching this episode. In particular, the various yelling men, and the way that a one-off joke in the book—dressing up like Audreys and Elvises—easily turned in to absolute terror as Perry, the monster, could slip in and out of that party without being recognized, which also made it fortunately difficult for him to find Celeste. The party was obviously building to something big, but I wasn’t expecting the beautiful drama of that ending sequence, with the music, and the silence, and even the telltale sound effects: the flicking of the lighter, for example. It’s the incongruity of darkness and light that makes it work so well: These women are happy, and their children are safer, because this man is dead. And when one in their number reacted to witnessing his abuse by killing him, the other women rallied around to protect their protector, forming an unbreakable bond that will last until long after their children are out of Otter Bay Grammar School.
Reading about Celeste’s abuse was disturbing in the book, but the performances of Kidman; Alexander Skarsgård, who is banking his career on the fact that any of us will ever be able to look at him in a benevolent light again; and Robin Weigert as the therapist, who took her small part to a next level, elevated this story dramatically. I understand why the series didn’t end this way, but the book ends with Celeste making a public speech, saying “This can happen to anyone.” I have been deeply moved by the commenters below who have shared their own stories, and offered to support each other. I’m going to be self-indulgent here for a moment, but if it helps, I was in an abusive relationship myself many years ago, and eventually became a board member for the Chicago Metropolitan Battered Women’s Network. It is possible to get out and get away, even as impossible as it may seem at the time. If Big Little Lies inspires even one woman to do that, it will already be more important than the average TV show. But this series has given us so much more than we might have suspected at its start.
I remember the panel at the Television Critics Association press tour for this series, tweeting my anger that reporters were addressing these goddesses as “Reese” and “Nicole,” but there was no way in hell that anyone was going to call the star of The Wizard Of Lies anything but “Mr. De Niro.” (See also: “Susan” and “Jessica” at the Feud panel.) Reese Witherspoon said that she became interested in the project primarily because it had so many amazing parts for women, which made it a natural for Nicole Kidman to get on board as well. The series has met with tremendous critical and audience response, which brings to mind another show I love on Sunday nights: Feud. When What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?—starring two middle-aged actresses—hit big, it’s noted that the studio executives called it a fluke. It’s shocking how much the industry is still that way, even when a delightful hit like Hidden Figures fails to get much notice. I hope that this current prestige TV season proves once and for all how much of a market and a blank canvas there is for female-fueled and -focused projects. Big Little Lies showed us all just how amazing and valuable a series like that can be.
Finale grade: A-
Series grade: A-
- “Gordon, how are you?” Ha.
- What’s the tapping sound at the beginning? Somebody typing, but what? The final report of the case?
- Interesting and heartbreaking shot of Max overhearing his father abusing his mother upstairs, then covering his ears with headphones.
- Sometimes those musical cues are even too spot-on = Neil Young’s “Helpless” after Perry’s latest brutal attack.
- Madeline: Still asking Tom for stuff even at social occasions.
- I have often wanted to cry over IKEA instructions myself.
- Adam Scott’s song = swoon. I think he did as well as could with the part of Ed, which was probably the most difficult to get a handle on. Was he a little creepy, or just a good, misunderstood husband and father? Probably a little of both?
- Best mom outfit: I liked Madeline’s Holly Golightly loungewear, but have to give it up for Renata’s full-on My Fair Lady. Also Bonnie’s Roman Holiday. Actually, they all looked great. Also, nice to see that Celeste could finally show her arms in that outfit on the beach, because she’ll have no more bruises.
UPDATE: Commenters are pointing out that Bonnie’s dress is actually another MFL dress, when I thought it was the RH coronation outfit. Thank you commenters!
- And that’s a wrap for Big Little Lies. As much as I loved it, I’m kind of glad it’s its own limited package, so we can just enjoy it for the seven-episode perfection that it was. Thank you so much for reading, and commenting, and you can still join me on the Feud comment boards for the next few Sundays!