The first part of my review will be relatively spoiler free. After an adorable spoiler kitten, I'll discuss, and completely and totally spoil, the ending.
Big Little Lies stayed with me after I watched it. I was so impressed that I watched it twice, read the book it was based on, and thought about the details of the story for days afterward. This isn't your typical murder mystery. It's more of a story about women, their relationships with each other, and how those relationships are reflected in the lives of their children.
The story begins on the first day of first grade, and mothers are dropping their six-year-olds at the local public school. These aren't your average American mothers and kids, though. This is a well-funded public school in Monterey, California, and the majority of these parents live the lifestyles of the rich and famous in luxurious houses set on one of the most beautiful coastlines in the world.
|Madeline and Chloe, Jane and Ziggy, Celeste and twins|
Our lead character is Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon, in what I think is one of her best performances), who twists her ankle after leaving her car to yell at a car full of texting teenagers that includes her own teenage daughter, Abigail. Limping badly back to her car, Madeline is rescued by Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) and after they drop Madeline's daughter Chloe and Jane's son Ziggy off, the two instantly strike up a friendship, despite the disparity in their social status. Jane also meets Madeline's best friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) as the three of them share coffee at the delightful Blue Blues cafe.
Madeline is a wonderful character. I loved her, and honestly, I'm not a fan of Reese Witherspoon's. A former single mother who is now somewhat happily married, Madeline is vivacious, outspoken and has an active social conscience. Her underappreciated husband Ed (Adam Scott) says that Madeline is drawn to damaged people like Jane, and he remarks perceptively that Celeste is damaged as well.
Suffering from separation anxiety as her youngest starts first grade, Madeline is also stressed when her sixteen-year-old Abigail decides to move out and live with her feckless father Nathan and his newer, younger and cooler-than-Madeline wife, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz). (Madeline describes Bonnie hilariously as probably giving Nathan "mint-flavored, organic blow jobs.") The conflict between Madeline and Ed with Nathan and Bonnie, mostly over Abigail, is one of my favorite throughlines in the story.
Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard give terrific performances as the "perfect couple" Celeste and Perry Wright, whose toxic relationship is the center of the story. In every scene together, especially the ones that include sex, abuse, or both, it feels like their marriage is a sick pretense. When Perry plays with their six-year-old twins, he pretends to be a monster, and of course, he is a monster; even the stories he tells his little boys are violent.
Perry is childish, needy, and almost constantly and unreasonably angry. Celeste keeps telling herself that the way he abuses her is okay because their sexual relationship is so passionate and violent and because she hits him back. She puts make-up on her bruises and won't admit the truth to her therapist, Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert, another excellent performance) until the doctor repeatedly states the obvious.
Why does Perry call Celeste "Sparkles"? That's just about the most ridiculous nickname for a beautiful woman that I can imagine. Maybe that's why.
Jane: "You're so nice."
Madeline: "This is Monterey. We pound people with nice."
Jane Chapman is out of place. Emotionally distressed and constantly reliving the rape that gave her Ziggy, she fantasizes about either committing suicide or shooting her mystery attacker. Why did Jane move to Monterey? In the book, there was a good reason that made sense within the framework of the story, but here, they never say. Perhaps it's that Jane was trying to solve her unhappiness by changing her location. Perhaps it was the outstanding public school, a place where the rich and poor kids get equally excellent educations. And Jane is poor; note the shabby one bedroom apartment that she shares with Ziggy that is such a contrast to the seaside mansions of her friends.
It feels as if the six-year-olds are unintentionally caught up in a vicious game that the adults are playing. At first grade orientation, Jane's son Ziggy is accused of trying to choke Renata's daughter, Amabella. Aggressive career woman Renata (Laura Dern) is so upset that she actually threatens little Ziggy.
As the story progresses, Amabella suffers more abuse and parents complain about Ziggy, even though Amabella refuses to tell anyone who is doing it and doesn't repeat her accusation. Jane, who is terrified that her little boy has inherited his unknown father's violence, is constantly called into the principal's office, and the escalating conflict between Jane and Renata actually gets physical.
Natural beauty, unnatural ugliness
The Monterey peninsula is absolutely gorgeous, and the expensive homes by the ocean, especially Celeste's and Renata's, are stunning. But the emphasis, the undercurrent, pun intended, is always violence: big waves breaking over immense rocks, open flames in fireplaces, torches and candles, several shots of knives sitting innocently on Celeste's kitchen counter, Jane's obsession with her little gun. There are repeated references to killing in everyday speech, a constant reminder that we are watching a story that will culminate in murder; in fact, Perry's first line is, "What do we say about shooting Mom before noon?" There are also nasty misogynist comments scattered throughout the story not just by the main characters, but also by the Greek chorus of witnesses interviewed by the police interspersed in every episode.
I particularly love the opening credit sequence with the five mothers driving their small children to school surrounded by stunning natural scenery and that gorgeous bridge (no, not symbolic at all) to Michael Kiwanuka's "Cold Little Heart." The credit sequence ends with a parade of the kids mugging for the camera, followed by all five women in Audrey Hepburn costumes doing the same on Trivia Night.
All through the first six episodes, I kept getting caught up in the story and then suddenly remembering that one of these people would murder another. I liked all of these women and I didn't want it to be any of them.
Which brings me to the final episode.
Complete and total spoilers about the end of the miniseries under the adorable spoiler kitten!
Coolest murder ever. If there is any character in the story that we want to die violently, it's Perry. He had just discovered that Celeste was going to leave him, and we all know he would have never left her alone and could quite possibly have killed her.
It was even cooler that it wasn't Celeste, Jane or Madeline who pushed him down that long, broken stairway — it was Bonnie. I also loved how the long, broken, outdoor stairway with the yellow caution tape was set up from the very first episode, when Madeline pushed the tape aside and used it, anyway.
Throughout the story, Jane is deeply worried and upset, and justifiably so, that her little Ziggy had inherited a tendency toward violence from his father. As it turned out, it was indeed her rapist's son who was hurting and bullying little Amabella — it just wasn't Ziggy. I absolutely loved that moment outside in front of those stairs when Jane recognized Perry as her rapist and exchanged a telling look with Madeline and Celeste, because all three actresses reacted in way that got the point across; not a single word was spoken.
In fact, I'll repeat that all of the performances in Big Little Lies are terrific. The female leads in particular, Alexander Skarsgard's layered performance as Perry, even the kids. Especially Iain Armitage as Ziggy Chapman, the most difficult juvenile role in the miniseries. I also loved Darby Camp as the precocious Chloe Mackenzie, who was constantly creating a musical accompaniment to everyone's life.
Bits and pieces:
-- This adaptation is quite faithful to the original book by Liane Moriarty, although her story takes place in Australia, not California. David E. Kelley, who has a mountain of television credits, adapted the book for television.
-- About halfway through the miniseries, I started wondering if Perry was Ziggy's father, and realized that Jane and Perry were never in a scene together.
-- Madeline works part time for a local theater group that is putting on a production of Avenue Q, a continually funny subplot. I wasn't as happy with Madeline's affair with Joseph (Santiago Cabrera); it felt out of character for her and jammed in, as if they needed another plot for Madeline.
-- Loved all of the Audrey and Elvis costumes on Trivia Night.
-- I'm not really sure why, but one of my favorite scenes was in the penultimate episode when Madeline and Ed have an uncomfortable dinner with Nathan and Bonnie which turns into projectile vomiting when Madeline learns about her daughter Abigail's "secret project" to auction off her virginity on the internet.
-- The "secret project" plotline was actually better resolved in the novel. Instead of being talked out of putting up the site at all, Abigail indeed puts it up and stubbornly refuses to take it down until she gets a major donation for Amnesty International. Celeste, who has been angrily donating large amounts of Perry's money to charities without his permission, pretends online to be a elderly male donor who insists that Abigail take the site down without sacrificing her virginity.
-- Ed's massive, somewhat hideous beard disappears in the final episode, probably because Elvis didn't have a beard.
Will there be a second season of Big Little Lies? At first, the producers said no; it was supposed to be a miniseries. But now, demand has made them reconsider.
While the story is complete as it is, I'd be interested in a second season, especially if they continued to explore the relationships of these five women who banded together and lied about Perry's death without even discussing it with each other. Madeline made peace with Bonnie and Nathan, but is her marriage to Ed still in danger? Jane found her attacker and might be able to move on now, but can she build a relationship with the adorable barista Tom? Has Renata finally found the acceptance and friendship she craved? Celeste is now a widow, and I'd be interested in seeing what path she takes from here.
The character with the most unanswered questions is Bonnie. At the Trivia Night party, she saw that Perry and Celeste were having an argument, and she deliberately followed them. When Perry struck Celeste, and Madeline, Jane and Renata started hitting him in her defense, Bonnie walked all the way across the plaza and without hesitation, deliberately pushed Perry down those steps. There is obviously more to Bonnie than crunchy granola and an aggressive social conscience.
If there's a second season, I bet the circumstances of Perry's death will eventually be discovered. It certainly didn't look as if the police detective (Merrin Dungey from Alias) was ready to let it go.
Billie Doux loves good television and spends way too much time writing about it.