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'Big Little Lies' Was Really About Victims of Abuse, Not Murder

By focusing on nuanced depictions of violence, the HBO limited series became more than just a mystery.

by Helen Holmes
Apr 3 2017, 5:55pm

Photo by Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/courtesy of HBO 

Sunday evening saw the conclusion of Big Little Lies, HBO's wonderful seven-episode limited series that wasted no time sweeping up scores of captivated viewers. What could have been a tiresome outing—a group of affluent, caterwauling helicopter moms grappling with scandal in the ranks—proved to be a deeply felt, expertly paced puzzle that only grew more compelling with each hour-long installment. Last night, the show ended with a degree of feminist catharsis that feels uncommon in an era defined by political drudgery.

The satisfying finale stayed true to its source material (Liane Moriarty's book of the same name) while also functioning as a tiki-candle-lit showcase of the lead actresses' strengths: Reese Witherspoon's wobbling chin! Shailene Woodley's stalwart doe eyes! Nicole Kidman's palpable vulnerability! When these main leads end up frolicking by the ocean together in the final shot, their joy felt sincere and earned rather than born out of a need to tie off loose ends. Screenwriter David E. Kelley created a realistic community at odds with itself, but one that eventually finds the women putting aside their differences to defeat a greater evil.

Though Big Little Lies undeniably served up a satisfying murder mystery, the show's true innovation was its unflinching portrayal of violent abuse and all its nuances. The women and girls at the core of Big Little Lies are painfully aware of abstract dangers that could manifest at any second. It's fascinating to watch how each individual chooses to reckon with her vulnerability.

Most notably, Nicole Kidman was mesmerizing and alarming as Celeste, a retired lawyer and the mother of two young sons. Rigorously composed and elegant, Celeste is the target of relentless physical and emotional abuse from her husband, Perry, who's played with menacing duplicity by Alexander Skarsgård.

Perry's smothering presence looms over Celeste like a shadow, whether he's in a scene with her or not. Even her fluttery sundresses and frank little cardigans are a rebuttal to his perspective; she wants to project innocence and vulnerability because her fatally insecure husband assumes she possesses neither.

Celeste's initial inability to acknowledge her partner's brutality propels the show's plot to its conclusion, but in the interim, the audience is made to watch as Perry smashes Celeste's head against their glass shower door, rapes her while their children play nearby, and berates her for every perceived refusal to acknowledge his imperiled position as master of the house. 

He beats her and then apologizes with utter sincerity, saying he's frustrated because he travels so much. He calls her "Sparkles." He insists, repeatedly, that he adores her. All the while, Celeste denies she is a victim, and even chastises herself for the fever pitch of cruelty in their interactions—but when the couple starts seeing a therapist (Robin Weigert), their façade falls apart. As Dr. Amanda Reisman, Weigert pulls off a performance infused with empathy and restraint; you really believe that this is a person capable of getting through to the evasive and intellectual Celeste.

Reisman initially encounters the couple as a united front devoted to fixing their marriage. Celeste says their fights are "volatile," and in an extraordinary scene in episode three, Perry admits to his own raging behavior, explaining to Dr. Reisman that he's afraid of losing his wife. His ability to acknowledge the reason for his abuse while still perpetuating it is terrifyingly rendered: The show has been lauded as uncomfortably realistic for good reason.

While other longer-running series (such as The Sopranos) rely on therapist-patient relationships in order to provide the audience with handy insight into a charismatic character's motivations, Big Little Lies instead uses its limited episode count to its advantage. Celeste's breakthrough—and the enormity of her pain—is devastating to behold. "He hurts you," Reisman states definitively in the fifth episode. "Oh, no," Celeste scoffs, already halfway off the couch, "I didn't say that. We both become violent sometimes. I take my share of the blame." "He hurts you," Reisman repeats, insisting.

While Celeste's actions are defined, to a point, by her denial, the other two leads (Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon) serve as excellent foils with their clear-eyed energy and the voracity of their compassion. Jane (Woodley) has a son who is a product of rape, and she makes her way through Monterey armed with an impressive, ropy grace. Reese Witherspoon transcends type, elevating her morally ambiguous brown-noser wheelhouse to a characterization that's nearly operatic.

The abuse against women in Big Little Lies even trickles down to the children, seen in first grader Amabella Klein, the daughter of adrenaline junkie executives Gordon and Renata. The tiny girl with lamp-like blue eyes ends her first day of school covered in bruises and is bullied throughout. The identity of Amabella's assailant is tied up in the show's bloody conclusion, but the satisfaction of seeing the case solved feels plain when compared to the gravity of the show's central thesis. Abuse is not random. It does not exist in a vacuum, and most important, it can be taught. Big Little Lies forces you to reconcile with the idea that it can even be inherited.

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Big Little Lies