This family gets a TON of Vitamin C, apparently.
A Sunday viewing schedule of highly discussable shows has us playing catch-up on this one, but it’s not because we’re losing interest, we can assure you. For us, Big Little Lies is a little TV treasure, tucked away in a corner of the week, where we get the intense satisfaction of watching really good actresses dive deep on a story loaded with surface pleasures and fantastic art direction. If they could make this show with this cast a weekly soap opera, we’d have a long term addiction on our hands. A lot of times, the term “soap opera” is used disparagingly when reviewing a show, but we honestly don’t mean it that way. Big Little Lies is not “just” a soap opera; it’s a reminder of what the soap opera genre can be at its very best: People – usually women – leading complicated, dramatic, intertwined personal and professional lives, with problems that are universal in nature, in somewhat (to very) aspirational settings, played by really talented actors. Oh, and every once in a while, someone gets murdered.
And in this episode, in classic soap opera – or if you prefer, “domestic drama” – fashion, all of the main characters are forced to examine the facades of their lives; the secrets and shaky foundations behind the exteriors. What’s interesting so far is how the story seems to be dividing the four main characters. Jane’s rape story and the clear PTSD (that break-in daydream was horrifying and it only lasted a few seconds) she’s suffering, as well as Celeste’s abusive marriage are both presented as real problems or issues that each women are suffering quietly through in different ways. On the flip side, Renata and Madeline are both presented as women who don’t really have much to complain about in their lives – even after we get a fairly deep dive on both – who nonetheless spend ALL of their time complaining, both publicly and privately. They both have moderately likable, affable husbands who seem to adore them, children who love and need them, multiple avenues for personal (and in Renata’s case, professional) fulfillment, friendships, community standing, and freedom from economic insecurity – and yet both women are locked into these negative patterns, obsessing over grudges and slights, what other people think of them, whether they’re living the right kind of life. And their respective growing unhappiness is not only threatening the stability of each of their lives, but it’s clearly putting a strain on the community itself.Come on, this is delicious stuff. Right now, the more serious problems Celeste and Jane are dealing with seem to be there just to illustrate how ridiculous Renata’s and Madeline’s war over a child’s birthday party really is.
For all of her flaws, Madeline really is an intensely likable character – and almost all of that is down to Witherspoon’s performance. She’s so perfectly cast in this role that it allows her the freedom to both let loose a little and explore the hidden corners at the same time. Her uncomplicated compassion upon hearing Jane’s story, her clear maternal affection toward Ziggy, her deep love for both her daughters – it’s hard to look at these things and stay mad at her for the silliness she tends to unleash. She’s a woman caught up in a way of life she’s just now starting to question – and we don’t mean her upper-class lifestyle so much as the deep restlessness at its core. Abigail accused her of trying to re-litigate her own mistakes and shortcomings and Madeline didn’t even try to rebut it. We’re not sure if it’s a lack of career so much that defines Madeline’s angst as a lack of completeness in her life that she can’t seem to articulate.
Renata is a little harder to like, but that comes down to her unrelatable lifestyle and the fact that Laura Dern plays her in such a pure Laura Dern fashion: as a brittle, tightly wound woman with a desperate urge for something. But again, the script goes to great lengths to show that, even if you can’t picture yourself being best friends with her (the way you can with Witherspoon’s Madeline), she’s not really a bad person; just a driven, intelligent woman with a pretty great sex life and a supportive husband, as well as a mother trying to protect her daughter from something she perceived as a threat. There were a million ways Madeline could’ve gotten Renata to change her mind about Ziggy, but instead, she chose petty vengeance. We don’t doubt that Madeline truly feels protective of Jane and Ziggy (although there were flashes of doubt this episode, when Jane’s temper flared in front of her), but like so many of the other relationships in her life, she’ll pick it up and use it as a weapon if she has to. And “has to,” in Madeline’s case, is a fairly low bar to hurdle.
Nicole Kidman is yet another actress doing some of her best work here, imbuing Celeste with a sadness coupled with a slightly too-aware-of-her-looks modesty that never, ever feels sincere. The story takes pains to treat her less as a victim and more as a woman stuck in circumstances she didn’t see for herself, wondering exactly what she did to wind up here. It’s a little nuanced in a way that could be seen as problematic, in the sense that it tends to allude to the idea that she’s at least slightly complicit in the abuse that goes on; that she urges it on or participates in it herself. Certainly that therapy scene – which was astonishingly well-acted by both – tried to show the abuse from the abuser’s point of view, without painting him as a villain or even as particularly unlikable. We don’t get the sense that there’s any excusing of it, from the script’s point of view, just an attempt to cast this marriage in roughly the same light as everyone else’s in the story: more complicated than the surface image indicates, with secrets and darkness at its core.
There’s still something of a blind spot in this story regarding race, although we might take the charitable interpretation and suggest that it reflects the characters rather than the filmmakers. Not every story has to have a racial component, but Monterey is shown to be a diverse community (through the deployment of that increasingly nasty, but diverse Greek chorus of parent/witnesses), yet the four main characters are tightly bound, white, and in some instances, openly hostile to the one woman of color in the main cast, Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie. And while there’s good reason to assume that any enmity shown toward her comes down to her being the younger, beautiful second wife of an ex-husband, she was exoticized in a vaguely uncomfortable way during that birthday party scene and yet nothing in the script indicated any self-awareness about it.
Still, there’s no getting over the sheer pleasure-center goodness of this series. It’s not just the real estate porn or the melodrama or the highly defined costume design that makes it so good. It’s the long, silent scenes allowing these actresses to just do their craft. Some of the best, most poignant acting of the series comes when these characters are just quiet and pondering their lives; Celeste listening to her husband recount their marriage problems; Renata, staring out over the vista of her success and chewing on her lip in frustration, Madeline, tearing up during the parent night meeting, feeling like a failure as a mother and as a member of the community; Jane, remembering Ziggy’s origins and tamping down on them hard. Even if the story is a basic pot-boiler about wealthy white people with made-up problems and probably too much time on their hands, there’s no getting over the fun of watching good actresses tear into parts practically tailor-made for them. We’re so going to miss this when it’s over.
[Photo Credit: Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO]