Aside from one major twist, nothing about how the ending of Big Little Lies played out truly shocked us – except in the sense that it didn’t shock us. We promise we’ll try to make that make sense.
It seemed so much a given that Perry was probably Jane’s rapist that we spent most of the series casting about for other possibilities, thinking that maybe the obviousness of it was a red herring. Even so, we didn’t exactly spend every episode wildly theorizing about it because it became obvious over time that this series is many things, but a murder mystery it is not. It’s a story about the tensions in women’s lives, put on them by themselves, by each other, by their families and their community. It’s a story about women dealing with the unhappiness and emptiness in their lives. And ultimately, it’s a story about how male violence is so routinely a part of so many women’s lives. Big Little Lies succeeded so well as a series because of the commitment to telling these stories and because of the astonishingly good work by the actresses telling it. It was never a murder mystery. If anything, it was a prestige soap opera, demonstrating the very best parts of that ocasionally maligned genre; namely, respecting the interior lives of women and understanding the extreme pleasure of catharsis.
It’s that last part that truly shocked us: just how emotional that ending was. Possibly getting a fist-pump moment in seeing Jane’s rapist and Celeste’s abuser lying dead on those stairs? Expected. Finishing the episode only to realize we’d been on the verge of crying through most of the last five minutes? Completely shocked. It’s not that we didn’t expect an emotional finale in some way, we just didn’t expect that we’d be so genuinely relieved to see those women thriving on that beach; safe and bonded. But it wasn’t just relief over their safety; it was something we’re almost embarrassed to write because it’s somewhat melodramatic and because it sounds like a parody of something men who try to sound sensitive about women say. It was wonder at the beauty of their bond with each other. That, more than anything else about the series, is what shocked us the most; that we found their bond to be so beautiful and satisfying at the end that it almost literally made us weep. And it started with that series of moments on the stairs; first when each of these women wordlessly assessed the situation between Celeste and Perry for what it was and – just as wordlessly – put aside all of their bullshit at the moment to ensure she was okay. Watching Renata go from befuddled concern to warrior-sister without so much as a word of dialogue; watching drunken Madeline realize that Celeste’s perfect marriage was horrifying; watching Bonnie go from heartbroken bystander to enraged heroine – all of these revelations were conveyed solely through acting, making each emotional turn that much more satisfying for the audience. Even so, they were all mere appetizers to the moment when Jane, Madeline and Celeste all wordlessly “discussed” the fact that Perry was Jane’s rapist. The directing, the music and most of all, the acting, turned that moment into something electrifying, epic and profound. A series about the interior lives of women turned entirely on women being able to wordlessly communicate with each other in a world of men. It’s hard to put in words just how satisfying a conclusion that was. It hit every emotional beat it was supposed to and then provided a few we couldn’t have expected. For all the one-liners in this series about how viciously judgmental women are toward each other, it was supremely satisfying to see all five women on the beach with their children. It made such a perfect coda; this family of step-sisters and half-brothers and secrets and lies.
There’s a feeling of unbalance in how this was told, however. We can’t tell how much of that is intentional and how much of it was a consequence of wanting to keep the particulars of the murder unrevealed for as long as possible, but it was hard not to feel that both Bonnie’s actions and the road that got those five women to that idyllic beach scene were both a bit rushed and under-developed. We kept ourselves spoiler-free on the book details until it was all over, only to react with some surprise to hear that, in the book, Bonnie’s reaction to Perry hitting Celeste was rooted in her own experiences with domestic abuse. And we couldn’t help feeling some mild frustration that, after the major emotional moment of the story, the turning point at which everything about their relationships with each other changed, the women were all mostly silenced, uttering only snippets of dialogue, none of which truly contextualized what we just saw. We wanted more – but that’s more of a testament to the power of this story and the talent of the actresses involved than a perceived lack of balance in the telling.
Ultimately, it was hard to escape the conclusion that a great deal of the emotional baggage that kept getting opened and gleefully tossed about at that trivia night party was so much bullshit. Celeste was literally running for her life through a gauntlet of vain and petty men puffing their chests at each other or judgmental, scrutinizing women constantly viewing the world out of the corners of their narrowed eyes when they aren’t sabotaging themselves. Trivia night indeed. That may have been the point to the lack of an epilogue. There was no need to wrap up anything up because anything but the survival and bonding of these women to each other was just baggage and self-punishment. Did Madeline and Ed stay together? Did Jane and Tom? Is Celeste working now? Has Renata found some measure of contentment? How are all the kids dealing with all of this? Is Bonnie going to be able to keep this from Nathan? It seems to us that none of that is really the point. How women bond with, support and act as allies to each other is the point.
Coming up later this week: Big Little Lies costume posts. We’re not done yet.