*This review contains spoilers.
From the first dreamlike strains of the opening credits (featuring Michael Kiwanuka’s amazing “Cold Little Heart”), we get sucked into a stream of consciousness sequence of beautiful images of Monterey, our main characters Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Jane (Shailene Woodley) driving their kids to school, the wild ocean, a gun held in the sunshine, children dancing, the female leads mugging for the camera in Audrey Hepburn costumes, and silhouettes of lovers – and the show hasn’t even started yet. But just like HBO’s other recent hit mini-series Westworld (they really have cornered the market on making opening credits an art form), we come to understand what Big Little Lies will be about and it’s quite compelling.
The (hopefully season and not the series) finale answers the questions everyone wanted to know – who got murdered and who did it, but the way we get there is not how we have believed we would. The fact that Jane has a gun and fears the rapist who impregnated her has hung over the series (that is the gun seen in the opening credits), and if we subscribe to Anton Chekhov’s theory about guns (if one is shown in a story it has to eventually go off), the way the murder takes place is a shove instead of a shot, and the person doing the shoving is the least likely character to do it.
The series would have been compelling enough if the murder was not in the mix. We have Madeline cheating on her husband Ed (Adam Scott) with Joseph (Santiago Cabrera), the director of the local theatre company, and also dealing with her teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) wanting to auction her virginity for charity. Former lawyer Celeste is trying to raise twin sons while engaging in an increasingly violent and abusive relationship with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). New in town Jane gets into a battle with powerful executive Renata (Laura Dern) who accuses her son Ziggy (Ian Armitage) of bullying Renata’s daughter Amabella (Ivy George), so there is plenty of conflict and also numerous potential aggressors and victims, which makes the murder mystery all the more interesting.
Writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée have taken the story from Liane Moriarty’s novel and adapted it deftly (while also leaving out a number of details from the book) for television. The arc of seven episodes gives ample time to develop these compelling characters, show the tensions in their interactions, and question who would have enough animosity to cross the line and become a killer.
During this time, we identify with each of the three main female characters, even the less sympathetic Madeline grows on the viewer as we see how she is torn by her actions and understands that her marriage could be unraveling and, when her daughter announces that she is moving in with Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) and his new, younger wife Bonnie (Zoē Kravitz), she begins questioning her parenting skills.
As the abuse escalates we connect with Celeste’s quiet but incongruous battle to stay with Perry, who one minute is gentle and loving and the next minute is smashing her head against a wall. While Perry maintains he is fighting demons and needs help, he also suggests that their twin sons Max and Josh (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti) have no idea that he is using her as a punching bag; however, Celeste believes that the boys are not only aware but that it is affecting them.
Perhaps we empathize with Jane most of all as she fights the good fight for her son, knowing in her heart that Ziggy is a gentle soul and confirming it with testing and evaluation. Her flashbacks of the rape by a man she cannot remember as well as her chasing him along the beach after the rape are upsetting, but not any more than when she dreams about the rapist trying to break into her home and she reaches for the gun to stop him.
The series culminates with the big Trivia Night fundraiser for the children’s school where it is Audrey and Elvis Night – all attendees are dressed in various incarnations of the iconic figures Audrey Hepburn or Elvis Presley. Some of the main characters take a turn at the microphone to sing, and none is more moving and hypnotic than Bonnie. She is probably the least developed of the five female characters, but her opportunities in scenes are memorable and she brings a subtle strength to the table literally when Ed and Madeline visit with Bonnie and Nathan to discuss the raising of Abigail and handling her virginity auction. Amidst all the bickering, Bonnie is the only one who makes sense.
The most misunderstood of the five is Dern’s Renata, who comes off as the hard as nails CEO who wants Ziggy expelled from school for messing with her child, but to Dern’s credit she gives Renata a vulnerability that redeems her for the viewer, especially when she and Jane meet and try to at least come to an understanding, even after Jane has attacked her and given her a black eye.
At the Trivia Night the lies of the title start to unravel one by one. Joseph’s wife Tori (Sarah Sokolovic), who has confronted Madeline previously about her suspicions of an affair, now glares angrily at her. Celeste, who has been hiding a beachfront apartment as part of an escape plan, is confronted by Perry about it in their car, but she manages to get out and run to the party. Celeste confesses to Renata that Max is the one abusing Amabella, and Madeline overwhelmed with guilt (and more than a little drunk) runs off to the edge of the property where yellow caution tape is stretched across a dangerous staircase. Jane follows her and Madeline confesses that she had an affair.
This is when Renata seeks out Jane to let her know that she is sorry about wrongly accusing Ziggy, and then Celeste comes toward them as she is trying to escape Perry. In horror Jane stares at Perry and realizes that he is the man who raped her – and Perry recognizes Jane too. He still wants Celeste to come home with him and, when she refuses, he begins to get physical and pushes away the other women who are trying to help Celeste. Bonnie, who has followed Perry because she saw him and Celeste bickering, comes running forward after Perry has knocked the other women to the ground. As he prepares to punish Celeste, Bonnie rushes him and pushes him through the yellow tape and down the staircase, killing him.
If this seems way too coincidental, perhaps it sounds that way, but Kelley and Vallée pull it off, thanks in large part due to the cast’s incredible talent to make this moment actually work when we see it. In the end the police arrive and Detective Quinlan (Merrin Dungey), whom we have seen throughout the series conducting the investigation, doubts the story that the five women have obviously agreed upon telling – it was an accident. She suspects that they are covering up something and asks her partner, “Why lie?” Of course, that has been the context of the whole series, so ending the series with one last big lie that is far from little seems apropos.
The last scene shows the mothers and their children frolicking on the beach, all laughing and enjoying each other’s company. Gloriously adult male free, they throw their cares (and the plot’s many other loose ends) to the wind. It is a fitting final moment but the last shot is seen from the perspective of Detective Quinlan looking through a pair of binoculars watching the women on the beach, letting us know that she is still not satisfied and leaving the door open for season number two. There are many situations yet to be resolved, including the detective’s lingering doubts about the case. A second season will have to rely on something vastly different than just the continued murder investigation, but there are more than enough stories yet to be told for these characters.
We should hope for season number two to eventually happen, but getting this dream cast back together may be harder than reuniting the Beatles and ultimately just as unsuccessful. What a shame that would be!