The Protagonists of ‘Big Little Lies’ Are Gorgeous, Rich, Murderous—and Familiar

Halfway through the miniseries, Pacific Standard staffers chat about why HBO’s star-studded new beach-set mystery should matter to the hoi polloi.
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Halfway through the miniseries, Pacific Standard staffers chat about why HBO’s star-studded new beach-set mystery should matter to the hoi polloi.

Viewers who have flocked to television’s “golden age” gritty dramas over the past few years would be forgiven for glossing over HBO’s new series Big Little Lies, whose premise promises this decade’s answer to The OC. Set in Monterey, California, the new HBO show follows four gorgeous, scheming, helicopter moms, the majority very well-heeled, in the days leading up to a murder of one undisclosed character at an elementary-school trivia night. The show’s got mansions, mystery, goblets of white wine aplenty, and only one black character (Zoë Kravitz, underdeveloped). On paper, Big Little Lies looks like HBO’s answer to a paperback Sophie Kinsella.

But four episodes in, Big Little Lies has proven it’s more than just frothy prestige drama (main characters are played by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern; Wild’sJean-Marc Vallée is the one directing the shots of Monterey’s dramatic bluffs and impressive beachside manses). Penned by Ally McBeal’s David E. Kelly, the series’ four female characters—Madeleine (Witherspoon), Celeste (Kidman), Jane (Woodley), and Renata (Dern)—grapple with abusive men in their lives. Celeste’s husband beats her; Jane is haunted by the memories of sexual assault. All the while, some fear their popularity is waning with the community in Monterey. While all the characters are, to some extent, privileged and neurotic drama queens, their power struggles portray some universal consequences for women who seek control over their lives at home and in the world—the push-pull of work and family life, domestic abuse, assault, deep insecurity.

Here at Pacific Standard, staffers have been impressed by the depth of the show’s one-percenter characters. And so, after the fourth episode, three of us convened to discuss the important questions: namely, who we think was killed, the show’s precocious child characters, and how women who seem to have it all never do.

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Katie Kilkenny: OK ladies, help me kick us off. Monday-morning meetings at the coffeepot can’t contain our enthusiasm for Big Little Lies any longer. What’s the appeal, and why should our readers be watching?

Elena Gooray: Sorry for the delay, I was too busy sipping white wine while contemplating deep fissures in my family life and staring out at the Pacific Ocean like Reese. But seriously: What I love so far is that the show offers a delicious version of a romanticized, high-end California lifestyle that’s not even as interesting asthe complicated relationships between these women and their families.

Morgan Baskin: The show allows for a more restrained brand of the indulgent voyeurism that made me love Twin Peaks so much: It’s luxurious and messy and kitschy, and it’s all set to Neil Young and Elvis tunes.

Kilkenny: Another really funny thing about this show is that we’re literally watching some of the most beautiful, famous people in the world—Reese, Nicole, Laura, Shailene(!)—onscreen, and yet every episode there are certain moments that leave me thinking, yes, I feel you!

Gooray: Is that what makes for good, artistically valuable voyeurism? I don’t know. But I definitely relate to some of these characters’ lowest moments, every episode. Like Kravitz representing the nightmare of the ex finding someone impossibly beautiful, self-assured, peace-loving, and a yoga instructor, or Kidman giving a heartbreaking, infuriating speech about feeling guilty for having ambitions outside family life.

Kilkenny: “I feel so ashamed for saying this but being a mother is not enough for me. It’s just not. It’s not even close.” No big deal, I kind of memorized that line.

Baskin: The show for me is strongest when the moms are talking about the kids. Even when the kids aren’t on screen they’re always underwriting the emotional drama of their parents’ marriages or their mom’s insecurities. Speaking of which, can we dissect Reese Witherspoon’s daughter’s obsession with music? I would really like to know at what point in her very short life Chloe discovered Leon Bridges, whose last album would realistically have dropped when she was four years old.

Gooray: Chloe represents one of my least favorite child character tropes in movies and TV: the unnaturally savvy mini-adult. Chloe’s cultural tastes put her in line with the editors at The Paris Review, or something. It’s precocious to the point of caricature. What Monterey first grader is out there calling her mother “woman” while blasting PJ Harvey in the car?

Kilkenny: These super-mature kids sure show up their moms and dads, huh? What do you think went through Madeleine’s mind when she scheduled Disney on Ice tickets for half the class during Amabella’s birthday because Ziggy wasn’t invited? “Oh yeah, this’ll endear Ziggy to the kids and their parents!” Ridiculous.

Baskin: I think Madeleine’s interference in that scene was definitely motivated by her desire to feel needed. The show hammers us with her sense of helplessness—because she has no real job and an angry teenage daughter—pretty hard.

Kilkenny: I don’t want to make this about Women Having It All, but it seems that the show really is milking the idea that None Have It Figured Out, Even the Gorgeous Rich Ones.

Baskin: Especially the Gorgeous Rich Ones.

Gooray: I was just typing that! Jinx.


Kilkenny: Oh god, Morgan, I haven’t had caffeine today.

Baskin: Seems like Kravitz can!

Gooray: Anyway, how have we gone this long and not talked about Perry and Celeste?

Baskin: The first time I saw Alexander Skarsgård on screen I cat-called at my computer. It went very downhill from there.

Kilkenny: At this point, I’m way more interested in the answer to the question “Will Celeste leave him?” then “Who committed that dumb murder they keep flashing back to in watery and visually overwrought sequences?”

Baskin: Is anybody else totally uninterested in who was murdered?

Kilkenny: Come on, no one is watching Big Little Lies for that reveal. Or are they? I’m personally here for The Real Housewives of Monterey shtick, as directed by Jean-Marc Vallée.

Gooray: Nope I’m here for exactly what you just said. Although perhaps who you suspect has been murdered is some weird Rorschach test of who you think is the biggest fuck-up-slash-the most vulnerable.

Kilkenny: So who do you see in your Rorschach, guys?

Baskin: I’m not sure the show or the book it’s based on is creative enough to depict such a violent, tempestuous relationship that doesn’t end in death for either party involved, so my vote is either Perry or Celeste.

Gooray: Yeah, I see Perry or Ed. I mean, Ed bikes in a full athletic bodysuit.Something about himjust seems murder-able.

Kilkenny: My theory? Renata did it with the trivia-night mic in the school auditorium. Victim: Madeleine Martha McKenzie—her existential crises have to amount to something. But maybe I just really want to see Dern in full-on murder mode. So against type!

Gooray: OK, since we all seem to have trouble knowing how to kick off the Perry-and-Celeste conversation, here’s a prompt: They have lots of violent gray-area sex! Go.

Baskin: To me, those scenes feel like escapism for her—it’s Celeste’s way of justifying the abuse that leads to these intense sexual encounters. If she finds it arousing, it’s OK, and she doesn’t have to acknowledge the violence in Perry’s rough handling of her. Which isn’t to say people can’t have rough sex without the insidious undertones. But it’s fascinating to watch her grow colder to her husband and kids day-to-day while enjoying the sex as if she’s in a happy marriage.

Gooray: Which reminds me of that great scene in the pilot, when Jane is saying how even after moving to Monterey she feels like she’s on the outside of it all, and Celeste locks eyes with her and says something to the effect of she knows what that’s like.

Kilkenny: That’s changing by episode four, though, right? After Jane tells Madeleine her sexual-abuse story, she says she’s been freed to be attracted to men again. And when Celeste serves as legal counsel to Madeleine, she starts defying her husband’s twisted housewife fantasy big time. Not to put too fine a point on it, but both seem to be seizing more control of their lives.

Gooray: Whoa, Katie, that observation makes me think that Madeleine has been a helpful catalyst to these other women, in spite of all her most obvious efforts blowing up in her face.

Kilkenny: Mind blown: Reese was right all along! So what more surprises can we look forward to in future episodes?

Baskin: I am looking forward to Renata continuing to reclaim her sexuality, and more of Celeste’s power suits.

Gooray: I’m looking forward to more of these people’sfrustrations and craziness being exposed via smackdowns with each other on beachfront property. And more Skarsgård in tank tops, because when you have lemons….

Kilkenny: My ultimate Big Little Lies fan-fic premise? Celeste, inspired by a rousing performance of Avenue Q, takes the kids and Perry’s collection of Rolexes and skips town to Los Angeles, where she establishes a successful entertainment law practice and lives on the beach in Santa Monica, so she can still overlook the sea. She reads about the murder in the Los Angeles Times at Republique while sipping a fresh-squeezed kale juice—she’s given up the white wine habit, just as she has her good-for-nothing abusive husband. METAPHOR. Cut to black.

Baskin: If I were drinking some chilled Pinot Grigio, I’d have done a really impressive spit-take.