Big Little Lies is based on the 2014 novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty. The mini-series weaves in pertinent topics of gender-based violence, childhood abuse, bullying, and their effects on five women trying to survive in the posh and removed town of Monterey. Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman, is living a dual life, seemingly successful from the outside although in reality she is in a physically and psychologically abusive marriage. Kidman’s haunting portrayal truly gets into the skin of a broken woman torn between being physically safe and keeping the family together for the sake of her children. As the season progresses, both Celeste and her husband Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgård, seek couples therapy where she repeatedly admits that she loves him, that Perry is a wonderful father and that he would never hurt the kids. She repeats the same, time and again, despite being called out by her therapist on the little lies that Celeste has constructed around her not-so-perfect marital life, in an attempt to convince herself to stay in the marriage, thereby endangering her safety.
Sessions with her counsellor are raw and gut-wrenching initially, but are also a cause of hope as Celeste unravels her pain and trauma. Mental health representation in movies and TV shows, especially client-therapist relationships, has been very skewed, but this show positively bolsters that dynamic and does justice to the often poorly portrayed image of “shrinks” (a word I personally dislike). Very honestly there is no one answer as to why people continue to stay with their abusers, given the complexity of the situations. While I found it very hard to reconcile with this fact, I did empathise with Celeste, who was stripped of her identity by manipulation and systematic abuse.
Renata (Laura Dern) has a daughter struggling with being bullied at school and too scared to admit the truth of her bullying to her parents. Even though Renata recognises that her daughter is a sensitive child, she refuses to change her aggressive and power-obsessed ways. This becomes her only way to make peace with her cheating, good-for-nothing husband, who refuses to be responsible for the family. She loves her daughter a little too much, showering her with fancy gifts and birthday parties, while turning a blind eye to her daughter’s foremost requirement of emotional safety and security at home.
Jane, a reticent young mother played by Shailene Woodley, is new to the idyllic town of Monterey and struggles with its predominantly upper-class ways. She has a dark past riddled with sexual violence that doesn’t allow her to lead a “normal” life. She struggles with overcoming the trauma of the night she was raped, as a result of which she experiences recurrent nightmares. This fear and shame that she has attached to her assault do not allow her to be vulnerable or trust someone again. She sometimes even doubts her son’s intentions, who is always trying hard to make his mother happy by being the sweet-natured, caring and obedient boy she wants him to be. He internalises his mother’s suffering and grapples with questions of his father’s whereabouts.
Madeline, played by Reese Witherspoon, comes across as a flamboyant mother who will go to any extent to make Jane feel welcome in town, but in fact has her own demons that stem from her distorted notion of relationships on account of her upbringing. Coming from a dysfunctional family, her first failed marriage, she says, “confirmed her fear of marriage”, making it very hard for her to come to terms with the fact that she can have someone like Ed (Adam Scott), her second husband, who has no intention of leaving her, despite her attempt to sabotage the relationship.
The lives of these women, which seem perfect at first, with all their extravagant riches and the beautiful setting of Monterey, slowly start to crumble, and the audience is drawn into the lies they have been feeding themselves for so long. Things especially fall apart in the wake of the alleged murder that jolts everybody in the quaint town. The show tells a story of grief, trauma and violence, but above all of the need to belong, to be wanted and loved. It brings out deep-rooted misogyny and sexism, the harm inflicted by misguided power struggles, and the far-reaching impact of dysfunctional families. The second season introduces Mary Louis (Perry’s mother), played with brilliant connivance by Meryl Streep, who will stop at nothing to gain custody of her grandchildren as she is of the notion that her daughter-in-law is an unfit mother. The show also goes on to portray the insidious passive impact that domestic violence has on children, normalising notions of violence and blurring safe boundaries.
Bonnie, played by Zoë Kravitz, is married to Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan and struggles to fit in as a black woman in a completely white neighbourhood. She is shown to also deal with depression and chronic sadness stemming from the impact of having an abusive mother. Bonnie’s mother, who used to hit her without the slightest regard for the child, can only be imagined to be painful and confusing, leaving her with emotional scars that are hard to do away with. This wounding triggers Bonnie’s memory when she is confronted with Perry’s attempt to hurt Celeste, which ultimately leads her to push Perry to his death. Towards the end of the season, after a long internal tussle and having to come to terms with her strained maternal relationship, Bonnie admits to her comatose mother that pushing Perry was her way of finally breaking free from everything that her mother put her through and finally letting go of all the anger and resentment for all the injustice she experienced as a child. Her trauma was so deep and lacerating that Perry’s image was replaced by her mother’s, which caused her to instinctively save Celeste. Despite its significance, in my view, Bonnie’s story was the most underwritten and I genuinely wish this intersection of gender, race and ethnicity was further explored in the narrative.
This show manages to navigate insecurities, burdens, baggage and fears that adults inevitably learn to live with. Big Little Lies will leave you seeking answers from the characters and the writers of the show, but moreover, it will leave you with questions that you might ask yourself. At least that’s what it did for me. It made me think. And I haven’t stopped thinking since.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.