Guilty Parties“Big Little Lies’” Glorious Reflections on Female Penitence

Reese Witherspoon as Madeline, center, Shailene Woodley as Jane, left, Zoe Kravitz as Bonnie, Nicole Kidman as Celeste, and Laura Dern as Renata in Big Little Lies (Photo credit: HBO)

Aline Dolinh is Bitch Media’s 2019 Writing Fellow in Pop-Culture Criticism

One of our most indelible images of a woman undone by guilt is a sleepwalking Lady Macbeth, feverishly scrubbing her hands of imagined bloodstains and increasingly unable to distinguish hallucinations from reality. We know what she looks like—always nightgown-clad and raving, ultimately doomed to die unceremoniously offstage. In Season 2 of HBO’s Big Little Lies, however, the force of female guilt implodes in a way that feels less conspicuous but just as dramatically magnificent. Still reeling from the fateful school trivia night that ended with the death of abusive rapist Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård), which they ultimately passed off as an accident, the group of women now known as the Monterey Five are attempting to return their lives to normalcy, with varying levels of success. Though the first season ended with the seemingly idyllic image of them sitting together on the beach, united in their willingness to protect each other, the very existence of a second season implies that absolution can never be quite that easy for women—even in the aftermath of an act as clearly righteous and justifiable as killing a violent abuser in self-defense.

The Monterey Five are damned not as much by the truth of Perry’s death as they are by their collective fear of confronting its ugly and uncomfortable implications. The little lie that he drunkenly slipped on those stairs doesn’t just maintain their blamelessness; it more crucially serves to conceal the true extent of his viciousness. It allows Monterey to go on believing that his death was a singular, unfortunate accident rather than the inevitable consequence of an insular community continuously venerating appearances, wealth, and status over its residents’ actual well being. It’s this tension that animates the series’ second season, which wisely avoids redundancy and easy moralizing in order to delve into why exactly these women might have felt compelled to hide the exact circumstances of Perry’s fatal fall—and how much they still stand to lose in its wake.

Newly widowed Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) is stranded rather than magically liberated by her husband’s death—she crashes her car into a highway guardrail after taking sleeping pills to erase relentless visions of Perry, and still masturbates to old videos of him at his most affectionate. The lie has a similarly constricting effect on Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), who actually delivered the fatal push down the stairs; she’s withdrawn from her family and friends and spends her time on blank-eyed, destination-unknown walks. Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), now a real-estate agent, and Silicon Valley executive Renata Klein (Laura Dern) both struggle to maintain their public veneer of manicured perfection as their marriages crumble around them. Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is arguably the most well-adjusted in the aftermath: Realizing that Perry was the man who raped her years ago and fathered her young son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) seems to have granted her a kind of closure. She has a new job at the Monterey Aquarium and, despite her own hesitations regarding intimacy, a brewing romance with a coworker.

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In contrast to the punishing grimness of The Handmaid’s Tale or the gratuitous brutality of Game of Thrones, Big Little Lies’s narrative sensibilities focus less on rendering trauma itself increasingly shocking than it does on exploring its uneasy, inexact consequences. Perry’s violence still lingers in Celeste’s life, finding concrete shape in the twin sons, Josh and Max (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti), she fears are unknowingly following in their father’s footsteps. A more immediate threat is her steely, suspicious mother-in-law, Mary Louise (an eminently loathsome Meryl Streep), who refuses to accept that her adored only son could also have been an awful, predatory man. She encourages her grandsons to embrace their potential for rage, and Mary Louise herself literally screams at the thought that other women’s “mediocre, spindly, pudgy, balding, middle-management sons” still live while Perry is dead.

Mary-Louise’s misguided, victim-blaming ire makes her an easily identifiable antagonist, but her unwillingness to believe that our worst moments might be reflective of deep-seated patterns—rather than the momentary failings of otherwise perfect individuals—is present in the show’s more sympathetic characters as well. Even the show’s most outwardly successful women still seem to bear the weight of failings they experienced as children, even those that weren’t their fault. Madeline dismisses her infidelity to Ed (Adam Scott) as a chaotic but cursory weakness, unwilling to admit that it might have been a symptom of her belief that marriage itself is inherently unsustainable—a fear that began when she was young and walked in on her father with another woman.

Renata, too, is intent on compensating for the perceived inadequacies of her youth, and accomplishes this by accusing everyone around her of being the problem. When her daughter has a panic attack seemingly brought on by climate anxiety, Renata lashes out at the teacher, Mr. Perkins (Mo McRae), for teaching second graders about global warming. She fears the actual prospect of ecological collapse chiefly as an existential threat that she cannot berate or bribe into submission. Its presence suggests that even a childhood full of every material comfort imaginable cannot insulate her daughter from the same kind of insecurity and loneliness that characterized her own financially precarious upbringing. To Renata, the idea that she herself might have some culpability in her daughter’s crisis is too terrifying to even consider.

The term “guilty pleasure” has frequently been invoked to describe Big Little Lies, whether to deride its perceived excesses or extoll how it “overcomes” those soapy connotations in order to function as a worthy prestige drama.

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Yet for all the series’ careful, at times heartrending attention to the nuances of trauma, misogyny, and emotional dissatisfaction, the distinctive pleasure of Big Little Lies also resides in its soapiness. While it affords an introspective depth to its heroines’ angst-ridden consciences, the viewing experience itself is more gratifying than it is punishing. After all, the entire series takes place in a wealthy beachside enclave where almost everyone is hiding dark secrets. In particular, it’s Renata’s blustering, steamroller-esque determination that has yielded the largest share of deliciously GIF-friendly moments.

In reaction to her husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling)’s arrest for securities fraud and subsequent admission that he’s lost all of the couple’s money, she hisses, “I will not not be rich!” Later, after she fetches him from jail, she causes a traffic jam by stopping the car in the middle of the highway to kick him out; in response to the chorus of honks that ensues, she screams, “Will somebody give a woman a moment?” It’s a ridiculous and objectively selfish moment, and yet something about where Renata is coming from—her desperation, her repressed fury, her righteous fear that something that she spent her entire life striving for could be destroyed by a man’s carelessness—resonates on a gut level.

The term “guilty pleasure” has frequently been invoked to describe Big Little Lies, whether to deride its perceived excesses or extoll how it “overcomes” those soapy connotations in order to function as a worthy prestige drama. In a middling review of the first season, The A.V. Club quipped that “tawdriness is paramount on Big Little Lies, which casts the froth of an airport paperback under Hollywood blockbuster wattage,” while a more laudatory take from the Washington Post assured watchers that the series “transcends the usual rich-mommies drama” and that “the soapy layer quickly rinses away in the first episode.” Yet neither of these assessments (coincidentally both penned by men), seems to consider that the show’s power in fact derives from its willingness to use these frothy, exaggerated choices as a way to examine the female conscience. They render the kind of small, ugly anxieties many women know all too well—the heterosexual boredom, the burden of carrying an entire family’s mental load, the shame of being unable to maintain an artificial standard of perfection—too explosive to ignore.

There’s something aspirational about the way Big Little Lies imbues even the most dysfunctional situations with this gloss of camp-adjacent catharsis. In Madeline’s screaming response to her teenage daughter’s plan to forego college and instead join “a startup that builds for-profit housing for the homeless” (“I don’t give a fuck! I don’t care about fucking homeless people!”) we can acknowledge where her anger is coming from, in part because Abigail’s desires feel equally self-indulgent. Even Celeste’s sessions with soft-spoken therapist Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert) feel like wish fulfillment, given how competent, empathetic, and just the right amount of tough she is. The way she reminds Celeste that she is, in fact, better off without Perry despite her impulse to hold onto his memory supplies the hope that all of us can be thoroughly, reassuringly known by someone else even better than we know ourselves.

While watching Season 2, I realize that I want Renata to be richer than ever, despite my awareness that her bombastic personality wouldn’t translate to real-world decency: In any other series, her overbearing, let-me-speak-to-a-manager energy would make her the villainous embodiment of shallow, corporate white feminism. Though she’s arguably the show’s most self-deluded character, the utterly shameless way she believes in her wealth as a power source (“I will be rich again! I will rise up! And I will buy a fucking polar bear for every kid in this school!”)—rather than as an abstract representation of her own moral worth—feels strangely honest. We already know that compelling fictional characters don’t necessarily have to be good people. But there’s something else at work in the collective readiness to identify with the women of Big Little Lies—there are countless BuzzFeed articles and TV Guide quizzes with titles like “We Know Which Big Little Lies Character You Are Based On Your Dream Vacation,” “17 Hilarious Big Little Lies Season 2, Episode 2 Tweets That Are A Whole Mood,” and “Which Member of Big Little Lies’ Monterey Five Are You?” suggesting a veritable cottage industry built on people’s reactions to the series alone. 

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There have been other acclaimed dramas, like Unreal and The Americans, that featured dynamic, morally ambiguous female protagonists and yet never seemed to strike a comparable nerve. You’d be hard-pressed to find a listicle along the lines of “12 Times Elizabeth Jennings Was A Whole Mood.” Even Girls, another buzzy HBO series about profoundly flawed and overwhelmingly white women, never inspired similar amounts of collective enjoyment and reaction-GIF usage—perhaps because the frequently self-made problems of its characters felt too quotidian and shameful to freely claim kinship with. When I’m on the brink of an anxious meltdown, the reality of that experience is thoroughly undignified; my face goes red and scrunchy with ugly tears and I tend to want to binge-eat until I feel sick. At times, I wish my frustration could surface in an expression as sublime as Mary Louise’s gut-wrenching scream or Renata raising a middle finger through her car’s sunroof. Yet to discount these enviable thrills as features that somehow cheapen or dilute Big Little Lies’ prestige is to discount the show’s power as a whole.

It’s true, of course, that the series presents an incredibly rarefied picture of what womanhood looks like. Its lens still remains overwhelmingly white; Bonnie, the Monterey Five’s sole Black woman, is still the series’ most cryptic figure. The script hasn’t made the alienation she might feel as a younger Black mother within an exclusive, mostly white community a narrative priority. Viewers (at least, those who haven’t also read Liane Moriarty bestselling book) still don’t know if anything in particular motivated her to give Perry that fateful push. Though Principal Nippal (P.J. Byrne) gripes that “second-grade mothers are Shakespearean” after an encounter with Renata, at the moment it’s Bonnie who seems to function as the show’s doomed Shakespearean heroine. She spent the first season as a largely cryptic object of desire; now, newly withdrawn and guilt-ridden after playing her part in a man’s death, she seems to be both literally and figuratively drowning in her search for absolution. Bonnie insists that the lie is “going to get us, it’s going to get us all,” as if convinced they’re part of a Greek tragedy in which even well-intentioned transgressions inevitably yield awful, inordinate reprisals. Celeste inflicts bruises on her own arms, as if the continued violence can anchor her life in Perry’s absence. Their guilt feels corrosive in a more masochistic way, in contrast to Madeline and Renata’s splendid, public-facing breakdowns and Jane’s slow but honest willingness to start her life anew.

But Bonnie dying would feel both cruel and purposeless in a series so devoted to portraying women as negotiators of their own lives, rather than just iconography; it’s more likely Bonnie will recover herself when she comes to terms with her past. Season 2 has already suggested that some formative, possibly repressed memory has contributed to her present-day reserve, and when her mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), arrives in Monterey with crystals, feathers, and some pointed visions, she pointedly asks, “What have you done this time?” Rather than affirming any one of its principal heroines as an unconditional role model, the series revels in all the messy contradictions and cruelties that underwrite womanhood in the upper echelons of American society.

For all the times I’ve identified with Madeline’s neuroticism or Renata’s wrath and admired their sprawling, sun-flooded homes, I have never envied their actual lives—which the series has always represented as something rendered hollow and suffocating by the constant expectation of perfection, a truth that almost every woman I know can relate to. That clarity is Big Little Lies’ greatest achievement.

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by Aline Dolinh
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Aline is a writer and current undergraduate at the University of Virginia. She loves watching female-led horror films, soapy teen dramas, and Wong Kar-Wai movies. You can follow her dubious takes on Twitter.