Big Little Lies, based on the same-titled novel by Liane Moriarty, is HBO’s newest “limited series”—one season only—that follows the lives and lies of the parents of a Monterey first-grade class and reveals the lies behind their seemingly picture-perfect lives.
Tensions are on the rise after a bullying incident occurs on the first day of class, and each episode ups the ante with violence, affairs, and secrets, all culminating in a murder at a back-to-school trivia night in which all the fathers are dressed as Elvis and all the mothers are dressed as Audrey Hepburn (can’t wait). Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, and Shailene Woodley star as four mothers with very different lives whose children are in the same class. Dahlia Grossman-Heinze and Andi Zeisler have been watching all season and gathered for a roundtable on schoolyard scandal, parents, and murder predictions.
Spoilers below for Big Little Lies episodes 1-6.
Dahlia Grossman-Heinze: The cast is all-around great. I’ll watch Laura Dern in anything, and seeing Reese Witherspoon channel her perkiness into vengeance, pettiness, and puking is deeply satisfying (there’s a terrific scene in which Witherspoon’s Madeline pukes not once but three times at a dinner party hosted by her ex-husband and his new wife), as is Shailene Woodley holding her own with the rest of a powerhouse cast. Alexander Skarsgård is terrifying as Perry, a man who seems like #1 dad one moment and becomes a violent domestic abuser the next.
Andi Zeisler: I honestly don’t know if I’ll ever be able to find Skarsgård handsome again. But what’s fascinating about this show to me was that it was teased as so lightweight, like “Catfights by the ocean! Ladies be fightin!’” and so much of the plot is about women who are trying to be there for each other within these incredibly narrow roles that they haven’t really chosen.
DGH: The editing and use of music is also really interesting. It seems like all of the music on the show is diegetic—that the characters are listening to the same music as the audience. The editing, in combination with the music, makes the character’s emotions more palpable, especially in Shailene Woodley’s scenes.
AZ: I hadn’t thought about it like that, but you’re so right. There’s a good piece in The Atlantic about this, and it mentioned my favorite line from episode 6, which is Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) asking Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) about the music playing in their house. She thinks it’s Adele, but Bonnie is all, Um, it’s Sade, dumbass; it’s these tiny instances of Madeline realizing that she’s not in as much control as she thinks that are just great. Also, A-plus use of Janis Joplin.
Loved to Hate It
DGH: The homes in this show are gorgeous mansions with walk-in closets, glass walls and windows overlooking the sea, big bathtubs and pools, and floral arrangements everywhere. I regard each home with spiteful envy.
AZ: There’s definitely that element of house porn, but honestly most of the houses are really boring-looking to me. Like Perry and Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) house just looks like one of those California Closets ads where literally everything is just shades of beige. The only house that appeals to me is Bonnie and Nathan’s, because it’s sort of woodsy.
DGH: That’s true; there is a lot of beige in Big Little Lies, but I’d still gladly move into any of the mansions.
Celeste & Perry
DGH: The scenes between Celeste and her therapist Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert) are so intense that they remind me of HBO’s In Treatment, a series that followed one therapist and his sessions with his patients. The way Dr. Reisman so deftly sees through Celeste’s attempts to cover up the violence in her marriage is masterful.
AZ: I was also thinking of In Treatment. There are so many layers with Celeste: She knows, but she doesn’t totally know that she knows, and the knowledge and the denial are really duking it out every time she answers one of Dr. Reisman’s questions. Sorry I doubted your range about 10 years ago, Nicole Kidman!
I do wish there were a little more backstory to Celeste and Perry’s relationship. We know she’s a bit older than him, we know she gave up her career to be a mother. But other things are murkier. Dahlia, I know your theory is that one of the twin sons is the mysterious class bully, but there hasn’t been enough of a sense of how Celeste and Perry’s dynamic has affected the children to make that feel believable to me. That said, after the penultimate episode I am extremely scared for Celeste and those boys. Girl. If you’re staying in Monterey, he’s going to find you.
Miscellany and Loose Ends
AZ: We know Ed (Adam Scott), Madeline’s husband, feels like a “consolation prize” because he’s mentioned it at least three times in the series. We also know he’s leered at Bonnie in her yoga clothes and taken at least one not-super-stepfathery look at Madeline’s older daughter Abigail. Ed, what is your deal?
DGH: I think Ed must break bad in some way in the finale. He’s too bottled up, and his relationship with Madeline seems very tense. Maybe he’s the murderer. There’s actually a theory that the more facial hair Adam Scott has in a film, the more evil he is. And Ed is quite bearded.
AZ: Also, between the petition to spike Madeline’s production of Avenue Q and the petition to suspend Ziggy from school for maybe-maybe not being a bully, there are either too many or not enough petitions. I get that it’s supposed to underscore the hell of helicopter parenting that is Monterey, but in that case get five or six of them into the plot. Two makes it feel like I’m actually supposed to get invested in them.
DGH: It’s so funny to me that Avenue Q is part of a significant plotline in this show.
DGH: I thought I had a really smart idea about who the killer is and who will be killed, but since seeing the penultimate episode, it’s clear to me that I’m wrong. I am ready to make some guesses, though. Andi, as you know, I think Celeste and Perry’s twins are the biters and bullies of Amabella. There was definitely a shot of those twins baring their teeth in episode 6 which is not a coincidence.
AZ: I’ll do my bully theory first: I think it’s Madeline’s daughter Chloe. First of all, she is way too precocious. Second, Madeline has made so many references, both passing and explicit, to Chloe being the queen bee of the class: She made reference to it when she met Jane and Ziggy, and she used it to threaten Renata and sabotage Amabella’s birthday party plans. If Chloe really does dictate the social order of the first grade at Otter Bay Elementary, it makes sense that Amabella would be scared to drop a dime on her. And it would certainly be something that Madeleine would be mortified to have revealed, because it would further undercut her social standing in the community.
DGH: I really like Chloe (and I love that she teasingly calls her mother “woman” all the time) so I’ll be sad if she’s actually a vicious biter.
AZ: But with the identity of the murderer and murder victim, my theory is that Perry is a.) Jane’s long-ago rapist, and b.) the victim. We have yet to see them meet—there have been convenient plot excuses for keeping them apart, the most recent being that Celeste hit Perry in the junk with a tennis racket and broke his urethra and they couldn’t go see Avenue Q with the rest of the gang. That said, I do not think that Jane is the murderer. Also, I have a terrible track record with predictions.
DGH: I also think Perry is Ziggy’s father and the murder victim. I think Celeste or Jane will be the murderer. Perhaps Jane walks in on Perry hitting Celeste? As we know from Chekhov, when there’s a gun in the first act, it’s going to go off in the third, and Jane is the only one we know has a gun.