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Directed with florid verve by Jean-Marc Vallée, Big Little Lies is about mothers and murder in moneyed, beautiful Monterey, Calif.
Directed with florid verve by Jean-Marc Vallée, Big Little Lies is about mothers and murder in moneyed, beautiful Monterey, Calif.

John Doyle: Two series, two profound finales, lots of dead bodies Add to ...

Two huge finales this weekend. Both blood-soaked, probably. Both of them tense, terrific, nuanced and both about power. And both – Big Little Lies and The Walking Dead – coincidentally about male power and violence.

And, while the two shows might seem to have little in common thematically, they both climax on the same pivotal issue. One is about a woman’s decision to stay in the luxury of what is an abusive relationship. The other is about declining to live in the relative safety of an oppressive, authoritarian regime and rebelling against it.

Big Little Lies Sunday (HBO, 9 p.m.) has been stunningly good from the start. Directed with florid verve by Jean-Marc Vallée it is about mothers and murder in moneyed, beautiful Monterey, Calif. The novel on which it is based is at times saturated with the flashiness of the rich lives portrayed and it seethes with a kind of knowing satiric stare at the main characters, those self-absorbed materialistic mothers.

The show has generated much coverage, some of it ludicrously shallow. The second-last episode featured a wife reacting with violence, in fear of being raped by her husband. The scene featured a fake penis, which gave the online versions of People magazine and Cosmopolitan a dose of the giggles. The attempted rape was described as “his sexual offer” by Cosmo. And there are websites inviting moms to define what kind of mom they are through measurement of their resemblance to the main characters. This coverage is ridiculous and disingenuous.

What writer David E. Kelley and Vallée have done is drain away the attire and melodrama to focus with precision on the confining of these women. There are many key scenes set in cars and while that means constant movement it also means a kind of internment inside a box. While there are gorgeous, sweeping vistas of the beach and beautiful landscape of Monterey, this distilled adaptation is emphatically about personal freedom and responsibility – things that the landscape can promise but cannot provide. The adaptation teases out public and private anxieties. What’s inside, what’s outside and what is universal.

And what is universal is the trap that the various women face. Each of the main characters, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) is well-off and strong, but each is living a lie of some sort. Most startling of all is the situation of Celeste, who is at last recognizing that husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) is an abuser and a rapist. That’s the reality, no matter how good he makes her feel, no matter how intense his showy affection. In the show’s penultimate episode, as with the beleaguered survivors on The Walking Dead living under the thumb of the fascist tormentor Negan, the victim rebelled.

There are questions to be answered in Sunday’s finale. Who sexually assaulted Jane and fathered Ziggy? Who is bullying Renata’s daughter? And, most dramatic, who is dead and who killed them? The tension has been ramped up with great skill but, in the end, the core mystery in this murder mystery is why Celeste stayed with Perry.

The Walking Dead (Sunday, AMC, 9 p.m.) has been all build-up and little action this season. But it is a key build-up in terms of the political and social meaning of the series and the comics in which it is based. In a terrifying, post-apocalypse world, where is safety found: Is it in personal freedom or is it in living under the thumb of a violent leader who offers peace if you give up all power to him?

And so the seventh season will conclude with the start of the inevitable war between the armies of Rick Grimes (Andrew Lincoln) and those of Negan (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). For the longest time, it seemed that Grimes, his followers and so many others, had been beaten into submission by Negan and his brutal army. There was no way for these people to survive except by submitting.

Key character Eugene (Josh McDermitt) essentially did what Celeste did on Big Little Lies – he aligned himself with the abuser in order to find a safe haven. He did it out of fear and an understandable cowardice. By accepting Negan’s brutality, he validated that brutality. He chose comfort and security over personal freedom. On Big Little Lies we saw Celeste at last make an attempt at breaking free from that kind of bondage.

There will be a lot of dead bodies on the finale of The Walking Dead. There will be at least one on Big Little Lies. Two shows, two finales, two fine dramas of some consequence. Both are, on the surface, mere entertainment, but both are, under the surface, about personal freedom, feminism, group morality, and the need to act to escape malevolence over and over again.

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