Big Little Lies began seven weeks ago with a dead body, seemingly just another star-studded cable procedural, this time spiced up with unusually steamy marital sex and a Desperate Housewives vibe in oceanside Monterey, Calif.
Along with criticism for its privileged-white-people focus, the show drew condescending reviews from critics with a male gaze (The New York Times called it a "television beach read") and even feminist critics felt obliged to explain and excuse its "chick lit" origins (a novel by Liane Moriarty). I came in with a bias against story arcs that hinged on domestic violence and rapey flashbacks.
Viewers rightly ignored us all. The show's ratings have increased steadily, making it a top-10 cable show, and I will be tuning in along with everyone else Sunday night to find out who killed whom – but more important, why?
Writer David E. Kelley has minimally serviced the murder plot with a scattering of witness statements throughout the first six episodes. But the show is really about good drama's proper subject, internal conflict, addressing the even bigger mystery of the human capacity for self-destructive misery. Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley's characters represent the healthiest, best-looking, most privileged cohort in human history, but they still can't figure out how to be happy.
Madeline (Witherspoon) knows she made a terrible mistake cheating on her husband. But it's over and she's learned her lesson. So why in hell did she confess to her teenage daughter, Abigail? Not only is this bad, narcissistic parenting, what if Abigail tells dad and Madeline loses the marriage she has finally come to value?
Single-mom Jane (Woodley) keeps a loaded gun under her pillow because of unresolved trauma from a rape seven years earlier. But what if she shoots her sleepwalking son? What if said son, a product of the rape, has inherited his father's sociopathic DNA and is guilty of attacking a little girl at school? Not to mention meddlesome Madeline's efforts to track down Jane's rapist (so Jane can "face her fears"), which makes us wonder if Jane is the one who committed the murder, and has ruined her life forever.
Most chilling is the danger to Celeste (Kidman). She's decided to flee her abusive marriage, but at the end of episode six left her two little boys with her unpredictable, violent husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) when she slipped out to look at an apartment. Now he's pissed she left the house without his permission. Dear God, he wouldn't hurt the boys to punish her … would he?
Kelley's scripts are excellent: The female characters are so fully realized, the male characters seem underwritten by comparison, which is not something a critic gets to write every day. But director Jean-Marc Vallée elevates the material even further with cinematic artistry – not just with the many expensive scenes shot during the magic hour, but with subtle, powerful specificity in small moments.
Like when Celeste leaves the house, and Perry, relaxing on the couch with the boys, freezes with surprise, then switches into rage, which he expresses in a gesture. He grabs a bag of chips away from the boys – "That's enough!" The look on his face and the swipe of his long arm will evoke a shudder of recognition from anyone, male or female, who's ever been threatened by male anger.
The plot of Big Little Lies concerns power struggles, between wives and husbands, mother and other mothers, mothers and their children, so we know some kind of external conflict will be the cause of the murder. But with pros such as Kelley and Vallée at the helm, we also know the crime will fit the theme, which I'd argue is the conundrum of motherhood.
Celeste gave up a career as a high-powered lawyer to be a mother. Madeline, unfulfilled at home, puts all her frustrated energy into endless feuds, increasingly terrified of the abyss that looms as her strong-willed daughters increasingly detach from her. Jane is losing her sanity as she fights to hide her PTSD and the truth about his conception from her son.
They're all struggling with the internal, utterly impossible conflict that arises from losing yourself in love to the savage little beasts you're raising, who then, if you do your job right, will walk away and leave you. And then who are you?
It's all there in the opening credits.
The mothers are driving, privileged and protected, but vaguely anxious, endlessly travelling, never arriving. The children in the back seat are oblivious: They can't see where they're going, and so they take it all for granted. They only pay attention, to themselves, in the next sequence, when they dance one by one toward the camera, staring into the lens with unconflicted innocence. A few cutaways to sex with husbands well out of frame, and the ocean's crashing waves (the abyss!), and then the mothers, one by one, do their own march toward the lens. But, unlike the children, whose playful antics reveal their true natures, the moms' identities are buried under makeup, costumes and a vamping imitation of someone else.
Over it all, Michael Kiwanuka sings the theme song, Cold Little Heart: "Did you ever want it? Did you want bad? … Oh, my, I've been ashamed. All my life, I've been playing games."
Whoever was killed, whoever gets nailed for the murder, the crisis for these women has already happened. And now, what will happen to them?