Big Little Lies, from the surface, looked like an average, female-targeted, melodramatic HBO show with huge talent attached. While the show’s trailers highlighted the more comedic side to the show, Big Little Lies turned out to be a sometimes dour look into the lives of bored, affluent housewives in Monterey. Jean-Marc Vallée directed the entire series as one, 7-hour long film, which elevates the way the show comes together and flows from week to week. Vallée expertly sprinkles what seems to be very minute details but as each hour ticks away those minor details come to the forefront as major plot points. Neo-noir, which Big Little Lies borrows loosely, are slow burns slowly revealing the main suspect at the very end in an ‘aha moment.’ Absent from Big Little Lies are the drab cinematography and harsh lighting present in many other Noir films. But, the show uses the beauty of the cascading waves against rocks and beautiful palm trees to ironically juxtapose against the harsh world in which these characters inhabit. Culminating in episode seven “You Get What You Need,” Big Little Lies proves to be one of HBO’s best mini-series.
You Get What You Need, taken from The Rolling Stones song “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” plays with the coy, satirical humor of the show in a sly way. While most of the show deals with some heavy themes, like rape and domestic abuse, Big Little Lies, by way of author Liane Moriarty and teleplay writer David E. Kelley’s wit and humor, injects moments of levity to make the journey into these people’s lives enjoyable. With six editors at the helm, this final episode is a testament to the craft.
The opening shot of the episode, a slow pan towards an air vent from the living room of which the Wright Twins are watching their morning cartoons to Celeste (Kidman), bruised and beaten on the floor is the perfect allegory for nature versus nurture – a theme that runs throughout the show. Adamant her husband won’t hurt the children, Celeste still takes her counselor’s advice into consideration by purchasing a secret apartment and plots to leave her and her children’s life with Perry behind. Except, she has to endure just one last night before she can leave and be at peace. Then the news that her son Max is the real perpetrator hurting Renata Klein’s (Dern) daughter Amabella comes to light. In countless sessions with her counselor, Celeste was so sure her children never witnessed their father beat on her, nor had any knowledge of the beatings, either. Celeste’s complicity, her inability to react sooner, may have prevented the events that unfolded on screen for the past seven weeks. However, with Jane’s (Woodley) uncertainty of her son’s violent genes by way of his father, there’s a part of Celeste that accepts Jane’s reporting as truth, even before questioning her two twin boys. Though the question is raised but never fully explored to its maximum capacity, what’s more powerful: nature or nurture? Vallée, Moriarty, and Kelley seem to answer that question with the final frames of the episode, children running through the sand gleefully, a stark contrast to the images of Jane chasing after her attacker and cleansing herself in the harsh, yet beautiful, salty waters of Monterey.
The way Vallée slowly brings together each of the central cast to the ‘Audrey and Elvis’ party is tense, providing great anxiety about what may happen next. Even on a repeat viewing, the pacing was enough to keep me on the edge of my seat despite already knowing the outcome. Each actor from Adam Scott to Reese Witherspoon play these final moments at the party with just enough nuance to see new things with each repeat viewing.
I’ve mentioned before how Big Little Lies shares a close relationship with Gone Girl and how outside parties view other people’s lives with their own insecurities, spreading falsities that hurt those involved. Big Little Lies is littered with this with talking heads testifying about what “exactly happened.” These people take gossip at face value and perpetuate their own beliefs into their accounts of what happened. Vallée makes that apparent early on in the first episode but becomes blatantly more fabricated with each episode. At first, they are our introduction into this world that seems so far removed, but you soon realize that gossip knows no class.
Without having read the book, I was thoroughly surprised to learn Perry not only dies but is also Jane’s rapist. So many shows, including a lot of police procedurals, make the person least likely to commit the crime the actual suspect – that’s not the case here. In lesser hands, Perry would have been the immediate target of speculation from me early on: he’s constantly traveling for work, he’s always in a suit, he’s violent and aggressive towards his wife, et cetera. He’s so far removed from everyone else’s plotlines, however, that he never became a suspect until Jane’s tense arm grab. That reveal was brilliantly executed and without saying a word of dialog, Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon, and Nicole Kidman conveyed their revelation with emotion behind their eyes that I could tell exactly what they were thinking.
Ending with the muted testimonials of the women involved, Detective Quinlan (Merrin Dungey), knowing the language of the townsfolk, brushes off their statements as lies convinced Perry didn’t trip and fall in a drunken stupor. Overlooking the women and their children playing on the beach conveys Quinlan hasn’t let go her investigation, leaving the story slightly open-ended. I initially questioned why we never got a definitive answer regarding Madeline and Ed’s (Witherspoon, Scott) marriage, but during my repeated viewings I came to the conclusion that their arc doesn’t matter to the entire story as a whole. Big Little Lies is meant to take you on a journey and convince you certain characters either die or do the killing. Madeline and Ed’s relationship doesn’t really matter by the end of the story since it’s Jane’s and Celeste’s story to tell. Bonnie (Kravitz) pushing Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) is a bit of poetic justice, having him die at the hands of the pacifist of the group and, ultimately, bringing together these women that could never stand to be in the same room with one another.
It would be interesting to revisit Big Little Lies in a year, or two, or three. The Night Of, which debuted last year, left a lasting effect, especially that final shot of Nasir sitting by the George Washington Bridge to smoke crack, even after being found innocent of his crime. Big Little Lies, I feel, doesn’t pack that emotional punch that The Night Of left. However, I can say that compared to Westworld, Big Little Lies is the far superior show.
I have yet to read of Moriarty’s novels but with how intriguing Big Little Lies is, I may be tempted to check out one of her many books.