MTV News pop culture writers Inkoo Kang, Rachel Handler, and Ira Madison III gather to discuss the finale of HBO's Big Little Lies.
[This discussion contains spoilers.]
Inkoo Kang: How satisfied by the ending — wherein the moms kill abuser/rapist Perry and decide to lie about the circumstances of his death, then all hang out at Sisterhood Beach because nothing brings people closer together than homicidal revenge — were you guys? As you might be able to tell by now, I wasn’t super-thrilled by the conclusion of Big Little Lies, which departed in slight but very significant ways from the novel.
There were two scenes I did love: (1) that exchange of shocked and knowing looks as Perry and the women realize the extent of his violence (and he figures out that they’ve figured it out), and (2) the juxtaposition of the women struggling against his blows with the shots of the waves slamming against the sharp, defiant, immovable rocks jutting out from the water.
Naturally, there’s something primally satisfying about watching a bad man punished for his sins. But given how sensitive the rest of the miniseries has been about sexual assault and domestic violence — and the dearth of similarly nuanced takes on that issue in pop culture — I wish there had been some way for the story to involve how everyday victims might pursue justice through the legal system, especially since Big Little Lies is set in a state (California) where victims of partner violence are imprisoned, rather than pardoned, when they kill their abusers.
I also found the female utopia promised by that final shot at Sisterhood Beach kind of condescending. Women don’t get along with one another for a whole host of reasons. Just because they now understand each other doesn’t automatically mean it makes sense for them to become the best of friends. (Doesn’t Laura Dern’s CEO character have, like, 20 meetings to go to per day?) I’m not on board with the suggestion that domestic violence is enacted by a single bad man, and that we can all reach paradise and camaraderie as soon as we get rid of that one bad man. I know it’s not fair to compare the book with its adaptation, but I can’t help admiring how much better author Liane Moriarty concluded her book, with Celeste becoming a public advocate against partner abuse (instead of participating in a code of silence that will not help other women who may be suffering) and confronting the reality that her sons are adjusting rather poorly to their new fatherless lives.
Rachel Handler: You're so right that the ending was overly simplistic, and that it missed its chance to address cases of domestic violence and sexual assault that don't end in a convenient group murder. But I was totally satisfied by it, specifically the hang at Sisterhood Beach, perhaps because I am a sucker for good schmaltz. To me, the idea that women in crisis can overcome petty differences, psychically communicate with each other using only arched eyebrows, and then celebrate in breezy white separates in the sand is extremely seductive. Is it a little condescending? Yeah. Is it #problematic (and potentially dangerous) to assume that all women can speak a secret, life-saving primal eyebrow language when confronted with male violence? Absolutely. Did I sob throughout that entire scene, babbling about women's intuition like the Schick target consumer that I am? Of course.
For me, the ending also succeeded in part because it felt like one big raised eyebrow (or middle finger) directed at the male critics/viewers who just did not get this show. From the beginning, dudes were dismissing it as "soapy and annoying," a "compendium of clichés about upper-middle-class angst," a "sham." Like, speaking of condescending! What they really meant, by and large, was that it was a show centering on the interior lives of women. When Paul Giamatti and Damian Lewis are snorting coke off of each other's chest hairs it's prestige TV, but put Reese Witherspoon in a beachside mansion and it's a "guilty pleasure."
But the show seemed to anticipate this criticism, almost baking it into its plot (I'm assuming the book did the same, but I haven't read it yet). The men of Big Little Lies were, by and large, clueless idiots, blunt rocks occasionally knocking into each other as they fell down a mountain. Ed, whether willfully or otherwise, didn't seem to notice that his wife was banging the local White Man With Shattered Dreams; when he wasn't lurking uncomfortably in the corners of scenes, he was too busy engaging in dick-measuring contests with Nathan to clock Madeline's affair. Gordon didn't seem to do much more than walk around with a glass of bourbon, yelling; Joseph couldn't drive and carry on a conversation simultaneously; and I honestly don't know what Nathan did on this show except sidle up to Madeline's car in parking lots. The only man who seemed to have any insight or sensitivity was presumed to be gay until the last 30 minutes of the season.
Meanwhile, the five central women spent the duration of the series carefully and respectfully (-ish) sussing out the intimate details of each other's lives, then saving them. In the finale, when Jane telegraphed Perry's true identity to Madeline, when Bonnie noticed something just slightly off with Celeste and Perry's body language and followed them down the rabbit hole, when Bonnie knocked that Skarsgård down the stairs and when all four agreed to protect her, even when the female detective just "couldn't let it go" — all the while, Nathan and Ed were busy thrusting their middle-aged pelvises onstage; the male detective was like, "Yep, this all checks out to me!"; and Community Theater Joseph was literally peeing. That, to me, was a subtle anticipatory head nod to Big Little Lies' gendered critical reception. Women got there first, both in the show and on the show. And, as Perry must have realized as he bled out onto that "caution" tape, it's risky to underestimate us, both in art and in group-murder.
One mystery remains, though: What the fuck was that party theme? Is "Audreys and Elvises" like "Pimps and Hos" for rich people, or…?
Ira Madison III: This show left me shook. I thought it was fantastic, even though I also had problems with the ending. Particularly, the idea that they covered up how Perry died. It wasn't a murder. Like, unless Bonnie has a prior history of shoving white men down flights of stairs, that was not a crime any of those women could be convicted of. That was maddening to me, but it also reminds me that I want to disagree with Rachel and say this is a soap. But that's not a knock. I think everyone knows I worship at the altar of melodrama, Douglas Sirk, George Cukor, and Aaron Spelling. I highly respect the genre, which heightens the interior lives of women and men and sends them into dizzying climaxes. The opening has images of people having sex among crashing waves — I mean, if that's not an ode to Eden and Cruz on Santa Barbara I don't know what is. The genre gets a bad rap because people think of evil twins and brainwashing, but at its best it's just like Big Little Lies, or hell, Mad Men, one of the best soaps of the past decade.
And because it is melodrama, I knew that Perry was going to die and that his murder would be covered up, because this isn't American Crime. It's a messy emotional story unconcerned with the actual intricacies of the law. Or why Nicole Kidman would have her property manager call a phone her husband can easily access. But I DIGRESS. I found most of the twists telegraphed early on, but in a way it was better because I could just enjoy how the series unfolded and twisted its way to that conclusion in the finale, which was full of so many delicious red herrings. Also, the murder happened at a costume gala. You don't get more melodrama than that.
So, yes, I didn't mind the ending on the beach because it fits into the genre perfectly and it felt immediately cathartic in the moment. Also, it underscored how black women always have to step up and save white women, but that's a conversation for another day…
Kang: Whatever that Audrey and Elvis theme was, I was thrilled by Madeline’s callback to Holly Golightly’s glamorous tuxedo shirt–inspired sleepwear. And Perry’s black-leather outfit, sunglasses, and rigid, monomaniacal stalking called to mind the Terminator for me — a costume choice that added a great deal of suspense to a very tense hour. It’s too bad, though, that Reese Witherspoon seemed so marginal to the miniseries for the last couple of hours. (I really could not give two shits about her affair, and her older daughter auctioning off her virginity for #feminism was the show's weakest story line by far.)
But what chance does a mortal have against a goddess like Nicole Kidman? The actress inexorably moved the series’s center of gravity toward her, and Big Little Lies became an exquisitely painful portrait of denial that rang so powerfully because of Kidman’s delicately layered and physically expressive performance.
I’d also like to send a bouquet of roses to the team of Liane Moriarty, David E. Kelley, and Jean-Marc Vallée, who have collectively provided such a singularly nuanced and gut-punching realistic example of domestic violence. There’s (rightfully) been much discussion about the role of sex in that violence, and how much desire and consent Celeste can really claim when her husband looms over her with a closed fist. Among the many details that made Celeste and Perry’s relationship terrifyingly truthful to me, I’ve gotta call out (1) Celeste calling Jane’s single motherhood “sad” early on in the series, (2) Perry’s gross nicknaming his wife “Sparkles” (NICOLE IS PORCELAIN), and (3) Celeste’s terror that her little son is learning his father’s abuse and already punching and choking little girls at school, thus making her complicit, however inadvertently, in a cycle of violence against women.
I also wish Shailene Woodley’s Jane hadn’t felt so secondary. Again, forgive me for comparing the book to the TV show, but Jane was a much bigger character in the novel, and she was the catalyst for a lot of smart observations about classism and the unconsciously assumed links between poverty and criminality — hence why everyone in school was so ready to believe that it had been Ziggy who was bullying Amabella. Big Little Lies captured Jane’s post-rape PTSD, but I missed the book’s deeper reflections on her struggle to reclaim her sexuality after the assault. Here, her date with cafe owner Tom felt very obligatory: “We’re ending the story now, so here’s a man for you, too!”
Handler: Ira, I fully agree that the show was melodrama at its best (which is a big reason it appealed to me, the schmaltz queen). I just think that a lot of men used that qualifier as a way to delegitimize it, rather than measure it against those Mad Men–y prestige melodramas of yore. Which is why we have seven seasons of The Walking Dead and seven episodes of Big Little Lies, when the narrative constraints of both are pretty equal. And why it felt almost luxurious to be able to look forward to a gorgeous, hour-long, well-acted, well-written, heightened drama about women for a mere seven weeks. Meanwhile, if I have to watch one more about a misunderstood male genius with demons (literal or figurative) and daddy issues, I am going to hurl myself down a roped-off staircase.
Something else I loved about Big Little Lies: how darkly, weirdly hilarious it was. When it wasn't driving me to stress-chug rosé alongside its characters, it was making me spit the rosé across long distances. I loved how self-aware and casual the humor was — the show wasn't overly concerned with being funny, which, of course, made it even funnier. Things that stick out to me: literally just the existence of the name "Amabella," which I've been rolling around in my brain delightedly for weeks; Reese Witherspoon calmly telling someone to "go fuck themselves on the head"; Reese's delivery of the Joseph confession scene ("I might have grabbed his ass, I don't know"); Laura Dern stooped aggrievedly in her stunning hallway, sporting an eye patch; Reese vomiting green sludge all over Zoë Kravitz.
OK, I guess just everything that Reese did was incredible? To me, her character didn't feel marginal, though I agree in the later episodes her story was less propulsive and riveting than Nicole's. Maybe part of my fascination was with Reese's range. I think Reese has always been a little underestimated, much like the characters she plays (or maybe I've just underestimated her). Because she's super-successful and smart and blonde and beautiful and cheerful and wears a lot of A-line dresses, I think I've assumed in the past that these Tracy Flick-ish characters come naturally to her, like they're an extension of her real-life persona. But Madeline — and the fact that Reese got this whole thing off the ground to begin with — was the most recent proof that Reese runs deep.
Inkoo, to your point about Jane's story feeling short-shrifted: This is why we need 12 more seasons of Big Little Lies. I really respected how three-dimensional these characters felt after only a few hours in their company. But there was obviously a lot left to discover about each of them. I'd watch an entire season about Jane's reclamation of her sexuality (I agree about the compulsory vibe of the Tom pairing, but I also loved the flabbergasted look on his face when Madeline asked him to grab a drink for her at the party, so all is forgiven), or Celeste's recovery, or Madeline trying to figure out if she could ever truly get it up for Ed. Shit, I'd watch an entire season of Chloe making Spotify playlists at this point. But I do think part of the beauty of this series was its compactness, its tautness. If they tried to extend it any further, do you think it'd all fall apart? Should we just realize that while we can't always get what we want, if we try sometimes, we might find, we get what we need?
Relatedly, what the fuck do we do with our lives now that this show is over?
Kang: Catastrophe Season 3!