In the sixth episode of Big Little Lies, Madeline Martha Mackenzie throws up on the table during a dinner party. She has learned that her teenage daughter, Abigail, is planning to auction off her virginity online to raise money for Amnesty International, news that makes her literally sick to her stomach. But when she stands up from the table and goes to confront Abigail outside, Madeline shows a surprisingly different side to her polished exterior: She confesses that she has also made mistakes — including cheating on her husband, Ed.
Abigail is one of the many young girls on Big Little Lies to grow up in a household where abuse, rape, or infidelity is present. And while the show focuses on how these heavy issues weave into the complicated lives of four mothers and their relationships with their romantic partners and each other, little is said about how the very same issues impact their children. In fact, it’s almost completely glossed over.
We see this happen when Madeline makes her confession in a powerful but rare moment. For the first time, she allows herself to be honest and vulnerable with her daughter. You can almost see the relief wash over Madeline’s face as the secret leaves her mouth. On the one hand, I wanted to applaud her for her candor and deep desire to connect with her increasingly distant daughter, but on the other, it was one of the biggest WTF moments of the entire show. It was bizarre not just because of Madeline’s decision to share her infidelity with her daughter, but also because Abigail’s reaction to the news was strangely lukewarm. Maybe she was just truly unbothered by her mother’s confession (which I find hard to imagine). Maybe it was the privilege of knowing that regardless of Madeline’s choices, life likely wouldn’t change that much for her. Still, should Madeline have confided in her teenage daughter? Yes, she was desperate to prove that her life was not perfect by revealing something so personal, but she was also reaching a breaking point that was intensified by a lingering guilt — she had to eventually tell someone. Her daughter’s quest to auction off her virginity just happened to be the catalyst to break her. And that’s not fair to Abigail.
Abigail and Madeline’s onscreen mother-daughter relationship made me think of my relationship with my own mother. The summer when I was 16, I was living as an exchange student in Finland, an ocean away from my mother, who had just begun the process of a messy divorce from my stepfather. We only had email to communicate and she would send me messages about what was happening at home. Every day, I was consumed with anxiety, worried for her and my brothers, but most of all, I felt overwhelmingly helpless. It was an emotional weight to bear — one that Abigail might have experienced — and it wasn’t fair. My mom knew this. But she also knew it was better than the alternative, which was her keeping it a secret until I returned home to find that our family unit had already disintegrated. She was protecting me by being transparent, even though it hurt.
Big Little Lies shows the lengths to which a mother will go to protect her young children. We see it in the way Jane vehemently defends Ziggy’s innocence, Renata’s determination to find the child hurting her own, Celeste carefully placing a stuffed animal on the bunk bed in the home she has rented to escape her twin boys’ violent father. Madeline is a protective mother in the way she demands the best for her children — the best schools, the best tickets to Disney on Ice, the best experiences — but is using your guilt as an opportunity to come across as “relatable” actually protective? Madeline wasn’t protecting Abigail or building a stronger bond with her as she’d like to believe — she was just shifting the weight of a burden she was too weak to carry herself.