If you’ve ever seen the paparazzi pics of Gwyneth Paltrow striding down a London street, $8,000 bag dangling casually from one arm, hand in hand with one of her towheaded children, white teeth glowing with dental privilege as she laughs at a charmingly accented anecdote, then you know about the Olympian parental challenge that is the school run. Every morning and afternoon at posh elementary schools around the globe, an unspoken competition for mommy dominance (mominance?) takes place as wealthy parents deposit their darlings at the school door. Its categories? Most Sumptuous Knitwear; Best Non-Makeup Makeup Look; Least Obvious Spa Vacation/Second-Home Redecoration/Career Boost Humblebrag. Its winner? The mom who proves she’s better than the rest at effortlessly commanding equal parts jealousy and adoration.
As HBO’s smart, Zeitgeisty adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel Big Little Lies proves, the school run is the ideal catalyst for delicious, mamas-gone-feral drama. In no time at all, Big Little Lies will make you squirm with discomfort and schadenfreude as you watch beautiful, complicated women build each other up and rip each other to shreds. Rejoice, for the Mommy Wars are back!
Four moms are at the center of Big Little Lies: Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), the blonde butterfly of Monterey; Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), the filthy rich, wounded beauty; Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), the withholding newcomer; and Renata Klein (Laura Dern), the rule-abiding career woman. From its very first moments, the show announces itself as a referendum on the state of motherhood among the moneyed.
The premiere episode, which revolves around a school run gone amok, mostly belongs to Madeline, mom to 6-going-on-26-year-old Chloe, and chatterbox queen of Otter Bay Elementary School. Witherspoon can’t help but swan around Elle Woods–style: posture erect, head bobbing with each step, index finger poised to make a point, and doling out quips like “Isn’t there due process for a first-grader?” But if Elle was a shimmery sequin bikini and bouncy ponytail, Madeline is a smart floral shift and salon-perfect blonde tresses. She’s the kind of woman who, en route to orientation day for first grade, sinks her claws into a texting teenage driver and, in the following moment of righteous triumph, turns her stiletto-heightened ankle in the middle of the road.
There to rescue her is single mom Jane, the token Have Not among all these Haves. You know from the moment she steps out of her cloth-seated, sensible sedan to help Madeline that she’s entering a world far outside her own. Mom to shy Ziggy (“Like Stardust?” Madeline asks), Jane is new to Monterey and obviously carting around something dark and heavy from her past, a mystery that’s heightened by quick cuts to a night out in a blue party dress. Madeline takes Jane under her wing — she’s the Regina George to Jane’s Cady Heron — offering entrée into Otter Bay Elementary’s complex social web.
Celeste, the world’s most ineffective parent of twin terrors, completes their trifecta. She oozes fragility — an emotion Kidman ably displays with the slightest ticks and twitches of her porcelain face — and yet it’s easy to see why she’s the most envied mom at Otter Bay. Rich, elegant, and blessed with spot-on taste in interior design, Celeste’s beauty is meant to be so remarkable that within five minutes, two separate characters call her beautiful to her face. (It is just as awkward and unnecessary as it sounds.) She even makes a brown sweater look good! But from her first interaction with her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), a deeply uncomfortable sexual tussle that ends with him firmly groping her breasts, it’s obvious that something ugly is creeping around in Celeste’s psyche, and possibly her bedroom. Perry reads Edward Gorey’s Gashlycrumb Tinies to his children, for God’s sake.
Renata is set up as BLL’s villain, but the show wisely doesn’t cast its only professional mother as a cold, overworked gorgon with more passion for her MacBook than her child. Instead, Renata uses her career as armor while struggling to understand why, as she so bluntly explains to her husband, she’s just “not liked.” Also, Laura Dern is really, truly excellent in this role.
Interspersed throughout the episode are flashes forward in time to a school fundraiser gone horribly wrong. Someone, we know from minute one, is dead — though we don’t know who, we do know that his or her skull was smashed in. First there’s a swirl of police lights and the audible breath of an unidentified crime-scene witness. Glimpses into a press conference offer scattered details of the murder itself. Police-station interviews with a range of Otter Bay parents provide trenchant gossip that serves as sociological fodder for the viewer.
The murder is ostensibly meant to give the show momentum, but Big Little Lies is so compelling as an anthropological dissection of the mating and mothering rituals of the so-called “coastal elites” that it almost doesn’t need it. The episode’s central incident, in which Renata’s daughter Amabella is left with bruises on her neck at orientation day and fingers Jane’s Ziggy as the perpetrator, is compelling enough on its own. In a way, it’s a small-scale whodunnit, since Ziggy insists that he didn’t touch the girl — and we’re led to believe he’s telling the truth. But the adults’ outsize reactions turn a playground spat into a first step toward murder.
First, the teacher calls a huddle. In grating, psycho-developmentally friendly kiddie babble, she reminds the children that “friends don’t hurt each other.” She then orders the equivalent of a lineup, and after Amabella points toward Ziggy, foolishly allows the parents to begin running the show. Each mother staunchly defends her child, so what might have been easily dealt with in a private conference turns into Fort Sumter, with parents declaring allegiance on either side and Renata psychotically threatening Ziggy: “If you ever touch my little girl like that again, you’re gonna be in big trouble.” The adults fulminate about the trauma the victim and the accused will endure after the tumult, but it’s obvious that the first-graders are much more damaged by their parents’ behavior.
In turn, we see the mothers at home that night, with Madeline, Celeste, and Renata gazing out over their sweeping ocean views — and Jane pacing the dark driveway of her humble rancher before making up the pullout couch she sleeps on. Make no mistake, though: Big Little Lies is neither privilege porn, nor does it cast its protagonists as poor little rich moms, beset with angst about their place in the pecking order. Instead, it taps into what haunts each of these mothers when they’re no longer among the fray of the schoolyard. For Madeline, that’s the thought of her older daughter Abigail loving her father’s yogini of a new wife. (“She probably gives mint-flavored organic blow jobs,” she notes.) For Celeste, it’s the threat of a domestic passion that’s primed to go over the edge of a cliff. For Renata, it’s a variation on the eternal question of whether women can “have it all” and be liked. For Jane, it’s something sinister but still unrevealed.
In the next episode, we may find out who’s dead or who’s a suspect or who really strangled Amabella. But Big Little Lies does such a stellar job asking the questions that every parent wonders about — what does it mean to “successfully” mother? How much do our children need us? Who are we when our kids aren’t around? — that I’m hoping we don’t get answers anytime soon.