Big Little Lies has proven to be a truly compelling portrait of how suffocating the pursuit of perfection is for women. More than that, it’s one of the best shows currently on television, doing what few have in this age of Peak TV have with such consistency — entertaining with great storytelling and visual artistry and speaking meaningfully about the world we inhabit. I’m not sure what I’ll miss most about this seven-episode mini-series. The cast chemistry? The impeccable soundtrack? The clever direction? Nicole Kidman delivering one of her most profound performances in years? One thing is certain: Big Little Lies is never more fun than when Reese Witherspoon is onscreen as the foul-mouthed, perpetually angry full-time mom, Madeline Martha Mackenzie. In honor of the finale airing Sunday night, here’s a list dedicated to Monterey’s itty-bitty ball of rage’s best one-liners and moments.
“If I catch you driving and texting again I will find your mother and I will throw this at her.”
What an introduction! In the premiere of Big Little Lies, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is introduced getting out of her car after a teenager driving ahead of her nearly causes an accident and flips her off. The tense confrontation — with Madeline’s oldest daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) actually in the backseat of the teenager’s car — culminates with this pithy warning.
“Renata, Jane is not a nanny. She’s just young … like you used to be.”
This is a sharply refined insult that could have been easily lost since it’s such a busy scene, as Madeline shows Jane around Otter Bay school in the pilot. But it proves my theory that Madeline’s best lines occur when the high-powered, ultrasuccessful Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is the target.
“I am a lady and I’ve never said this to anybody in my entire life but I’m gonna say it to you: You can go fuck yourself on the head.”
The target this time is Joseph (Santiago Cabrera), the director of the community theatre version of Avenue Q Madeline is passionately involved in. It’s pretty much all she focuses on beyond her kids, grudges, and passionless marriage.
“I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”
This is the ne plus ultra of Madeline one-liners: biting honesty and anger, said with a smile.
Okay, this isn’t a one-liner. But I had to call attention to a moment in episode two after Madeline and Celeste realize that Nathan and Bonnie are at their yoga class. Madeline, of course, can’t help but whisper her annoyance to Celeste, much to the chagrin of the rest of the class. Once they get out, the teacher suggests she join a premenopausal yoga class, which provokes the kind of reaction you’d expect from Madeline: a smile on her face with two middle fingers in the air.
“What a cunt!”
Okay, this is a two-parter. After Madeline makes a disparaging mark about Renata when she’s walking away from interrupting her conversation with Celeste, she doubles down on the insult by exclaiming, “Why don’t you get fucked!”
“Get laid, bitch.”
This is a simple moment: Another parent honks at Madeline for holding up the drop-off line to talk to Jane (Shailene Woodley), proving it doesn’t take much to set Madeline off.
“I might have kissed him back. It was like a reflex you know somebody kisses you you kiss them back. I might have grabbed his ass. I don’t know, it all just happened so fast.”
Again, not a one-liner, but this may be my favorite lighthearted scene from the entire series, when the tension between Madeline and Joseph gets heated in an unexpected way. The best thing about this dialogue isn’t only Witherspoon’s delivery, but the editing that contradicts how she tries to frame what happened as something she didn’t enjoy.
“She’s a fake bitch!”
Who else would Madeline be talking about but Renata?
“I would have told him to go fuck himself. But I don’t talk like that.”
Now we get to one of the great Madeline one-liners from the upcoming finale. What makes Madeline more than just a figure trafficking in bitchy quotations and drama is that a lot of what makes her an engrossing character to watch also reveals the dissonance at the core of the character. She’s the kind of woman who stands on a moral high ground while conveniently forgetting she had an affair with Joseph last year, until she tries to rekindle things again. She leaves a monumental amount of collateral damage in her wake even when has good intentions. She curses with aplomb, and pretends that’s not her style. She’s a Type-A perfectionist overburdened by her drive to compete. In essence, she’s what all great characters turn out to be: a contradiction.
“Sometimes I’m just holding onto this idea of perfection so tight, something has to give.”
This isn’t a finely tuned insult or hilarious comeback, but this line, which Madeline says to Abigail in the finale, encapsulates what makes Big Little Lies such a powerful and engaging series. It’s pretty much the show’s thesis statement, beautifully delivered. This show isn’t just watchable for its real-estate extravagance, the aspirational wardrobes of its characters, and the pitch-perfect performances. Big Little Lies is at its best when charting the terrain of women’s lives with both sharp humor and poignant drama, something Madeline encapsulates all too well.