The following piece discusses theories for HBO’s Big Little Lies, and not the 2014 novel that inspired the series. Please don’t reveal book spoilers in the comments.
“At the center of it is Madeline Mackenzie,” a witness explains in the first episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies. “It’s possible if she wouldn’t have fallen, no one would have gotten killed.” The star-studded limited series kicks off with the murder of an unknown person at a swanky Monterey public-school trivia night. (Worst. Trivia. Night. Ever.) The cause of death? A fracture at the base of the skull and a broken pelvis. The murderer? Your guess is as good as ours.
All we know is that Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and the other main characters, Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) and Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), are somehow involved. We don’t know who was murdered, or who did the murdering, but like the town gossips who keep doling out clues, we’re happy to speculate. With the finale soon to arrive, Vulture has rounded up the most intriguing theories about what went down in Monterey that night, ranking them by plausibility from the most likely to outright silly. Grab a flinty California white and start guessing!
Editor’s note: We previously ran this post after Big Little Lies’ third episode and are rerunning it in advance of the finale. While our guesses remain the same, we’ve updated our theories with information from the intervening episodes.
Jane kills Perry.
If we’re going to take the quote about Madeline from the first episode literally, let’s look back at the exact moment when she fell and hurt her ankle: Who’s the first person to assist her? Jane. The two quickly strike up a close friendship, so much so that Jane confides to Madeline that Ziggy’s father raped her. We already know that Perry and Celeste have an abusive physical and sexual relationship, and we also know that Perry travels frequently for work, which means he disappears for days and weeks at a time. Jane hasn’t had a scene with Perry, nor have any photos of him come up in her conversations with Celeste and Madeline, and though Saxon Baker turns out not to be her rapist, we know from photos of him that he has a clean-cut corporate look like Perry. Perhaps Jane sees Perry for the first time at trivia night, immediately recognizes him as her rapist, confronts him, and, after getting into a physical altercation, kills him.
Madeline kills Perry.
Madeline might not seem powerful enough to break someone’s pelvis, but don’t undermine the hidden strength of this type-A badass. If it were revealed that Perry was, in fact, Jane’s rapist, it wouldn’t be out of the question for Madeline to go ballistic, defend her new friend, and attack Perry. Or similarly, what if she finds out that Perry abuses Celeste? Maybe she acts out in a violent moment, but things go too far — she strikes him over the head and he falls down a few flights of stairs, breaking his pelvis.
Celeste kills Perry.
Finally defending herself from Perry’s abuse, Celeste decides to seize back control of her life, leaving him and taking their children. She makes the decision to tell him at a public place, a.k.a. trivia night, but when Perry responds with violence, she has no choice but to fight back … which leads to his death.
Ed kills Nathan.
Maybe the women are a bunch of well-moisturized red herrings. In the second episode, we see a little of Ed’s threatening side as he talks with Madeline’s ex-husband, Nathan. What if that big dad beard is hiding a killer’s instinct? What if his lingering resentment about the fact that Madeline isn’t over her ex erupts at trivia night? The scene: Madeline watches Nathan flirt with Bonnie, Ed watches Madeline watch Nathan, Ed runs into Nathan, and then knocks him out with his bike shoes.
Madeline kills Renata.
As much as Big Little Lies hypes up the idea of these women getting into a big feud, the show seems far too canny to let things devolve into a mere cat fight. Instead, in what would be a more interesting conclusion, Renata and Madeline’s bickering quickly escalates at trivia night. In an off moment, caught up in the animosity swirling around Monterey, Madeline pushes Renata, and Renata falls backward — off a balcony? Over a cliff? Off the side of an infinity pool? — to her demise.
One (or both) of Celeste and Perry’s twins kill Amabella.
In non-murder theories, it’s possible that Ziggy wasn’t the culprit in Amabella’s classroom choking, but instead Celeste and Perry’s twins are behind the unfortunate ordeal. Maybe one of the boys saw Perry abusing Celeste in a similar manner, then decided to try out what he saw on Amabella. This would definitely be the most tragic of all outcomes.
Madeline kills Bonnie.
The push-and-pull between the two mothers has been heating up all season, with Madeline acting nasty and jealous toward Bonnie, especially whenever her daughter Abigail expresses her fondness for Bonnie’s cool, calm, and collected activist lifestyle. It’s clear Madeline hasn’t recovered from the shock of learning that Abigail wants to sell her virginity online. Any provocation from Bonnie could push her over the edge, and lead her to push Bonnie off a ledge.
The Otter Bay crossing guard kills Madeline …
Madeline Martha Mackenzie has been bickering with that crossing guard ever since she strutted into Otter Bay with a broken heel. Perhaps Madeline spends a little too long outside her Buick one morning, the line of cars builds up behind her, and the nice crossing guard gets fired for not managing school drop-off at a reasonable pace. He seeks revenge at trivia night, and at the right moment, screaming, “This is for not following the guidelines for school drop-off!” he strikes.
… or she kills him.
Let’s be real: No one gets the upper hand on Madeline. If the crossing guard attacks, she’ll bring him down with the best weapon she has: her heels.