Spoilers for the Big Little Lies finale.
HBO’s Big Little Lies has created some sharply divided reactions. On one side, there’s a sense that it’s clichéd, a story about soapy, overblown problems and characters with an inability to see outside themselves and their unbelievably wealthy bubble. On the other, there’s praise for its focus on women and motherhood, on domesticity and the challenges of balancing self and family, and for the way it puts female friendships and discourses at the center of its story. If the finale had been part of the initial critical assessment of the show, it’s possible that the tenor of some of the critiques may have been different. Maybe not. But in addition to being a strong ending for the season, the Big Little Lies finale holds up a giant, marvelous, self-confident middle finger to the question of men underestimating the women of this show.
It’s most clear in the mechanics of how the mystery ends, and in the show’s final scene, as all of the female protagonists gather together on the beach to frolic in the surf with their children. After finally breaking with his smooth, impenetrable exterior in public, Perry lunges at his wife Celeste at the school fundraiser, beating her brutally in front of her friends. In the police interviews after the fact, we learn that none of the women claim to have any direct involvement in Perry’s death. He must have slipped and fallen down the stairs, they say. It was an accident. The detective doesn’t buy it, but she can’t crack them – they’ve circled the wagons.
The final sequence is told in fragmentary blinks, with silences where there would be dialogue and visual time speeding and slowing, reversing and replaying. In pieces, we the viewers can see everything (the aftermath, the event itself, the police interviews afterward, the initial lunge), but Big Little Lies simultaneously communicates that this knowledge is now secret. The women bow their heads together almost instantly, swearing that they’ll reveal nothing, and so the silence that plays over their interrogation scenes is truer than sound would be. They are now a wall, excluding everyone else from access to the real story of that event.
Even more potently, the last scene with Celeste, Madeleine, Jane, Bonnie, and Renata all chasing each other on the beach isn’t unhappy. They’re not overwhelmed by the burden of their secret. The trauma is not eating away at them. We get several close-up shots of their faces, and the implication is that they haven’t forgotten or dismissed what’s happened. They know. They glance at Bonnie, whose hands are responsible for actually shoving Perry down the stairs, and none of the expressions are accusing, or pitying, or traumatized. They acknowledge what’s happened, and that it’s hard for her to live with, and they support her. Their husbands are nowhere to be found.
The last shot is of them all together on the beach, framed through the surveilling lenses of the detective who still know they’re not telling the whole truth. We can see all the women and their children from a distance, and it’s like the supposedly poisonous, icily female, clique-y, whispering gossip circles we envisioned from the first episode of the show have been transformed. Now they look like a coven, and they’re not telling you anything.
It feels like a shift, as though after episodes of following these women as they gossip over wine and coffee and fret about things like party invitations, they finally come together over something real and meaningful. Except the particular genius of this finale is that it’s not a shift – it’s a reveal. Big Little Lies has been pointing at this truth all along, and cannily misdirecting our attention from the start. From the first episode, the detection and investigation structure has felt separate from the rest of the series. The police interviews, especially, felt like the cattiest, least grounded, soapiest pieces of overblown melodrama, full of smirking minor characters shooting one-liners about our protagonists. Earlier in the show’s run, I wrote about how disconnected the murder element felt from the real emotional trauma of the show: Celeste and Perry’s abusive marriage. The tone, the visual style, the rhythms — everything about those therapy scenes, and the violent abuse scenes that often wove through them, seemed like a world apart from the overblown melodrama of the murder frame. Perry’s cold violence was so visible that it looked like a red herring. He even admits it! He’s obviously the most likely candidate to be involved, and yet, his and Celeste’s story has felt like a world of its own, separate from the murder narrative.
This was the point, of course. It was always about the threat of a violent man against female agency and self-determination, even (and especially) when it was also about all of other the things that define these women’s lives – their children, their partners, their careers, their friendships. So the ending isn’t just a smart way of combining the threads the show’s been gathering all along, although it does that. It’s also a depiction of the women who, in the end, have to take care of the damn problem themselves. While Ed and Nathan are locked in an absurd battle over who can sing a better Elvis cover, and Gordon’s off issuing threats based on outdated and inaccurate information, the women are coming together to sort things out. They apologize to one another, and by the way, they stop Perry (who was also Jane’s rapist) from beating his wife to death.
It’s not really an indictment of the world around them, but watching these women dance around on the beach, needing only their children and each other, still feels like a strong closing statement. Mess with them, interfere, hurt or love them if you will, but in the end, they’ll take care of themselves. No men required. Or even particularly desired.