Spoilers ahead for Sunday night’s episode of Big Little Lies.
While Big Little Lies has been mostly well-received, the critics who don’t care for the HBO drama about parental politics in Monterey County have dinged the show based on a lot of the same perceived flaws. They find the Greek chorus of community commentators ridiculous and unnecessary (that one I get), and the amount of privilege the main characters enjoy off-putting (kind of get that also). Many of them, a fair number of whom are male, also use the same words to describe this series: trashy (that one comes up even in positive reviews), cliché, and soapy. Soapy, in particular, has been used a lot in connection with Big Little Lies. This bugs me, partly because I don’t think it’s accurate — BLL is grounded too much in reality, albeit a highly dramatic version of it, to truly feel like a soap opera — but also because it sounds so dismissive. There’s something about comparing a show that happens to focus on mothers to a genre historically aimed at housewives, and used as shorthand for TV we should not take seriously, that reeks of gender condescension.
Is there an escapist element to this show, and a certain pleasure that’s derived from watching Reese Witherspoon wage war with Laura Dern while wielding Disney’s Frozen on Ice as a weapon? Oh my God, yes. I would still find Big Little Lies enjoyable as hell if that’s all it was. But this show is more than just rich, helicopter-mom catfights. It goes deeper, and packs more of a wallop, precisely because of scenes like the one in Sunday’s episode, “Push Comes to Shove,” that takes place between Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline and Nicole Kidman’s Celeste.
The scene I refer to takes place in the front seat of Madeline’s car, after the two women have just left a meeting with the town’s mayor over the “controversial” production of Avenue Q. (“We can’t have puppets fucking in Monterey,” says the mayor in one of the many delicious lines this series ladles out, low-key, like it can dish soup this hot all day.)
During the meeting Renata (Dern), who spearheaded a petition drive to cancel the show, sucks up to the mayor, slyly reminds everyone present that she’s on the planning board, and suggests that the local theater should stage a nice, agreeable production, like The Sound of Music, instead. Meanwhile Madeline, fighting for “It Sucks to Be Me’s” right to be heard, sits there looking like a teakettle doing her damnedest to keep the steam from shooting out of her spout.
But Celeste, acting in a voluntary, pro-bono capacity as an attorney representing the production, is nothing but calm waters the entire time. She evenly suggests that Monterey is supposed to be progressive, and so are the mayor’s politics, and points out that shutting down a Tony Award–winning play could be perceived as an affront to free speech. “I don’t think we want to become synonymous with suppression,” she notes.
A victory for Madeline, and for Celeste, and for musical-theater puppet-fucking, is won in that room. Consequently, when Madeline and Celeste wind up in the car afterward, Madeline is all about fist-pumping celebration. “Stick that up your tight ass, bitch!” she shouts, her Renata steam finally pouring out. Then she tells Celeste she was brilliant in there.
But Celeste is not quite feeling unbridled joy, and we, the viewers, know why. Her abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), doesn’t want her going back to work, even in this minor, voluntary way that clearly brings Celeste satisfaction. Before that meeting, he watered the seed that so many mothers plant in their own minds: that simply by taking a seat at the conference-room table, they are shirking their responsibilities to their children. (By doing so, Celeste is also demonstrating that she can’t always be controlled by Perry. He knows that and so does she. When she says, “I don’t think we want to become synonymous with suppression,” she could just as easily be talking about herself as Monterey.)
“I feel so ashamed for saying this,” Celeste tells Madeline. “But being a mother is not enough for me. It’s just not. It’s not even close.” Madeline reassures her that she’s not alone in feeling as though she’s lost a part of herself to the rigors of full-time parenting and that it’s okay to want more, even shouting it to make her point clear. Because Madeline Martha McKenzie rarely makes a point without underlining, bolding, and italicizing it at the same time.
She also says she knows Celeste will wind up being to be a lawyer again: “I have never seen you like that. For four years, I’ve known you and — your face looked different. Your body changed.”
Throughout this exchange, Kidman’s face also looks different, and her body changes multiple times. She’s constantly tightening up her defenses, then fully surrendering, desperate to admit how vulnerable she feels but determined to maintain the facade that she’s a strong woman who isn’t routinely being demeaned. Everything Kidman does physically in this scene — the little whimpering noises she makes, the way shes closes her eyes and shuts in her tears like she’s holding her sadness hostage — rings so true that it’s painful. Reese Witherspoon may show up from minute one of this series with guns fully blazing. But Kidman’s the ninja assassin of Big Little Lies. Her performance sneaks up on you, and then it destroys you.
The subject matter of this conversation admittedly covers familiar territory. By now, we all know that parenthood is hard and that whether they’re full-time stay-at-home mothers or not, women tend to feel like they’re doing it wrong. I mean, we’ve all read Lean In, or at least a million think pieces about it.
And yet this moment, and the emotional terrain Big Little Lies explores in others, too, doesn’t feel cliché to me because this series is so considered, nuanced, and brilliantly acted. We’ve heard the basic melody in this scene before, just as we’ve heard the same kinds of melodies in comic-book stories or the 8 million time-travel shows currently on TV. But when Witherspoon and Kidman sing it, it sounds like a whole new song. That’s what great TV can do: take a narrative or experience we already know and elevate it.
It’s also rare to see actresses of this caliber, in a scene that passes the Bechdel test with flying colors, digging into a dialogue that reflects the way so many women wrestle with their identities. We may not all occupy the same income bracket that Celeste and Madeline do, or benefit from the same level of privilege. It’s fair to say that a majority of mothers in this country can’t afford to stay at home and indulge their maternal guilt while wearing yoga pants, drinking chardonnay, and staring out the window at the Pacific Ocean. But most of us are certainly acquainted with feeling perpetually conflicted and convinced that we’re not measuring up, to our own expectations, our family’s, or some real or imagined metric established by society. If anything, these feelings are not discussed enough, on TV or in life.
Big Little Lies may not run deep in every scene — nor should it — but its more emotional moments, like this scene or Celeste’s therapy visits, are deeply affecting in a way that a merely “soapy” or “trashy” series typically isn’t. Right now we can turn on our TVs on a Sunday night — or, alternately, fire up our HBO Go apps — and watch two Academy Award–winning actresses do nothing more complicated than sit in a car and talk about what makes it challenging to be female, and do so in a way that is riveting.
Isn’t that incredible? It’s the kind of thing that, as a viewer and TV critic, makes me want to pound on a car horn and declare, just as Madeline does: I want more of that.