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Reese Witherspoon’s Performance on Big Little Lies Is the Best of Her Career

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture and Photo by HBO

Four minutes. That’s how long it takes for the first episode of Big Little Lies to show us Reese Witherspoon, as Monterey power mom Madeline Martha McKenzie, going ballistic.

The first of what will be many mini-explosions happens when Madeline is driving her younger daughter Chloe (Darby Camp) to school and slams on the brakes because the driver in front of her, a texting teen, has come to a sudden halt.

Madeline rolls down her window and yells at the driver, who responds with an extended middle finger. Now Madeline is incensed. She unbuckles her seatbelt and tells Chloe she’ll be right back, which, in this context, is the mom version of cracking knuckles and preparing to deliver a beatdown.

At which point Chloe, referring to the kids in the car, says what most viewers are probably thinking: “They’re dead.”

We know they’re about to be annihilated, too, because Reese Witherspoon is playing this role, and when Reese Witherspoon is infuriated, you’d best get the holy hell out of the way. We’ve seen her in type-A, intimidating Blondezilla mode before in Cruel Intentions, Vanity Fair, and to a softer but no less no-nonsense degree, as Elle Woods in the Legally Blonde movies. But of course, most memorably, we saw her in that mode as Tracy Flick in Alexander Payne’s 1999 comedy Election. That’s the context that comes to mind most immediately while watching this early scene in Big Little Lies. The kids in that car in front of Madeline, one of whom turns out to be her older daughter, are not just dead. They’re about to get Flicked.

It is impossible to watch Witherspoon delivering what is a career-best performance in Big Little Lies without being reminded of Tracy Flick. That point already has been made by numerous media outlets, including, among others, our friends at the Cut, the Washington Post, Decider, and Slate, where critic Willa Paskin wrote, “All of Witherspoon’s non–Tracy Flick roles have been in conversation with Tracy Flick, murmuring something like, ‘No, no, no, not you again, not yet’—until now.” Indeed, Big Little Lies shows us Witherspoon at the Flick-iest she’s been since, well, Flick. But what makes her work in this HBO series so excellent isn’t that she’s repeating herself; it’s that she gets to conjure memories of that hyperambitious student-council candidate while also revealing a depth and vulnerability in Madeline that Tracy never had. As Paskin put it in her review, she takes the Flick archetype and “makes her human.” As an actress, Witherspoon seizes the opportunity and uses it to say, “Remember what I did back then? Look how many more layers I can bring to it now.”

Madeline engages in a lot of aggressive Tracy Flick–esque behavior throughout Big Little Lies, starting with chastising that texting-while-driving teen (“If I catch you driving and texting again, I will find your mother and I will throw this at her,” she says before chucking the girl’s cell into the bowels of her BMW), but also trying to sabotage a child’s birthday party, shouting things like, “Why don’t you get fucked?” at her mom-rival Renata (Laura Dern), and shooting poison-dart glances at anyone who says something that rubs her the wrong way. One of the best of those poison darts is thrown in the second episode when, after chatting too much during a yoga class, an instructor asks Madeline afterward whether she’d prefer a session where the rules are more relaxed, like the “perimenopausal class.” The look Madeline throws at this woman is pure stone-cold Flick, as is the cadence in her frosty response: “That won’t be necessary. I won’t be coming back.”

This wife, mother of two, and crusader for justice for Avenue Q is what used to be referred to as a busybody: the kind of woman who’s up in everybody else’s business and sticking her pert nose into situations where it may not necessarily belong. She gets extremely fixated on things — “I love my grudges,” she says, “I tend to them like little pets” — and so does Tracy. But Tracy is primarily fixated on her own goals and making sure the world turns in a way that will benefit her. Which, despite temporary setbacks involving controversial poster destruction and discarded votes, it ultimately does.

Tracy Flick is a great character because she’s so precisely defined as a tightly wound ball of aggressive overachievement who will stop at nothing. She’s unforgettable because Witherspoon understands exactly how to physically manifest those qualities. Every time her nostrils flare or she bitterly refers to adults as “little babies,” her Midwest accent sounding more ruthless than friendly, you know exactly who Tracy is.

But that’s also all she is. Madeline McKenzie, on the other hand, is a character that is, to borrow a word Madeline uses to describe the Pacific Ocean, vast. She’s a determined PTA fireball, yes, but she’s also filled with vulnerabilities and doubts. What she may doubt more than anything is her purpose, which makes her, in a way, the adult polar opposite of Tracy Flick. Tracy understands precisely what her goals are and what she wants to achieve. The road ahead for Madeline is foggier.

In the most poignant scene in the first episode of Big Little Lies, Madeline admits to her older daughter, Abigail, that she’s sad because she can already see how quickly her daughters are growing up and away from her. Embedded in that confession is a question that every mother wrestles with, but especially those who, like Madeline, focus their energies on kids over career: What am I going to do when these kids are grown and gone? Who am I if I’m not Mom?

After Abigail reassures her that Madeline will always be her mother, no matter what, Madeline starts sobbing. I have watched this scene three times and the way Witherspoon’s face suddenly shatters completely destroys me each time. It’s heartbreaking to see someone suffering; it’s even more heartbreaking when you know that, as soon as she can, that person is just going to paint a few coats over her emotions and pretend they aren’t there. That’s what Witherspoon does over and over again in this show. Peel and chip away, then add more primer and another color.

Tracy Flick thinks she deserves to be class president. Madeline Mackenzie thinks she’s entitled to fix the problems of anyone who enters her sphere — unless she doesn’t like the person in her sphere, in which case she may feel entitled to create problems. But unlike Tracy, Madeline can be warm and maternal and generous. As later episodes will reveal, she also knows something about shame and regret. Like Reese Witherspoon, Madeline has lived a life, whereas Tracy, and the younger Witherspoon who played her, were only just starting to do that.

Aside from the mere fact that, at 40, she’s producing and starring in a prestige HBO drama, Witherspoon’s performance on Big Little Lies is a testament to how valuable age and experience are to a role and to a whole career. It’s common sense: The older you get, the more knowledge of craft and collected personal episodes can be drawn from to shape a character. Yet historically, Hollywood has often cut off opportunities for actresses once they reach the age of 40, which is precisely the time when they have the capacity to do work that’s more multilayered and interesting.

Witherspoon’s work in Big Little Lies feels almost like a lifetime-achievement-level performance, not because she’s in the twilight of her career — far from it — but because it’s such a concrete demonstration of what can be achieved with maturity and how that maturity can have an even greater impact on an audience. Almost 20 years ago, she confirmed her talent by playing a determined high schooler who, in her teens, already knew exactly who she was. As Madeline, Witherspoon brings to life a woman with similar grit and venom, but one who’s also still trying to figure out who she is. It’s gratifying to watch her do this because, in a way, we’ve all watched Reese Witherspoon grow up. But it’s all the more extraordinary because it confirms that Witherspoon, or Madeline, or any woman around the same age, hasn’t just grown up. She, and they, are still growing.

Reese Witherspoon Is at Her Best on Big Little Lies