Bonnie Carlson is a role tailor-made for Zoë Kravitz. The Big Little Lies character is pretty much the moneyed version of the Carefree Black Girl archetype come to life, a counterpoint to the vicious, hypercompetent mothers who define the Monterey, California–set show. The mini-series, which ended its seven-episode run on Sunday (but will remain in our hearts forever), has an immediately engaging premise. Written by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, the series builds toward a murder at a ritzy elementary-school fundraiser, in which the parents are decked out in their best Audrey Hepburn and Elvis costumes. The victim and killer aren’t revealed until the very end. But Big Little Lies isn’t interested in the particulars of a police investigation or poring over the gruesome details of a murder. What makes the series so powerful is how it mines the lives of the women in the community leading up to the crime — type-A Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon); Celeste (Nicole Kidman), whose porcelain-perfect veneer hides a marriage riddled with abuse; the power-driven, immensely successful professional Renata (Laura Dern); and a young single mother with a dark past who’s new to town, Jane (Shailene Woodley). A narrative like this, that hinges on the differing currencies women gain, and how they use this as leverage to navigate a world in which autonomy can feel fleeting, would of course have a character like Bonnie.
As the second wife to Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan, Bonnie is a pitch-perfect foil. She’s the second wife every woman dreads and pop culture has turned into a recognizable character type. But she isn’t just the hot, younger new wife that the other women treat with passing niceties, disdain, or indifference. She’s the only black woman of consequence in Big Little Lies, and the only woman of color the white leads are seen interacting with meaningfully. I expected that Bonnie would remain a beautiful but not wholly important plot device designed to get under Madeline’s skin and act as a reminder of one of the show’s central themes: how suffocating the expectation of perfection is on women. But in the finale, “You Get What You Need,” Bonnie is revealed to be crucial to the show’s resolution and the future of all the main characters. That Celeste’s husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), turns out to be the murder victim after his abuse becomes public didn’t necessarily surprise me. But that Bonnie ends up being the woman who pushes him to his death certainly did. If Bonnie were just an underwritten character who remained on the sidelines, that would be one thing. But knowing that she would kill Perry in the end should have galvanized the filmmakers to flesh out her character, in order to provide greater depth to the choices that led up to this moment.
On another show, a black woman as poorly defined as Bonnie would be disappointing, but not unexpected. Throughout the history of television, great series have been littered with examples of black women who are integral to plot dynamics but don’t seem to have lives of their own. This is true of everything from Mad Men to Buffy the Vampire Slayer. But on Big Little Lies — a series powered by its interest in juxtaposing the images women present to the world, the ones forced upon them, and who they are underneath — it feels more damning. Madeline may be an obsessive stay-at-home mom whose children are central to her life, but she also has had an affair in her recent past, struggles with having no life outside of her domestic sphere, and could probably use an anger-management class. Celeste may seem satisfied and privileged, but the image of happiness she projects hides a marriage darkened by abuse that leaves her bruised and broken. Renata struggles with how her decision to be a career-oriented woman has made her the object of scorn among others who sacrificed that side of their lives to tend to their families. Jane may seem like a young, aimless single mother, but she’s also grappling with how her child is the product of rape. Each of these characters comment in their own way on several important conversations currently happening about modern womanhood and the impossibility of having it all.
Bonnie, curiously, has no such distinctions. She’s an empathic young woman who interjects a bit of sexiness and mystery to the proceedings from episode one onward. It’s easy to feel more for Madeline because she’s easier to understand: It’s her perspective the audience is privy to. Who wouldn’t feel a mix of awe and jealousy in the presence of Bonnie when your own life is a mess? But let’s take a moment to look at things from Bonnie’s perspective. Bonnie is a black woman in her late-20s with a first-grade daughter of her own. She’s married to a man who is older and has a child from a previous marriage to a woman who has no qualms about displaying her venom. She tries to keep the peace, continue working, and raise her own child (who, like her mother, isn’t given a real narrative on the show). She’s been insulted, vomited on, disrespected, and treated as mere eye candy, instead of a human being with her own desires and tragedies. She’s doing all of this while navigating a predominantly white space. For a series this interested in dismantling the idea of “having it all,” that Bonnie only gets more perfect by the end by being the hero undercuts the message Big Little Lies tries to communicate: Perfection is impossible, and women’s interior lives should be recognized … unless you’re a black woman, apparently.
Bonnie’s role could easily have been used to depict the struggles of what it means to be a black woman constantly undermined in predominantly white spaces. She’s a symbol of the emotional labor black women are forced to grapple with, particularly in environments where they are one of the few minorities, a dynamic that exists in real life, too. (Take, for example, the recent election, and black women’s political engagement in fighting for others who often don’t fight for us.) Part of the missed opportunity here is also that Kravitz is such a lightning-bright presence, it’s hard not to be transfixed by her. Watching her study Perry and Celeste at Trivia Night, her face suddenly awash with an awareness of the abuse, is one of the best moments of the finale. This is a space Big Little Lies works well within: the quiet moments of painful realization women confront in trying to find their place in life. As Vallée himself said in a Vulture interview about the finale, “She was spectacular … This girl is so gifted.”
It’s worth noting that in adapting Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name into a mini-series, some noteworthy changes were made to Bonnie’s character. In the book she’s a white woman, and her decision to push Perry is given added emotional resonance because her father was abusive. In speaking with The Hollywood Reporter, director Jean-Marc Vallée explained why this crucial bit of backstory wasn’t included: “We had a line from the detective and it was too much explaining. We decided not even to shoot the line. It’s not about that. Whether or not she has been abused, she is going to push this motherf—er. He’s beating the shit out of four women. … To give it a reason and justify that because she was abused and had a thing against men, it’s not about that.” I feel that leaving out Bonnie’s own history with abuse undercuts this moment of the finale and would have been a good thing to delve into earlier, considering how well the series tackled it through Celeste’s life. From a narrative and thematic perspective, I understand why they didn’t raise it in the finale: One of the greatest aspects of the episode is that it argues for the importance of female friendship, after all. It needs to be these five women bound together and transcending this violence. But at the very least, after the decision was made to nix that backstory, Bonnie’s marriage, motherhood, or how she feels about the women around her should have been more developed in its stead.
Throughout the series, it’s hard to ignore how Bonnie is entirely defined by the way others view her. Take her big moment in episode three, “Living the Dream.” Renata is throwing a birthday party for her daughter, Amabella. The parents are having fun on the dance floor when Renata beckons for Bonnie to join. Bonnie is alluring and sexy in a way that is utterly effortless. While you don’t come to understand how she feels about moving through a space in which most of the people she interacts with are older and/or white, how they feel about her is clearly communicated through the show’s Greek chorus framing device. “She was hot,” one father exclaims. “A lot of the dads were staring,” one woman comments. “I saw … erections,” another whispers. This sequence reaffirms that the way people see Bonnie is more important than who she actually is. She’s a woman to be lusted after and scorned in equal measure. That the filmmakers neither realize nor critique the complex black body politics they have stepped into by putting Bonnie in this position undermines the truly important work the series is doing elsewhere by granting a voice to female characters — particularly Celeste, with her domestic violence story line — who are usually left as one-note caricatures in popular culture.
In the next episode, Madeline’s husband, Ed (Adam Scott), approaches Bonnie at the yoga class she teaches in order to discuss the particulars of a double-date dinner. After Ed extolls all the reasons Madeline has for being antagonistic, thanks to her divorce from Nathan, Bonnie says something that is even more curious in light of the finale: “You know we all have baggage, Ed.” If that’s true, whatever ails Bonnie is never even given a cursory mention. Ed counters, “It doesn’t help that you’re the seemingly perfect stepmom.” As far as we know though, Bonnie doesn’t just seem perfect, she is perfect. She’s a great cook, dancer, and as we discover in the finale, singer. She shoulders the impossible expectations of Madeline while trying to keep this mixed-family dynamic from descending into utter carnage. Any black woman can tell you these expectations aren’t surprising — black women are often forced to shoulder the weight that those around them can’t. By the finale, Bonnie also does what no one else was capable of or willing to do: She recognizes Perry’s abuse and stops him from hurting anyone else again. That Bonnie is endlessly heroic, empathetic, and kind to people who don’t give her the same consideration isn’t the problem I have with her characterization. I just wish we knew how she felt about it.
Bonnie ends the series much as she begins: She’s important not for who she is as a woman, but for what she represents to others. This doesn’t ruin Big Little Lies as a series. It is perhaps one of my favorite works of television to come out recently, a nearly perfect concoction of A-list talent, amazing acting, lush direction, and scintillating writing. But that Bonnie is never granted any interiority in a series that argues with great nuance about the importance of women’s perspectives is a reminder of how even the best pop culture fails to recognize the humanity of the very people who need to see their reflection most onscreen.