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Let’s Talk About the Ending of Big Little Lies

Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon in the Big Little Lies finale.

This should go without saying, but: This piece contains major spoilers about the finale and ending of Big Little Lies. If you haven’t watched yet, turn the car around and drive in the other direction along the Northern California coast until you’ve watched episode seven, at which point we encourage you to return.

If you read the book Big Little Lies, then what happens in the final moments of the HBO adaptation did not surprise you. Even if you didn’t read the book (for the record, I did not), you still may have found it pretty obvious to learn that the man who raped Jane (Shailene Woodley) and the person who ultimately dies at that school fundraiser are the same person: Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård), the abusive husband of Celeste (Nicole Kidman).

Because of course it’s Perry. Once the finale reveals that Max, one of Celeste and Perry’s twins, was actually the one who choked Amabella, the narrative finger points pretty clearly at the idea that Perry is responsible for inflicting pain on both Jane and Celeste. (“Violence could be in his DNA, given who his Dad is,” Jane says at one point, causing Celeste to physically jump.) And given the volatility of the relationship between Celeste and her husband, it’s inevitable that the whole situation will boil over in some hideous, violent, and public way.

Even though none of that is surprising — I’ll get to the Bonnie part of all this in a minute — the Big Little Lies finale is still an enormously satisfying hour of television. My enjoyment of this series was never driven by figuring out who died and by whose hand; I had no expectation that there would be some phenomenal “didn’t see that coming” type of twist. The murder serves mostly as a convenient narrative device that draws the audience into the story, then allows us to soak up the thorny dynamics between these fascinating women, who happen to be played by dynamite actors relishing putting on a weekly fireworks display. That said, the finale is so well-executed that it actually made me more anxious than ever to find out what happened during that explosive confrontation at the Audrey & Elvis party. Writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée turn up the dial on the tension with such careful deliberateness that it’s impossible to feel any way other than on edge while watching.

With everyone dressed in various incarnations of two pop-cultural icons and all those retro ballads oozing sonic honey on the soundtrack, the flow of the whole fundraiser sequence has a dreamy yet ominous quality that is impossible to turn away from. Plus: so many red herrings! Given the looks that Joseph’s wife constantly throws at Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), it’s easy to think that maybe a brawl will break out between them. But then Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper) and current spouse Ed (Adam Scott) get into a pushing match and you think: Hmmm, maybe Ed’s going to finally lose it and crack Nathan’s skull. Earlier in the episode while getting ready for the event, Renata (Laura Dern) makes this extremely pointed comment: “I’m a working mom. Worse, a CEO, which deems me a bitch. If I get shot in the head tonight, half these moms are going to say, ‘What, she couldn’t bother herself to duck?’” Will Renata be the one who gets shot? (Based solely on this line, I was doubtful. I was also too busy cackling to give it much credence, because man, that piece of dialogue is just delicious.)

Ultimately all the allusions to guns, even the finger pistol Gordon points at poor Tom, who will probably never leave the coffee shop again after all the shit that went down on Elvis & Audrey Night, turn out to be the biggest red herring of all. Because there are no firearms involved in what happens to Perry.

The most deft shift the finale pulls off is the way it leads us to believe, initially, that Celeste must have killed Perry, then, with the jolt of Jane’s realization that Perry raped her (I love how both Woodley and Kidman physically jump at two different Perry-related moments), turns our attention to “Janie who’s probably got a gun.” But then the finale says: Nope. Someone else did this. And it was Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz).

As Perry openly beats and kicks his wife and three women — Jane, Madeline, and Renata, a flock of do-gooding Audreys — try to stop him, it’s Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), the woman most alienated from that flock, who flies in to do the shoving, sending Perry down a flight of steps well past the yellow tape that reads “Caution.”

The gang of five females evidently decides to insist it was an accident, which, in a way, it was. We don’t hear what all of them are saying when they’re interrogated by police, but we do hear from the female investigator who is not buying any of it. “I’m so sick of these lies,” she says. Her partner points out that even if Perry didn’t slip on his own and fell because Celeste pushed him, what’s the difference? It’s still self-defense and it’s not her fault. “That’s what’s bugging me,” she says. “Why lie?”

Big Little Lies doesn’t make a production out of the idea that it’s the female investigator, not the male one, who is most skeptical of these other women. It lets that truth sit there, as we see the five principals at Perry’s funeral and, later, playing with their kids on the beach. Meanwhile, that female cop keeps on watching these women from afar, through binoculars, thinking, as the final shot implies, something about this doesn’t add up.

The note that Big Little Lies ends on simultaneously says that when a woman is genuinely bugged about something, there’s no way she can let it go. But it also speaks to the fierce way that women rally around each other in a crisis and push petty rivalries to the side for the sake of each other and their children. It turns out Renata was wrong; if she had gotten shot in the head on that fateful night, the members of the Hepburn army wouldn’t have asked why she couldn’t bother herself to duck. Some, maybe even all of them might have tried to take the bullet for her.

Big Little Lies Finale: Let’s Talk About the Ending