Big Little Lies
It had to be Perry. Big Little Lies might be “prestige TV,” and it might have sent its viewers on a seven-hour quest to discover the who, what, and why of the Monterey murder mystery, but ultimately, it isn’t trying to Ned Stark us. The series did plenty — and did it exceptionally well — without needlessly murdering an undeserving character just to generate some think-piece fodder. So after showing Perry routinely punch, strangle, and humiliate Celeste in one of the most heartbreakingly realistic depictions of the isolating brutality of domestic violence, this HBO series did the unpredictable predictable thing. It killed its villain, sending him rolling to an ugly death at the bottom of some concrete steps, at the hands of a horde of furious women. If I didn’t know better I’d say that Big Little Lies sensed what’s in the air across America right now and offered Perry up as the effigy our country’s disenchanted women desperately want to burn.
The episode opens like a horror movie. The camera slowly zooms in on an air-conditioning vent, from which groans and gasps are just audible. Someone at the other end of that vent is in pain. And someone at this end of the vent can hear that pain.
Celeste is crying on the floor of the bathroom, curled up in a heap in the aftermath of yet another beating at Perry’s hands. He rasps that she isn’t hurt that badly, that she’s just had the wind knocked out of her, that she should get up. The two have been finding some solace in the misguided thought that their fighting leads to “lovemaking,” as Celeste explained in an earlier episode to their therapist. But now there is no sign of love being made. His unbridled explosions can’t be explained away as “volatility” based in an excess of “passion.” Instead, in perhaps the show’s saddest moment, Celeste reflexively shields her head in her hands when she sees Perry returning to the room. She is cowering in fear of her own husband, exposed in her flimsy bra and panties, and any balance of power that once existed has now jerked off-kilter.
In a moment that must have had women around the globe rocketing their fists into the air while simultaneously panicking in sympathy, Celeste barges into her therapist’s office to deliver the news the good doctor has been hoping to hear. She’s secured an apartment and will leave Perry once he flies out the next morning on a business trip. In a Gossip Girl–worthy narrative maneuver, Celeste explains that the only thing they need to get through before she leaves is a gala, i.e., Trivia Night. “It’s one thing he should kill you,” the therapist responds, “but God forbid you miss a party.” Goddamn do I want this therapist to open a real practice.
Later that day, Celeste moves through the now-half-furnished apartment, stocking the fridge and neatly arranging beds in preparation. A lot of attention has been paid to the socioeconomic privilege that oozes through Big Little Lies. Both Celeste and Renata aren’t merely well-to-do, they’re members of the Über-rich, the one percent of the one percent perhaps, capable of buying designer suits for impromptu meetings with Monterey’s mayor. (In fact, in the novel Celeste assuages her guilt at staying in her abusive relationship by donating hundreds of thousands of dollars in one day to charitable organizations.) Madeline’s wealth isn’t as vast, but she owns oceanfront property, so there’s no need to fear for her checking account. Jane may be a single mother with a shaky job, but she still lives comfortably. Bonnie, who is also the only primary character of color, is the sort of hippie whose beaded bracelets are made of semiprecious stones and whose yoga attire costs upwards of $200 a crop top. And then there’re all those wistful seaside glances that only the nanny-employing classes have time for.
But Celeste is in the apartment alone, cleaning without the help of a service, putting together Ikea furniture like a mere mortal. Her loafers may be Prada but her new attitude is Payless. There’s even a box of what look suspiciously like Bed, Bath & Beyond wineglasses on the counter. Of course, we needn’t celebrate the goddess coming down from the mountaintop to toil with the rest of us. But cinematically the choice is notable. Because at the same moment she is flashing back to Perry throwing her over a beautifully upholstered chair, choking her up against a wall in their multi-million-dollar home, and following her into their marble-clad bathroom to slug her in the stomach. It’s still not relatable to us, but it’s metamorphic for Celeste.
Celeste sits on the apartment couch and falls to tears. And she reminds us of an important, often overlooked aspect of domestic violence. Fleeing a violent partner may save your life and the lives of your children, but it’s also a heartbreak no less soul-hollowing than a partner’s death or divorce. To conclude that a marriage can’t be saved, that the person you chose to be with forever is irredeemably cruel, that you thought you had a life partner but you’re now alone — what a heavy weight.
Meanwhile, Jane caresses out of Ziggy an admission, albeit a silent one, of the Otter Bay Kinder Bully’s identity. He’d been keeping it a secret, he explains, because Amabella said if she told “she might get killed dead.” Pulling up a class photo, Ziggy points to one of the twins (Max, it turns out, not that it matters which one since both twins have the personality of cardboard boxes). So it was Celeste’s little boy who strangled a little girl, who bit her, who threw another girl down the stairs.
Taking Madeline’s advice, Jane deals Celeste the blow that it’s Max hurting Amabella. To Celeste’s credit, she doesn’t lash out at Jane. When Jane points out that violence could be in Ziggy’s DNA, considering who his father is, Celeste visibly recoils, recognizing that instead it’s her son’s DNA that’s tainted by evil. Max has been hurting shy, quiet little girls. His father has been hurting a woman who has let herself be silenced. Max, it turns out, has been on the other end of that vent we saw in the opening moments. If she weren’t already determined to remove her children from Perry’s toxic reach, the revelation that their father’s cruelty is contagious would have done it.
But before she can sneak away to a safer life, her plan is revealed to Perry by a message from the apartment’s property manager. While he plays it cool in front of their boys, Celeste moves toward the car like a prisoner walking the green mile.
I’ve said it week after week, but this might be one of the best roles of Kidman’s career. Her grace and subtlety keeps the role from feeling exploitative. And while nudity certainly isn’t necessary to connote defenselessness, it’s worth noting that she’s the only actress in the series who is stripped down in front of the camera. Scenes like Perry’s invasion of her shower show how her classically beautiful figure isn’t exposed simply for titillation. It’s a blank canvas, vulnerable to whatever fresh cruelties Perry chooses to inflict on it.
When Perry zooms past the entrance to Trivia Night, it seems entirely possible that he might kill Celeste in a rage over her admission that she’s leaving him. Of course, with the series barreling toward its end, and therefore toward its big reveal, red herrings are popping up left and right. Various duos are presented as the possible murderer-victim the same way that potential couples are tossed about in a Jane Austen novel. Nathan and Ed break into a near fistfight. Joseph threatens Madeline. Gordon threatens Jane. More and more, TV has been edging away from providing justice for its characters: Villains don’t just escape, they prosper. And good guys … well, good guys just try to get married and end up a pile of bloody flesh on the hall floor along with their entire family and pregnant new wife. Until the very end, it remains unclear — even to those who read the novel and could have predicted the ending — where Big Little Lies will come down.
Perry tries baiting Celeste by reminding her that they’re a family. But their family is the exact reason she wants out. Meanwhile, throughout the episode Madeline has frayed more and more. After she sees Joseph’s wife lurking outside her house and confronting him, he puts her on edge by hinting he may reveal the secret of their affair at Trivia Night. Ed sees the looks passing between Tori and Madeline. He senses, perhaps even outright knows, about the affair. As the night progresses and their eyes dart toward and away from one another across the terrace, Madeline’s guilt piles up until the sweetness in Ed’s voice as he sings is too much for her. She runs off, setting the wheels in motion for Perry’s fatal tumble.
And here’s where the episode turns into delightful chaos.
As a reader of the novel, I’d felt pretty damn good as the series went on. It had remained mostly faithful to the text, with only a few ill-advised additions (like Madeline’s affair). Better yet, the series had taken a soapy page-turner and built it into a vibrant, uncomfortably real world. So as the series hurtled toward its end I feared that a sudden hyperfocus on the bloodshed would whack the rest of the story line off course. Instead, the lines converged into a disastrous moment that suddenly felt inevitable and necessary.
Everything barrels forward. Celeste pulls Renata aside to explain to her that it’s Max who has been bullying Amabella all along. Perry assumes she’s blabbing about the dark heart of their marriage. Bonnie spies Perry yanking on Celeste’s arm and Celeste then rushing off to borrow a phone, which she uses to call the sitter, asking her to bring the boys to the new apartment. As a drunk Madeline confesses her affair to Jane, Renata strides over to apologize for her mistreatment of Ziggy. Then Celeste arrives. And as Bonnie follows Perry toward the group of women, it quickly becomes apparent that the moment is about to explode.
The final ten minutes of the episode are almost entirely devoid of dialogue. Perry joins the group, demanding that Celeste leave with him, and then the world goes silent as Jane sees in Perry’s face the man who raped her, the man who unknowingly fathered her child. Admittedly, it wasn’t much of a surprise, even for those who didn’t read the book; so many commenters and theorists had listed this as likely that Ladbrokes’ was probably taking bets on the matter. But stripping out any verbal reaction did render it cleaner and more emotionally honest. A lesser group of actors might not have been able to carry it off, but with the exception of Shailene Woodley’s overenthusiastic electroshock jolt, the recognition that moves from face to face works beautifully.
When time flashes forward, we see Perry’s body splayed out on the steps below, a piece of metal impaling his throat in a bit of poetic justice for the man so fond of wrapping his fingers around his wife’s throat. And then we see the aftermath: Celeste gazing blankly as EMTs attend to her, the women’s muted interviews at the police station, and glimpses of Perry’s funeral.
The scene of the women and children happily picnicking in the aftermath of Perry’s death felt a little too neat — it was too easy the way the five women melded together into a tribe. For a series that so keenly explored the inconveniently nonlinear emotions that come along with marriage and motherhood and tragedy, the image of the children happily frolicking and mothers leaning on one another lovingly — while draped in Eileen Fisher knits — too aggressively endorsed the notion that females will bond merely because they are female. Now that that pesky domestic abuser is out of the way, it seemed to say, our Themiscryan paradise can thrive.
But Perry’s death, and the mad cacophony of limbs and contorted faces that accompany it, is an exercise in the power of femininity. Not because a group of women band together like a coven of witches to murder a man who is hurting one of their own. But because of the tenacity and courage etched across each of their faces. The instinct to protect one another, to force Perry’s filth to the light, turns the women into an incarnation of the many-armed Hindu goddess Kali, who holds a different weapon in each hand and bestows liberation on the deserving. They are, quite literally, a group of women fighting together to take down the patriarchy.
And then, from nowhere, Bonnie. It’s no accident that Bonnie sends Perry hurtling down the stairs. Her push is forceful and purposeful. The novel lent some backstory to Bonnie’s role: She was abused in her youth and the sight of a man hurting a woman sets her off. But here it isn’t needed or even wanted. She pushes Perry down the steps because it needed to be done. Because he wasn’t going to stop. Ever.
Earlier in the episode, after Gordon threatened Jane with a restraining order, Renata offered the series’ most straightforward assessment of just what he — hell, all men — doesn’t understand about women. “I’m the one who’s going to get vilified,” she explains. “Why would you get vilified?” Gordon asks, like the total man that he is. “Because I’m a working mom, I’ve told you,” she answers. “Worse, a CEO, which deems me a bitch. You have no idea. If I get shot in the head tonight half these moms are gonna say ‘She couldn’t bother herself to duck?’, ‘What, she couldn’t get the nanny to stop the bullet?’”
Did we need another reminder that other women are our worst enemies and our greatest assets? Not necessarily. But what we did need — and what we got — was an unvarnished exploration of the multitudinous ways to be a woman. A series that shattered the Bechdel test. Not a celebration of women, but simply a thoughtful recognition of them.
The series’ final scene is a look through binoculars, as someone — perhaps the detective who is unconvinced that Perry’s death was due to a fall — peers at the women as they move down the beach. Are we being primed for another season? I hope not. You know what the enemy of good is.