Big Little Lies
So many apologies to Chekhov. Nobody drove off the bridge. That gun in the title sequence never fired (or reappeared this season). Mary Louise’s cross necklace didn’t choke her, and Jane’s bangs didn’t become sentient and take over the breezy, salty, dreamy little slice of Central California. In short, Big Little Lies wrapped up (its producers say season two will be its last, though who can ever really tell these days) without any drama more explosive than a demolished train set — and maybe some forthcoming jail time for the justice-obstructing, man-killing Monterey Five. Maybe in lieu of a third season we can look forward to a spinoff where Renata empowers fellow prisoners with scream therapy?
The showdown between Kidman and Streep — I’m sorry, I mean Celeste and Mary Louise — dominated this finale, as we expected it might. You can’t bring in the heaviest hitter of all time and not hand her the show and just let her prosthetic teeth do what they will. And of course there was some brilliant acting on both sides, with Kidman pulling out all the tricks to do demure and steely, and Streep’s eyes flitting around so wildly they were liable to suddenly leap out of her head and start a conga line across the witness box.
But holy hell, this was a spick-and-span little ending, a very chic and secretly expensive bow wrapped around a story that once hammered away at women’s exploitation and ended with lots of women paying dearly for the crimes and failings of the men around them. Except Madeline — she just had a Joanna Gaines goes to Coachella–inspired vow renewal.
Neither Celeste’s nor Mary Louise’s attorney has a lot of confidence going into the third day of this incredibly long and outfit-change-y hearing (so many silk scarves). Celeste will surely buckle under the pressure, her useless but probably rich lawyer thinks. And Mary Louise’s lawyer (played by the criminally underutilized Dennis O’Hare) just knows that an infuriated woman has the ability to legally ream out her mother-in-law, something every little girl dreams of.
But Celeste — conveniently — has two secret weapons. And so she proceeds through her questioning, first (for some reason) allowing Mary Louise to reiterate all her faults with what used to be the question of the series, “Am I a bad mother?” Perhaps this was just a tactic to make Mary Louise feel secure in her smug smugness, because Celeste then lays down the hammer, bringing up her mother-in-law’s own fitness as a parent and finally tossing out “this woman has killed a child in her care.” The long-hinted-at dead brother Raymond was, we learn, killed in an accident while Mary Louise drove the car.
The exchange between the two women is, bar Laura Dern’s star turn as Babe Ruth, the most riveting moment of this finale, as Mary Louise crumbles under Celeste’s questions, feeling the heat of scrutiny that she had forced Celeste to endure. What’s most intriguing about the scenario, however, is whether we believe that what Perry told Celeste — that his mother blamed him for the accident, that she told him he’d caused it, that his bad behavior had distracted her and killed his brother — is true. Is Mary Louise sobbing and calling Celeste a liar because she never, in fact, said those things, and her son (a notable rapist, abuser, and fabricator) embellished those tales to win his wife’s affection or explain away his own rage? Or does she really fail to see herself clearly enough to know that her impatience indirectly killed one child and her own cruelties may have turned the other one into a monster?
Regardless, that video of Perry beating Celeste, discovered LOOKEE HERE the night before, is at once emotional sulfur and a lame narrative trick. Really? Suddenly a video appears that shows everyone, clear as day, that Perry really did beat the crap out of her? Celeste had to have goddam proof that her husband ripped out her hair and bashed her head in and overran her life with fear and anxiety and pain? Are we still there, in the ages where without a tape and an eyewitness and the blood still oozing from someone’s eye we can just claim that she has her facts mixed up? (Alas, recent events — see: E. Jean Carroll — make it seem as if we are.)
There’s a brief moment after Mary Louise shows up at Celeste’s door where it seems things might veer off in an unexpected direction — will she turn violent herself? But nothing comes of it, and then, again, the women are given a chance to speak. (This judge has the patience of St. Maria Goretti — a 12-year-old girl who was nearly raped and then stabbed 14 times by her neighbor but still forgave him on her deathbed, and a very intriguing case study in how we perceive “goodness” in women, btw.) Mary Louise seems to think that accusing a woman of being “complicit” in her own abuse is a good look and will persuade the judge. Celeste points out, rightly, “I have protected them against the most formidable of odds. I kept them alive, I kept myself alive.” And of course, Celeste wins her kids and is big enough to send them over to hug their Machiavellian grandmama who belongs in Flowers in the Attic (and for whom, I must say, I truly felt a bit of sympathy at show’s end).
Madeline and Ed’s infidelity debacle has been one of the weaker links of both seasons. When Madeline isn’t nosing into other people’s business, it isn’t clear the show has any idea what to do with her. On yet another little detour, there’s a hot minute where it seems like things are going badly between the two, and Ed might be about to leave her. But surprise! He wants a vow renewal, and apparently he wants it right away, because in just a few hours (while also attending her best friend’s dramatic custody hearing and maybe still selling some real estate) she ties together two logs and raids a wildflower farm to design a ceremony so Free People it’s hard to believe Bonnie didn’t wander in.
And so Madeline ends up happy, which is … nice, I suppose.
Jane, too, didn’t have much to do this season besides undergo a horrific character attack by her rapist’s mother (oh, and keep her kid home from school apparently every day this semester). She’s essentially passed over for almost the entire episode, with the exception of the most mature and unlikely conversation any single mother has ever had with her second-grader (“I want you to be with him”) and eventually, her Carrie Bradshaw–style–bra–on sex scene with Corey.
And so Jane, too, ends up happy, which really is nice because that girl has been through shit.
Bonnie, on the other hand, is still fantasizing about suffocating her mother when this episode opens, and things only get worse from there. By the looks of her — missing her Stevie Nicksian beads and fringe and generally swoopy, drapey, bojangle-y clothes — she’s unraveling at a faster and faster rate, with the already heavy weight of her guilt compounded by her mother’s illness and the complete convergence of all her trauma. And yet that taunt, that Bonnie would finally smother her once-abusive mother with that damn pillow already, doesn’t come to pass, and again the show tries to fake us out, sending her father back in the room at exactly the moment we assume she will be cutting off her mom’s oxygen supply — but they’re just cuddling. Was the show too chicken for Bonnie to ease her mother into death? Apparently, in an effort to keep viewers guessing until the very end, Big Little Lies decided to reduce every emotionally resonant story line they’d developed over two seasons into a game of narrative Whack-a-Mole.
There are a few more added loops — the mother wakes up! Then has another stroke! Then finally, we might assume, is taken off her ventilator and dies — before one of the only bombshells of the night, with Bonnie telling Nathan she’s never been in love with him WHILE PACKING UP HER DEAD MOTHER’S ROOM. She is either a glutton for punishment or has the emotional stamina of a cheated-on Kardashian.
(Side note that the Nathan of Liane Moriarty’s novel is far more nefarious than James Tupper’s version — he cruelly left Madeline with no money — and that this comeuppance would feel far more satisfying if those details had been included. Turns out he’s just a nutfuck, or a snidefuck. Some kind of fuck.)
Renata, a walking motivational feminist speaker who swooped in this season and made all our GIF dreams come true, has two standout moments this episode. First, in Starbucks (oh how the mighty have fallen), ordering her Americano and uttering the sentence we’ve all muttered under out breath, “Do I have to come back there and make it myself?” when she bumps into Mary Louise. Renata runs out of steam railing against Mary Louise and resorts to calling her a “judgey judger,” but who among us hasn’t started off strong on a curse-out and then limped around third base with a half-cocked insult?
(The true winner of that exchange is actually Mary Louise, who hilariously and quietly tells the barista to put Renata’s milk-free Americano in her bag since “we’re going to the same place.”)
But then, whoooooa boy.
Renata, who is so fabulous she doesn’t even need to close her own front door, notices the distinctive sound of a train whistle echoing through the empty Klein palais. Lo and behold, her nanny-screwing financial blunderbuss of a husband is kicked back in his train room, engines chugging and wheels rolling, as he glories in the fact that, of all the things, he gets to keep his goddamn $410,000 train set. And so Renata gets the scene of all scenes, ripping a bat down from the wall, smacking Gordon in the gut with it and demolishing every last dumb bit of those little metal bits that just ride around in circles, ad infinitum. And she does it all in a fire-engine-red jumpsuit. “Maybe you should have shown a woman a little respect” should be the show’s tagline, but instead it’s the text for my first-ever tattoo.
Everyone, it seems, is having their happy ending. Jane is finally having good sex with a decent guy who only slightly acts like an overexcited puppy when they’re together. Celeste is snuggled up with her boys, free of those prim court skirt suits and blissfully lounging in what must have been a thousand-dollar Zimmerman floral dress — she even deletes her files of Perry. Renata is hugging Amabella, finally offering words of support instead of more anxiety. Madeline and Ed are swaying in their living room.
And then Bonnie decides to turn herself in. And text all her friends, leaving them precisely the perfect amount of time to suddenly find child care, jump out of bed in the middle of some crucial, healing sex, take off the wildflower crown, and dart down to the police station at some ungodly hour. They could have calmly proceeded down there the next morning when everyone had showered and thrown on some comfy sweats, but oh no, these women need to show up and bug the overnight shift.
Yes, turning herself in may alleviate some of Bonnie’s guilt. (In the book, it should be noted, she turns herself in and is given a lenient sentence of community service in part because of her past as a victim.) But is this the ending anyone wanted? For them to vaguely wander into the Carmel-by-the-Sea police station? For a story about five women, all victimized by men, all of whom couldn’t find relief via traditional legal and social methods, to turn themselves in because one rotten rapist and abuser had gone over the edge? Are we meant to believe that this is what resolution would look like for them?
If Bonnie turns herself in, she turns them all in for obstructing justice, if not worse — a fact the women themselves recognized last episode. The court system isn’t going to offer them some Zen relief for unbearable rich-people urges. In its final moments, Big Little Lies morphs into the procedural drama it never wanted to be, offering confession as the ultimate act of an evolved psyche.