Big Little Lies and the Secret World of Women (Some Spoilers)

In high school, I refused to watch the hit TV series The O.C. Based in the titular Orange County, the show follows streetwise teenager Ryan Atwood as he navigates a new life among rich teenagers who look like models.

My objection to the series was rooted somewhat in an attempt to identify by disassociating: I didn’t want to be the kind of kid that watched the show, though now I can’t say what kind of kid that was or what kind of kid I wanted to be instead. What I do remember is feeling certain that people who got that much sunlight could not possibly teach me anything meaningful about life.

In college, I binge-watched the show over an intense weekend in which I learned several things: you can’t judge a TV show by its square, all-white cast, Seth Cohen is the most perfect high school boyfriend anyone has ever had, and rich white people can have some very interesting interpersonal dramas.

I started watching Big Little Lies, the limited HBO series based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name, with some of the same trepidation, unsure that I would find anything relatable about a show that centers around rich California moms who look like models raising their kids in architectural marvels with ocean views. But, as with The O.C., seeing was believing.

The finale of Big Little Lies aired Sunday, concluding the single season storyline that has had viewers fixated on the murder at the center of its converging timelines—one that follows the multitude of main characters before the murder and another, after the murder, that presents brief snippets of minor character sharing their brief and often cruel assessments of the principals with the detectives investigating the murder. And while the mystery that propels the storyline is brilliantly crafted, at the heart of the series is a jarringly accurate portrayal of the fraught intimacies between women and the violence that girds their lives.

The main characters of the show, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Jane (Shailene Woodley), are all hiding something. As the mystery is revealed—who will be murdered, and who will be the killer—the women reveal their secrets to each other. Jane, a young single mother, reveals that her son’s father is a rapist whose identity is unknown to her. Madeline, a sympathetic sort of busy-body archetype, reveals an affair. Celeste, an attorney who has given up her practice to raise her twin sons, reveals that her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) is physically abusing her.

As I watched the show, I was struck by the fact that I know at least one woman who has kept each of these secrets—a rape, an indiscretion, or the violence of an intimate partner—and that, as with the characters, they did not fully admit the weight of those secrets to themselves until they were able to reveal them to someone else.

The show is textured with the kind of routine mini-dramas that populate everyday life: jealousy, exes, stepmoms, stepdads, rivalries, and bullying (of the juvenile and adult variety). Here, too, the show resonates, realistically depicting the insecurities that plague adult women. When Madeline describes her status as a non-career-mom mom to Jane, we know she is comparing herself to Renata (Laura Dern), CEO and textbook career-mom, even though she never mentions Renata. And when Renata tries to tell her husband how she is always risking being seen as neglecting her child by having a career, we know she is comparing herself to Madeline.

The most compelling storyline of the show is Celeste’s, whose relationship with her abusive husband is layered and complex, a disarray of love, passion, anger, and violence. The show does not caricaturize either of them, making the violence all the more gut wrenching. In a meeting with a therapist, Perry voices the insecurities that power his rage and his desire to control Celeste: ”she can have any man she wants...if she’s not happy with me, there’ll be a line of a thousand men, just waiting.”

The admission is horrifying, because it reveals something about the psyches of real abusive partners, the way their egos become wrapped up in their possession of another person. We see Celeste tip toe around that ego not just to protect herself, but because she feels like she should, because on some level Perry has convinced her that when he hits her, it's her fault. We see her struggle to admit to herself that Perry is actually abusive, not just because she doesn’t want to see herself as a victim, but because she wants to save the marriage. By the finale, you are more eager to find out Celeste’s fate than you are to find out the identities of the killer and his or her victim.

Big Little Lies is a murder mystery, but it is really about the secret worlds inside the women who make up its main characters. It is about the space between the truth and the things we tell other people and ourselves. And like The O.C., it has a fantastic soundtrack.

Public Filter

This column is informed by the belief that an honest and brave conversation about what it means to be a woman is vital to understanding what it means to be a human. Its scope is temporal but its ambition is to discern the essential. Above all, it seeks to connect Milk readers to each other and the world around them. Email Jennimaria with corrections, questions, comments, and suggestions at publicfiltermilk@gmail.com.

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