The climactic event of the “Big Little Lies” finale (April 2) is the long-foreshadowed “Elvis & Audrey” fundraiser party. An event of this nature is often used in television as a way to throw your cast together — see the perennial festivals, brunches, award galas and dances held on shows from “Empire” to “The Vampire Diairies” to “Pretty Little Liars,” and of course on a weekly basis in “Gossip Girl” and “The O.C.”
The difference here is that we knew from the start of the first episode that someone was going to die at this party, and that very knowledge tilts the room full of costumed adults from lighthearted to ominous, never moreso that in a sequence of Celeste (Nicole Kidman), unable to identify anyone she knows — or the one man she’s trying to run from — in a throng of people in brunette wigs.
But the theme of the event itself helps support the show’s strongest thesis: That it doesn’t take much digging to discover everyone has a secret, and that only in facing and sharing these can we move forward. It’s the sort of truism we still need reminding of; perhaps a lesson that this show’s junior Greek chorus of first graders may have been taught. It’s a theme that rings true because it’s always everywhere, all around us: To consider the humanity of every person we relate to in a day is the short road to a panic attack.
And somehow, the show’s three most steadfast and devoted friends — Celeste, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), and Jane (Shailene Woodley) — are ride or die. Not because they know each others’ secrets, but because they each know they could bring theirs to the others, if needed. The show’s been telling us that these women and their histories would intersect in a conflagration. While their interpersonal drama is not the cause we’ve been told each week that it is, it’s still true in translation: These women, and their histories, intersect in revolution.
Last week, Celeste was urged by her therapist to confide in her friends the truth of her relationship with Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). Celeste has obeyed her other instructions — to rent an apartment, to furnish it, to stock the fridge; but of course the hardest part for her is the one step she cannot undertake independently. It’s pure happenstance that she is rescued from her own possible murder by the oblivious Renata (Laura Dern), popping up at her car window like a friendly muppet, unaware of the dire situation she’s interrupted. But clearly, something in her manner affects Renata, who seeks her out twice more at the party — ostensibly because of the revelation it’s Celeste’s son who has been bullying Renata’s daughter, but also because Celeste’s usual vague mystery has tipped over into apparent, true terror.
Audrey Hepburn became an icon to women by virtue of her lack of sexualization, her body so perplexing to 1950’s Hollywood that they were forced to make her a star without the usual trappings of a sex object. Hence, she became known for her natural shy charisma, her elegance, intelligence, and glamour. What we know, and they did not back then, is that Hepburn’s body bore the trauma of war: A childhood of malnutrition that didn’t end until she was nearing the end of puberty, at 16.
Hepburn’s coltish legs, wide eyes, and glamorous affect are not unlike that of Kidman’s — to say nothing of the trauma Celeste shares — and it’s never more clear than in the finale, dressed as she is in Hepburn kit: An apparent physical fragility that is and was often assumed to reflect their character as well, to people who choose not to dig any deeper or who can only allow a performer to contain one thing.
The women at the climactic fundraiser each reflect a different character played by Hepburn; Madeline causes a scandal by arriving as “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” Holly Golightly in her morning-after attire, while Renata of course arrives entirely covered up in a fully realized ode to Hepburn’s character in “My Fair Lady”; both Jane and Celeste choose Hepburn’s more iconic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” gown and tiara — itself simply a fancier morning-after look — while Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) channels Hepburn as Princess Anne in “Roman Holiday.”
Each Hepburn character is remembered for one or two iconic outfits; but each role was also a woman with two sides — seemingly worldly Holly Golightly is revealed to have a secret husband and roots in Appalachia; Eliza Doolittle fits in neither with her Cockney roots nor her assumed identity as an aristocrat; Princess Anne goes in disguise as an everyday girl to escape the monotony of her royal life. Marilyn Monroe, for example, also contained multitudes — but her work and myth, that of power that doesn’t stoop to conquer, offer far less in parallel.
Audrey’s vulnerable, passive, apparently breakable but world-wise ingenue is the costume these women put on and take off throughout the course of their days. Even Maddie and Renata fall back on their own versions of “perfection,” which as Maddie mentions in a too-frank conversation with her daughter-bestie Abigail (Kathryn Newton) is the pose that habitually sends them off the deep end.
That Jane and Celeste come in the same costume foreshadows their shared abuser but also, when seen in a group with Madeline, asserts their bond of friendship. Bonnie and Renata, outsiders from the group for most of the series, nevertheless do not pause to defend these women and, in so doing, a new group is formed — the way bones heal after breaking, stronger than before.
Seven weeks ago, after watching the first episode of “Big Little Lies,” we wrote this:
In the first act of the perfectly constructed original “Jurassic Park,” we are given a leisurely tour through the amusement park — watching the cars keep to their tracks, the dinosaurs at peace in their pens, pointing out where cafeteria and computers are housed: All place-setting mise en place for the mise-en-scène, as the breathtaking second half shows us all the structures we’ve just met upended — cars going off-road, dinos roaming free, a chaotic struggle for survival in the cafeteria complex.
This finale truly offers the dinosaurs run amok of the show — taking familiar places like those caution-taped stairs, ratcheting up everyone’s plotlines, finding a way a la “Pretty Little Liars” that every single person is in the same place at the same time, and watching it all go to hell.
Any number of climactic confrontations that could have taken place at that party, and it seemed like we were inching toward something between Madeline and Ed (Adam Scott) or Nathan (James Tupper) — but the only casualty of that particular group seemed to be Bonnie having a drink spilled on her gown. Bonnie, the most easygoing, the Zen peer therapist, the helpful instructor — in a group of Audreys, she is the most Audrey of all, and has been throughout. Which is why it’s only right that she, both as a compassionate outsider and the voice of reason, makes the final move.
Series director Jean-Marc Vallée has played with sound and time throughout the series, editing the whole enterprise with a fluidity where it comprises not just the timelines of the investigation and before; but somehow allowing every moment to feel like right now up until it loops back and then forward, presenting this show the way we remember our dreams.
Celeste’s final beating is first only heard, through an air vent, the clicking of her sons’ video game consoles in the foreground. Later, we see flashes of the abuse itself and, later, we see one of her sons put on headphones to drown out the sound. Celeste has always been adamant that the boys have never seen her being beaten; but, like Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is able to keep his promise to never say the name of the bully, but can write it, they have experienced it in myriad of other ways even if they’ve never technically seen fist striking face.
When Perry emerges at the top of the stairs, it takes a moment before Jane’s breath is taken away. Her bond with Madeline and Celeste is such that they are able to intuit from her behavior just who this man is to her. Renata and Bonnie may not know the details, but when Perry begins to beat Celeste in front of them, each of the women doesn’t pause in defending their friend. Perry is both Celeste’s abuser and Jane’s rapist, but in this moment, he is just one man outnumbered by five women who will never betray one another.
That is perhaps the show’s stealthiest layer: We saw the ground being laid for the mystery, for the dissolution of Celeste’s marriage, for the unearthing of Jane’s and Madeline’s secrets; but its real endgame was the moment on the beach with the five women and their children, forever bonded through this shared experience.
From the moment Renata catches that whiff of danger outside Perry’s car, note, she never stops touching Celeste — reaching out to her from the party, to the posse, even in the final montage. While her relationship, and reconciliation with Jane last week — remembered here in Renata’s most touching scene of the series, as she admits to her husband offhand that Jane’s the only person she likes — are intensely verbal, it’s this skin-on-skin intimacy between the two “working moms” that shows us Renata’s true, protective colors. We get many of those silent moments in the final act, when the police have come: Maddie and Bonnie looking silently into each other’s eyes, everyone hanging onto their loved ones for dear life but never breaking eye contact with each other.
When a caterpillar cocoons itself, its body breaks down entirely in order to rebuild; it is a messy, painful, mystical thing where its former body is not discarded, but used as fuel to create something new. This metamorphosis is what this show has been about, at its core — the messy, terrifying, but ultimately hopeful way we all live our lives, moving forward to an unknown future where we will emerge made of the same components, just rearranged.
Because the women we see in the final, silent, montage are not guilt-ridden, are not victims, are not stewing over what happened with Perry at those stairs. Celeste, Madeline, Jane, Renata, and Bonnie have joined together because of course they have, because their new and devoted friendship was really the endgame for this show all along.
Their children too, who were already mostly friends, will grow up safe harbored by this coven, even Celeste’s boys who — removed from their father’s influence — are seen playing on an even footing with the other kids. It was a ritual, ad hoc and instinctive, that brought the whole world back into alignment. If the Zippo-snapping detective (Merrin Dungey) through whose lens we watch the show’s final twenty minutes means anything, she means this:
The conflagration isn’t the goal, but it’s almost always the only way through.
The biggest little lie is that our shameful secrets matter to anyone but ourselves, and with the expiation of Perry’s righteous death — the exorcism of the Monterey demon; source to Jane’s trauma and Celeste’s pain and Renata’s terror, and thus Bonnie and Maddie’s gaslighted sense of things being not-quite-right; the darkness at the heart of the Greek chorus’s attempts to understand their community, before and after the death — that shame evaporates: Their respective isolation has been replaced with a group of women closer than sisters, more like a coven, their bond ferocious and playful and loving and forever.
And so if one image is meant to define this episode’s radical feeling of hope and optimism, or stand in for the future these women have created for themselves and with each other, it’s this: Celeste’s sweater falling off her shoulders, easy smile as she reveals her unbruised arms; strong as a lion and soft as Audrey, running to play with her children. Moving into the new life, metamorphosis complete.