In an older episode of the writers’ podcast “Writing Excuses,” the hosts offer a simple suggestion for avoiding trading in tropes in your writing: Include more than one person of a given demographic in your piece. Adding a second dwarf to your fantasy quest narrative, a second cheerleader to your high school drama, another trans woman to your legal thriller helps those outside those experiences to avoid tokenism, while also being challenged to develop each of these characters more fully. Win/win for everyone, especially the reader — or, in the case of “Big Little Lies” and its predominantly female cast — the viewers.
Yes, there are surface-level similarities between successful, beautiful blondes Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Laura Dern (Renata). Both Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) are younger mothers, beautiful and slightly bohemian. But the inclusion of all five in the same story allows us to see their differences: Madeline’s type-A is of a mostly divergent species than Renata’s; Celeste’s reticence and fear are separate from Jane’s — and when we see the occasional gravity behind Bonnie’s generally carefree affect, it’s of a different sort than the pain we see in each of the others.
Including five distinct women is just a skeleton toward creating a great show: “Big Little Lies,” much to its credit, fleshes this out with its powerhouse actors, dreamy camerawork, and the way its most interesting moments are the tiny ones that happen almost off-camera. At least three huge things happen this week: the showdown between Amabella’s (Ivy George) birthday party and Chloe’s (Darby Camp) “Frozen on Ice” trip, Abigail (Kathryn Newton) moves from her mother’s house to that of Nathan (James Tupper) and Bonnie, and we learn the horrific circumstances of Ziggy’s (Iain Lawrence) conception.
Running through each woman’s story this week are the consequences of the choices they make, and how we never know which will blossom bigger than we could have predicted. Early on, Renata admits it was a mistake to exclude Ziggy from Amabella’s party; Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) attacks Celeste over her choice not to consult him about the party — and notably, in context of a strangling attack similar to the one perpetuated on Amabella in the first episode. Jane’s decision to keep the circumstances of her attack — and carry Ziggy to term, frankly — continue to play out in her continued paranoia about the worlds inside and outside her house, and in her son’s violent frustration over this missing part of himself.
If last week was a showcase for Kidman’s damaged, conflicted Celeste, this week’s episode provides standout moments for Witherspoon’s Madeline. The actress helped get this project off the ground, and her passion for the story and character are absolutely clear in her performance. Like Kidman — like all of them really — Witherspoon’s public persona is closely tied with the characters she’s known for portraying: Reese’s spitfire hurricanes, Dern’s adorably brittle alien furies, Kidman’s tragic mystery who can’t possibly be as soft or as hard as she seems, and hot mess Shailene Woodley just trying to live her life.
A limited series like this allows time for Witherspoon to demonstrate more colors than a two-hour film could, and this week we see Madeline’s life — always held together, like the known universe, by her force of will — threatened with something we sense she’s always known, and dreaded, was coming: Abigail seemingly choosing Nathan and Bonnie over Madeline and Ed (Adam Scott).
Tellingly, it’s Abigail — the girl who lived with Madeline through her clearly rocky single-parent years; the woman with whom Madeline still shares her most genuine friendship — who is aware her mother is on her way to falling apart. So when she finally reveals to her mother that the pressure of living with her is affecting her negatively, Madeline is losing more than daily contact with her daughter, she’s losing a stable and stabilizing presence in her life.
The show is full of little touches reminding us that it’s not as simple as grooming Abigail to become her, or to live the dreams she left behind: Madeline’s desktop screensaver is pictures of Abigail dancing, throughout her life — at all ages. It’s less about “our children outgrowing us,” which both Maddie and Ed (Adam Scott) find comfort in saying, than it is about a specific ticking clock:
Maddie’s very favorite thing, one way or another, is leaving her. College, boys, moving in with dad — the why isn’t important, just that the nightmare is finally here. Abigail’s decision devastates Madeline — but in the pantheon of emotional turmoil in Monterey, she’s obviously far better off than Celeste or Jane…
Or even Renata: Her daughter was strangled to the point of bruising, although so much has happened since then it’s easy to forget this is at the root of her current anxiety, just as the way she approaches the world (through a heavily defensive, cerebral lens) makes it easy for us, and everyone around her, to take her behavior and concerns as melodrama — or worse, the kind of narcissistic self-absorption and projection that results in Munchausen-by-proxy situations — when not a scene has gone by in which Renata doesn’t objectively, rationally explain this to be a misread of her character on a basic level.
The show isn’t a contest of whose life is better or worse than the other — and it’s a tribute to the script, acting and directing that we are able to see and sympathize with each of these women. Perhaps it’s easiest to sympathize with a person whose wounds are visible, like Celeste’s perpetual bruises and obviously damaging marriage — which this week twists in on itself, as therapy and her husband’s confessions only introduce more reflections to their swiftly growing hall of mirrors; or like Jane’s horrific story of Ziggy’s conception.
But this show somehow is able to show-not-tell the underlying pain at the heart of characters like Madeline, a woman whose life is objectively pretty great. When she finally breaks down in her car at episode end, we don’t know if it’s Abigail she’s crying about, or Bonnie and Nathan, or sympathy for Jane, or all of the above. As her daughter noted earlier, she’s been agitated lately. Ed half-facetiously said that “agitation is [Madeline’s] preferred state,” but we know that’s not quite true:
Like Renata, Maddie is open to this misread because what she actually wants is insane. She just wants things to be correct.
We know there will be a murder, and presumably a murderer, revealed at the end of this series. The Greek chorus of police interviews is a regular reminder that any choice we make could be the one that changes everything. Everyone’s life is a series of tiny choices that only make sense when you look back and can see how one led inescapably to the next; on this show, we know that somehow, these moments — some banal, some primal, some sweet, some terrifying — lead to the murder of… well, we still don’t know who.
And that’s also, somehow, not really the point either. No more than the painful moments in any of these women’s stories define them, or their stories, in total. If getting to the murderer were a priority, we could just wait for the final hour and call it a day. Right?
“Big Little Lies” airs at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, throughout March; the finale is set for Apr. 2.