Based on the book written by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies intertwines a dark comedic tale of murder and mischief within the tranquil beachfront town of Monterey, California. Amidst a group of rich and competitive mothers that are fueled by rumors and division within their existing community, the HBO series evolves to be one of the most powerful studies of friendship and trauma that television has ever seen.
The Monterey Five
Told through the eyes of three mothers, Madeline, Celeste and Jane – the series’ narrative explores, thoroughly, society’s myths regarding perfection and its romanticization of marriage, sex, parenting and friendship. Starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz, Big Little Lies tells the story about how women relate to one another – whether that be through fighting, bonding, or a little bit of both.
In the first season, we see our characters building friendships and giving up the ideal images that play in their heads while accepting the choices that they’ve made; this leads them to become united and stronger together, and it all plays out when we enter Monterey. Jane (Shailene Woodley), the younger, less wealthy, and less polished newcomer, serves as our surrogate as we start the series. As we enter the show, we instantly feel out of place right alongside her; a feeling that we are not good enough to be part of this world. Jane expresses her thoughts when she sits down with Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste (Nicole Kidman), stating, “You guys are just right. You’re exactly right. And for some reason, that makes me feel wrong I guess.”
The setting of Big Little Lies is an ideal paradise, and the inhabitants are provoked to feel a certain pressure to be as perfect as the view. Within the first season, we get countless shots of characters staring out at a breathtaking landscape, holding a glass of wine, and stuck replaying some stress that still fathoms in their mind – instead of appreciating the beauty that holds before them. It also seems that the characters’ exhausting pursuit of perfection applies to their looks and loss of youth, to their careers and wealth, and towards their families and domestic bliss.
The Pressure To Be Perfect
Yet as the show progresses, we get insights of our characters realizing that chasing the aim of such perfection is hurting their hopes for real happiness. It’s clear when Madeline thinks she wants something more exciting in her life, but we are often reminded that she is at her happiest when she’s with her husband, Ed. Renata (Laura Dern) finally starts to peak with relaxation and building friendships once she accepts that she can’t always be an infallible mother who protects her daughter from all risks. Celeste, most of all, is a character that has to overcome the overbearing siren of perfection because her appearance to the outside world shows that she has it all – when she in fact doesn’t. She’s introduced to us as the other mothers see her – as the prettiest, richest and cleverest woman in Monterey, with the most handsome husband and perfect sex life to match. So as we watch her character let go of this image that she has kept throughout her whole life, we start to see that, without her charming husband, her life appears the most harrowing out of the women. Upon this realization, we learn that hiding the truth with perfection is what really weakens the characters.
It’s only best if we let out what we see as our worst secrets so that we can be free of them and move on, but Celeste refuses to claim that she is a “victim” and she immediately convinces herself that can handle everything on her own. Obscuring the truth from her therapist, she begins to completely alter the reality when she explains the abuse she is getting from her husband to her closest friend – laughing and shrugging it off with a statement that deems that she is fine with it. However, Celeste is unable to release herself out of danger just through private stoicism, and it’s only when her secret is thrust into the public view that she can finally live without fear and the advantage of perfection.
Jane – the victim of abuse from the same man – also shares Celeste’s instinct to share desire to hide the trauma that she’s experienced. Her presence is almost like a personal foil to Madeline in that Jane’s go-to strategy is to stay out of things. Though the first time we see her, she comes across as hesitant to get out of her car and help Madeline, and with her son, Ziggy, questioning a good deed, she realizes that she needs to set a good example for him and proceeds to do the right thing. Her character has to fight her instinctive isolation – and in doing so, she becomes more frequent with allies and evolves a richer lifestyle. Succeeding in becoming more socially open, she learns that running from her emotions won’t do her any good and owns her anger and sadness about what happened to her. In doing so, she’s suddenly able to notice men and imagine new relationships for herself again.
Both Celeste and Jane receive support from their allies in the climatic final battle of the first season, illustrating that what can ultimately save them was to release the pursuit of perfection and allow others to help.
Contending With Other Strong Female Perspectives
Madeline’s perspective in her hometown is to be a fiercely loyal, well-intentioned and generous friend, that both brings people together and draws lines in the sand. But another side to this mother is that she is eager to pick sides and contend with other strong female types – which draws us into rooting for her victory and become transfixed into disliking new characters.
Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) and Renata are initially presented towards this prospect – Bonnie because she’s married to Madeline’s ex, and Renata due to her aggressive reaction to her daughter getting hurt. Though, what’s curious about our opinion on these two women, is that they’re both types of mothers who, in theory, we should be applauding for. Madeline comes across with such harsh snap judgments, and that given our society’s biases, this tactic would easily cause viewers to dislike a high-powered, strong-minded businesswoman. But over time, with Madeline, we start to see things from Renata’s point of view and realize that she’s only reacting towards the pressure of facing a world that resents her. The response that she takes towards her daughter being physically abused in school is actually reasonable and a plausible reaction. And to this, Renata wins Madeline over by proving she is wise enough to take ownership of her own mistakes.
Bonnie is a character that we should’ve liked from the start because she is portrayed as such a wholesome person. She is fulfilled by work and love, and invested in bringing people together – an image of perfection. But, thanks to Madeline’s jarring judgments, we quickly distrust Bonnie’s sublimity and start to question her motives. However, when Bonnie is revealed to be Perry’s killer and the groups savior, we start to like her because we’ve seen the emotional rawness behind her positive worldview – which we once smirked at – now seeing her character look at the world in a not-so-perfect way.
The show very intentionally puts us against Bonnie and Renata due to the fact that they are deemed as perfect, which only makes us question why we were so eager to dislike these women for their strengths. It also falls against how the series portrays the horrors of physical violence, while also showing Madeline questioning her go-to tactics when participating with verbal and emotional abuse, needing to make enemies and approaching life as a competition.
These combinations come in handy, as Madeline is initially shown to be unfulfilled by her role as a stay-at-home mother – which causes her to let out anger towards her enemies, but also leads her to react with her insecurities and fears of inadequacy. She can relate to her closest friend Celeste who gave up her career to raise her family, but the other women that she bumps into every day represent a life path that Madeline wonders if she should have taken. It’s a sad aspect within her life and because she worries that she’s made the wrong choices, she lashes out with self-destructive behavior. The perfect image that Madeline and Celeste have built for themselves falls down with great relief when they both acknowledge to each other that, as much as they love their children, motherhood doesn’t fulfill their every need and simply can’t be their whole life.
Meanwhile, Renata also questions whether she’s made the right decision through the opposite choice: prioritizing her career over full-time childcare. Both women might envy the other for making the “right choices,” but the series teaches us that there is no perfect path without having a few downsides; neither parenting nor career success in itself is going to everything. Big Little Lies suggests that the happiness the characters come across are bonded together through friendships, accepting choices and limits, and not being a slave to impossible expectations of perfection.
Accepting Choices & Limits
Throughout the seven episodes, Jane starts to come to the conclusion that all these perfect people can’t hold everything in place, so she tells the women that they should stop judging themselves so harshly and stop holding their lives to such impossible standards. Of course, the show is encouraging the audience to feel the same relief of knowing that the rich and glamorous aren’t nearly as happy as we might have sought out to imagine.
As the season develops, the cliché falls away around Monterey and reveals that the mothers have presented themselves to be more complex, flawed and interesting than the designer clothes that hang in their wardrobes. Big Little Lies bears a statement that proposes that money doesn’t buy happiness and that everyone has secrets – their accompanying sadness and shame pays absolutely no heed to wealth, status or perfection.
The closing montage of Big Little Lies suggests that the characters have all found contentment within each other and that they’ve learned to accept the choices that they’ve made. Ending with an idyllic beach side picnic featuring every mother and their children, Monterey seems to become a paradise for Celeste and her friends, as they drink wine on a public beach without fear. With everything that they’ve been through together, each woman beams in the sun as the pursuit of perfection no longer carries with them.