Better and better: Big Little Lies
There are two episodes left of Big Little Lies. And it’s been a couple of weeks since I yelled at you about watching it. ARE YOU WATCHING BIG LITTLE LIES? ARE YOU OBSESSED WITH BIG LITTLE LIES?
In my limited bubble, we are all obsessed with Big Little Lies. Do you remember when it premiered, when I pointed how some critics dismissively called it soap operatic? Like Girl Sh-t on TV? Therefore not to be taken seriously. And how most of those critics were men? Here’s another example of what it looks like when the show is seen through that kind of a lens. Laura Dern was interviewed for last night’s episode (the strongest episode yet) for The Hollywood Reporter. The journalist, Brian Porreca, opens the article like this to describe Laura’s character, Renata:
Laura Dern's character Renata Klein on Big Little Lies has so far come across as an absolute psychopath. Whether it's being a control freak, threatening Reese Witherspoon's Madeline McKenzie or dubbing Shailine Woodley's Jane Chapman as a nanny because of her appearance, the character has not been shown in the best light.
Ummm… “an absolute psychopath?” I almost stopped reading. I didn’t. Because I wanted to get from Laura her perspective on playing an “absolute psychopath” and you’ll note that she herself gently disputes the idea that Renata is an “absolute psychopath” when she talks about her approach to the role:
“Well, certainly, I knew her from Liane Moriarty's book, but then of course [learned more] with David (E Kelley) expanding upon that and Jean-Marc (Vallee’s) description. They really wanted not just to see her, but to understand her and really try to find a compassionate place for each of these women. And as their characters break down or unfold, you see the whole person and not just the judgment that you might see at the very beginning. And that was really interesting because from Jean-Marc's and David's perspective, they felt like these were characters they hadn't seen. You know, the ferocity of the CEO woman who is still juggling the luxury of being a wife and mother but also the stigma of what that's supposed to look like.”
Renata is a ballbuster, sure. She’s a woman, a CEO, desperately needing to be in control and desperate when she’s in situations that she can’t control – like PARENTING. She is competitive, she is self-righteous, almost to a fault, and she is ambitious. That makes her… “an absolute psychopath”? Bullsh-t. But that’s exactly the point of Big Little Lies. When there are not enough stories about women – successful women, not successful women, frightened women, women who are lying to themselves, women who undermine each other, women who RUN together – women aren’t allowed to be complicated. Women must be easily categorised – as “likeable”, as “relatable”, as “absolute psychopaths”.
Big Little Lies challenges that fallacy with almost every single character on the show. Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline is petty and judgy. She’s also considerate and loyal AND unfaithful. Sanctimonious as f-ck… but also a liar. Maybe like you. Definitely like me. And then there’s Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, whose perfectly beautiful life is just as ugly as ours. Nicole Kidman has, over the course of her career, delivered some outstanding performances. She might be outdoing even herself on Big Little Lies. Because every time she subtly averts her eyes, every time she tries to make up for not shrinking by squaring her shoulders, every pause in her dialogue attempts to answer that question, a question EVERYBODY has asked: “Why does she stay?”
Big Little Lies is a show about women and trauma. And trauma will find women wherever they are – in the boardroom, on the beach, in the kitchen, in a hotel room, in the car, on the school run. How do women confront trauma? Well, often, in the same places: in the car, at the beach.
You remember when Reese’s Madeline and Nicole’s Celeste were in the car together after Nicole had successfully challenged the city’s objection to Avenue Q? Do you remember their shared euphoria? When they celebrated together and also commiserated together? How about this week, when Shailene’s Jane runs on the beach. She is joined, first by Celeste, and then Madeline. They don’t look at each other. They don’t have to look to know that they’re side by side, pushing each other, driving each other, supporting each other. These moments are not accidental. They are the load-bearing walls that hold up the show amid the big little lies. That’s the truth that you miss if you’re quick to write it off as trash.