Big Little Lies: Looking back at how the HBO series propelled sisterhood, shared traumas and collective healing

Arshia Dhar

Jun 08, 2019 10:47:51 IST

The sparkling, ocean-facing mansions in sun soaked Monterey, California are far from the worlds we inhabit, until you scratch its dazzling surface to expose trauma, ambitions, and guilt, uncomfortably slithering too close to our nine-to-five homes.

HBO’s Big Little Lies, starring a stellar line-up of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Zoe Kravitz (whew!) is on its way to a second season (with the delightful addition of Meryl Streep in a pivotal character) on 9 June. Besides being a sharply executed whodunit — a rarity in the genre over the past decade — the show, at its core, is as much about collective healing among women, as it is about their shared trauma.

Big Little Lies: Looking back at how the HBO series propelled sisterhood, shared traumas and collective healing

Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley in Big Little Lies Season 1. HBO

In the first episode of season one, when Madelaine Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) takes the timid newbie Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) under her wing, she lays her cards on the table even before the latter and the audience can think of passing a judgement on her seemingly perfect life. While being a stay-at-home-mom of two daughters keeps her hands full, her 20 hours a week at the community theatre “doesn’t really count” even as a part-time gig, she declares. “You know, sometimes I think it’s like ‘us’ against ‘them’ — the career mommies. Them and all their various board meetings, they’re so important. Google this, Yahoo that,” Madelaine eye-rolls, clearly drawing the battle lines between her tribe and the CEO moms’ club led by Laura Dern’s fierce Renata Klein.

Renata worries about not being liked, and expresses her concern to her husband in the very first episode, after discovering that her daughter, Amabella, is being physically harassed at school. For her, this unpopularity is a bitter pill to swallow in the bubbled universe of Monterey mommies, all of whom converge at the school parking every evening to compare notes on parenting and social capital. “I’m a working mom. Worse, a CEO, which deems me a bitch. If I get shot in the head tonight, half these moms are going to say, ‘What, she couldn’t bother herself to duck?’” she says in a later episode.

While the two begin as adversaries, they soon find themselves in the same boat as Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Jane, and Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) by the end of season one. The ‘Monterey-5’ are drawn into an unlikely sisterhood built on identical insecurities and a murder, as secrets domino out of control after the first episode of Amabella getting bullied. This is where the bubble bursts, and our bloody realities collide with their cushioned existence.

What Renata and Madelaine reveal through their respective posturings is symptomatic of the misogyny conditioning women since the beginning of time. The ladies are just never good or complete enough. You might be on the board of directors at Paypal (as Renata humbly announces right at the beginning), but that barely counts when you score low on the mommy-metre. You might be a full-time helicopter mother, but how does that look on your resume? Whether out of choice or the lack of it — as is the case with Celeste, who’s forced into giving up a promising career as a lawyer by her abusive husband Perry (Aleksander Skarsgard) — the women in Big Little Lies try to constantly outrun the questions that have haunted womankind through the ages. And such debilitating doubts are held together by common threads of violence, guilt, and a search for one’s identity.

A scene from Big Little Lies season 2 trailer.

Evidently, there’s pain running through the veins of Monterey. For a Californian smalltown dressed in satin and pearls, its inhabitants seem a little too willing to reach out for their primal instincts and flying fists ever so often, giving an almost shallow release to the pent up trauma. Arguments end in bare-knuckle fights — whether between Celeste and Perry, or Renata and Jane (with the latter nearly blinding the former) — the show doesn’t shy away from extensively exploring its roots of abusive rot.

However, this pain, no matter how omnipresent and tangible, is meant to be invisibilised and internalised. It’s like the Mindflayer lurking in the darkest recesses of Hawkins in Stranger Things — pulling the strings without revealing itself, shadowing every footstep you take, until, in this case, the sisterhood rises to protect their own.

And the caravan of sisterhood travels bottom up — from the frightened little Amabella and precocious Chloe, to the rebelling Abigail right up to the Monterey-5, it aims to cover fair ground. The scars are still hidden though, make no mistake. Amabella’s lies continue to protect her abuser — one of the Wright twins — in public; Jane’s new address still covers the tracks to her mysterious past (although, one later discovers that it brings her closer than ever before to her rapist); and Celeste’s concealers and cashmere are still dressing her wounds. However now, for the first time ever, there’s a chance at healing from those injuries, that too collectively.

On discovering the common root to their pain in the same instance during the climax, Jane and Celeste come together to tie the loose ends of every Monterey mystery into a satisfying knot. Visually, the two seem to blend into each other, dressed up as the same version of Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The other three are dressed in their own, strikingly varied avatars of Audrey Hepburn — a far from subtle, yet potent visual trope used by the makers to underline what the show ultimately drives home, a unified voice against violence and suffering. In the moment that Bonnie runs to push the villainous Perry down the stairs, the sisterhood throws its doors open to its unlikeliest member, one who was watching from the periphery all along.

Still from Big Little Lies season 2. YouTube screengrab

Still from Big Little Lies season 2. YouTube screengrab

Despite teetering dangerously on the edge of the tired old ‘girl power’ theme, Big Little Lies rises above it and accomplishes a deep, almost frightening depiction of pathos, one that exists at the core of female existence. It’s this common denominator that drives every character to their destinations, underlined by horrors, ambitions wrought with guilt, and a search for oneself. There’s a strong male gaze hovering over the show, but it barely holds a candle to the women who join forces and grab it by the collar, subverting it to strengthen their sisterhood.

With more skeletons slated to tumble out of Monterey’s closet in the second season, there’s an ominous sense of foreboding ushered in by the probing cops, and grandma Mary Louise Wright (Meryl Streep). But then, there’s undeniable hope too. It comes with shared secrets and poignant silences spent together by the ocean, with assurances of recovering together. It may take a village to raise a child, but it takes a sisterhood to heal the world they’re born into.

Updated Date: Jun 08, 2019 14:52:48 IST