Everyone, stop what you are doing and watch “Big Little Lies.” The seven-episode HBO show is about the extravagant but complicated lives of upper-class mothers in the affluent beach town of Monterey, CA. The series exposes the inner workings of the mother’s marriages, friendships and personal parenthoods—and let me just say, it is one wildly jaw-dropping time.
If I could describe this show in one word, I would use intense. It is two-fold in its intensity, though: There is an ever-present “whodunit” thrill throughout the series, but also a layer of brilliance with larger statements about domestic violence, marriage, wealth and motherhood.
The show centers on a murder at trivia night, a glamorous school fundraiser put on by the Monterey parents. It begins in the present with police interviews of random bystanders talking about the night of the crime and sharing information about the main characters. The series then flashes back to the past and interweaves the storylines of four main families, specifically focusing on the mothers of each family. As the show continues on, trivia night approaches, and tensions amongst families and between husbands and wives escalate. We watch the crime unfold in the last episode.
Besides the stellar acting and dream cast (everyone from Reese Witherspoon to Adam Scott is in this), the show really shines in its all-exposing portrayal of upper-class housewives, revealing the reality of their marriages and parenthoods. We all know the stereotypes surrounding these women—superficial, gossipy, only consumed with neatly mapping out their children’s lives and waiting until their executive-level husbands walk through the door at five o’clock so that they can share some red wine and complain about something they heard another mother say in the carpool line.
Well, “Big Little Lies” takes that stereotype, owns it and then flips it on its head. While many of the female characters supposedly embody this role, it becomes obvious that they are not ditzy or petty at all; they are the true masterminds behind their families. While they are confined to their familial roles, they hold a certain power—their families would utterly crumble without them. And if they weren’t in these positions—positions the institutions of family and marriage put them in—they would be out ruling the world.
However, before the viewer realizes the subtle strength of each mother, we are immediately introduced to the exorbitant wealth and privilege of the Monterey lifestyle. With mansion beach houses, high fashion and lavish parties, the viewer sees the entitlement of each character, and a desire of each to show off to one another. Their money and the superficiality that accompanies it gives the viewer a sense of the competition and cliqueness the mothers feel between and among each other. This aspect sets up some of the initial and integral tensions in the show—the bar is high and we immediately feel that all these relationships are riding on a lot.
As the show progresses, we begin to see the differences and similarities between the mothers and how each plays into different aspects of the housewife stereotype.
With Reese Witherspoon’s character Madeline, we are exposed to a resentful divorce, a new husband whom she loves but doesn’t have great sex with and an undying compassion for her unforgiving children. While she knows what she wants and plays the Type A leader of the household, she is still tied down to her world by the relentlessness of marriage and motherhood.
With Nicole Kidman’s character, the gorgeous and brilliant Celeste, we are presented with a violent marriage. In denial about her husband’s abuse towards her, she grapples with the dilemma of changing him or leaving him. The show does a good job of showing the difficulty in navigating an abusive relationship, as it is sensitive to the real-life emotional challenges that are often embedded in toxic marriages. Celeste portrays an inner toughness in keeping her family together and putting up with her awful husband.
The viewer also sympathizes with Jane (Shailene Woodley), a single mother who lives a modest life with her son. She is not the stereotypical housewife, but is still burdened with issues of all-consuming parenthood and past trauma from male violence. She is very guarded, but strong in her down-to-earth mother-bear protective instincts.
Still, there are other types of mothers depicted. Renata, played by Laura Dern, is a successful CEO who feels the need to defend being at work over being at home. High-strung and worried that she appears too preoccupied with work, we see scenes of her voraciously mothering her daughter and overenthusiastically showing up to school functions. She is the show’s model of a modern working woman, and because she veers from tradition, is a source of a lot of the mothers’ gossip and conflict.
So what is the overall statement here? “Big Little Lies” makes sure to highlight that no matter what the specific circumstance is, even with exorbitant wealth and enormous privilege, there are some things women cannot escape. Whether it is the demands of motherhood or past trauma such as domestic violence, there are many factors that inhibit the mothers from leading their own lives—or make it incredibly difficult and stressful if they do. They may be wealthy stayat-home moms with a penchant for gossip, but the show demonstrates for us that they are only slotted into this role as a product of multiple societal and familial forces.
Ultimately, this show is a winner. It is extremely entertaining to watch and the ending, which I won’t give away, is extremely satisfying. While it is heartbreaking in many ways, its overall message is one conveying the true strength of women despite their constricting circumstances.