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Review: Big Little Lies (HBO)

From director Jean-Marc Vallée (Dallas Buyers Club), HBO’s Big Little Lies is a slow burn drama that rewards careful viewing. Set in idyllic Monterey, California, the story centers on the world of wealthy wives and their children. Yet unlike many star-studded portrayals of Hollywood glamour, the opulence of Big Little Lies unveils, rather than obscures, the common humanity of its protagonists. [Spoilers Ahead]

Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is an outsider to the Monterey community. The plot of this seven-episode miniseries kicks off when her son, Ziggy, joins the first grade class at the prestigious Otter Bay Elementary. During orientation day, one of the children—Amabella, the daughter of Renata Klein (Laura Dern)—accuses Ziggy of choking her. The parents immediately take sides, and the incident becomes the first salvo in a social conflict that eventually culminates in murder.

One cohort of parents is led by Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman). Their goals are to defend Jane and to advocate for the innocence of her child, Ziggy. Another cohort, led by Renata Klein, aims to hold Ziggy accountable for the bullying and attempts to expel him from the school. As this rivalry plays out, we slowly learn more about each of these women—their home lives, their aspirations, and their marital and parenting struggles. Although the show initially bills itself as a murder-mystery (we are given cryptic shots of a disturbing crime scene throughout the first six episodes), its true focus lies elsewhere.

Sexual Assault

As a saga of bullying and petty parental feuds plays out in the foreground, something more insidious takes place behind the scenes; Celeste suffers repeated violent abuse at the hand of her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). At first, viewers simply experience an uncomfortable feeling about Perry. He seems a bit controlling, and perhaps acts a bit too convincingly as “the monster” while entertaining his sons (Celeste and Perry are raising twin boys, who are also in first grade at Otter Bay). But over time the abuse is revealed in painfully explicit scenes. These scenes are difficult to watch, let alone imagine as events that happen to survivors of abuse in real life.

In what would be a career-defining performance for almost any actress other than Nicole Kidman (although she did just win a Golden Globe for Best Actress), Celeste’s character walks with the audience through the stages of denial about Perry. Perry seems to be so good with the children; he seems to be capable of changing his behavior; he seems to be genuinely enamored with Celeste; and their family life seems to be viable. Through all of this, Kidman manages to paint Celeste in the most human way possible. She never allows the conflict to become black-and-white. She never takes the moral high ground prematurely; in fact, she initially resists help. We feel the abuse with her. We understand what it must be like to live this seemingly perfect life, to have a husband who is so loving and affectionate towards the children, and yet one who tips overboard in anger during moments of passion. Then, we slowly come to terms—as does she, with the help of a therapist—with the fact that her only option is to leave Perry.

In the meantime, Jane Chapman’s past is also being revealed. We learn that her son Ziggy was conceived after a brutal rape. Jane suffers from trauma and does not know the identity of the father. As the vultures swarm to scapegoat Ziggy for bullying, Jane is emboldened to find and confront her abuser. Although unsuccessful, her search helps Ziggy come to terms with his father’s absence, and strengthens the bond of love between mother and child. In turn this leads Ziggy to tell his mother that Max—one of Celeste and Perry’s twins—is the child abusing Amabella. It’s difficult to communicate how surprising this revelation is to the viewer. Even though it sounds obvious, Vallée does an excellent job sowing just enough doubt about Jane and Ziggy that we are tempted to agree with the horde and support their decision to expel the two from this “pristine” community.

In one of the show’s most poignant lines, Jane meets with Celeste in person to share the news about Max:

Ziggy told me this morning that apparently it was Max who choked Amabella at orientation. And apparently it’s been him who has been bullying her all along . . . I definitely considered that he could be lying just to protect himself—and I have to face the fact that violence could be in his DNA, given who his dad is.

It’s a watershed moment for Celeste, who realizes that she was deceiving herself in assuming that Perry’s abuse would never affect the children. The events of the show climax in the seventh episode, with one of the best moments of television I have ever witnessed. Jane, Madeline, Renata, and Celeste are all together on a terrace overlooking the city. Perry approaches and attempts to take Celeste away. As soon as he appears, Jane wordlessly realizes that Perry was her abuser (Jane and Perry, it suddenly dawns on us, have never been in a scene together). Jane looks at Celeste, and the two communicate their feelings in a wordless exchange that is haunting and powerful—watch it here. All of the show’s tension is expelled at one point: the lies are dissolved and the common humanity of the women is affirmed in the strongest possible way. When Perry proceeds to attack Celeste in a fit of murderous rage, he is pushed down the stairs to a bloody death.

Theological Appropriation

Why do I believe that watching this violent miniseries is a worthwhile activity? The performances are truly top notch. The score is both intuitive and creative. The tension between characters is masterfully developed. There are many powerful scenes that I skipped back to watch again. There are recurring symbols and motifs—and plenty of delightful red herrings about the possible identities of killer and victim. Big Little Lies is a heart-wrenching drama capable of bringing anyone to tears. More important than these aesthetic accolades is the show’s fundamental message. This series affirms the value of life (Jane’s decision to keep the child). It champions friendship (the way the mothers look out for one another—allowing communication and care to win out over rumors and jealousy). It embraces faithfulness and steadfastness in marriage (an important subplot between Madeline and her husband Ed). Finally, it reveals the redemptive capacity of humans to heal (Jane, Celeste, Renata, and Madeline).

All of these elements make Big Little Lies one of television’s best offerings from 2017. They also make this show more than instructive for Christians—especially those seeking to understand or work through sexual abuse. Big Little Lies is about what lurks beneath the surface. It’s messy. Its schoolyard drama is intentionally overblown. Yet behind all of this, one takeaway couldn’t be more clear: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13).

My Rating: 8.5/10

Content Advisory: Nudity, violence, and swearing. For more details, read here.

Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Dr. Benjamin Winter is adjunct professor of theological studies at Saint Louis University. His research interests include scholasticism, Christian mysticism, science and religion, and philosophical theology. Before matriculating from Saint Louis University with a doctorate in Historical Theology, Ben completed a Master of Arts in Theology at Villanova University. His undergraduate degree comes from Truman State University, where he studied English and Philosophy. Ben’s life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. His interests outside the Academy include creating electronic music, travel, swimming, science fiction, and podcasts of all sorts.

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