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The Complicated Californian Dream of Big Little Lies

The finale showed women who wanted more, uniting to fight for their land.


In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, the Californian essayist Rebecca Solnit writes that “the world is blue at its edges and in its depths.” She calls this color the “blue of distance,” a blue that you can see standing on the edge of California, staring out over the Pacific Coast, and that can fill a person with an electric current of desire. There is no farther West that you can go, except to plunge straight into the ocean. But, of course, we always want to keep going. It can be difficult to accept that the land ends, that the craggy bluffs off of Highway One drop off into black nothingness. And so, Californians invent: They create new technological frontiers, develop new spiritual hungers, birth an entire industry based on professional make-believe. They learn over time how to pine for the place while standing right in the middle of it; it’s how they keep generating infinite needs out of a finite territory.

On Sunday night, Big Little Lies, a seven-episode HBO series set along California’s rocky central coast, came to a brutal, satisfying conclusion. An abusive man had been murdered (sort of by accident!), and a community of once-disparate mothers has congealed into a tight little knot of protection and secrets. The final, worldless moments of the series shows these women, clad in white, guarding their little broods on the beach like ancient sentinels. They stand in a line and stare out into the blue expanse, into the horizon. Witnessing this moment, I found myself thinking of Solnit; Big Little Lies is dripping with the ceaseless blue ache she talks about.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who is French-Canadian, shoots the Monterey coastline with the voracious eye of a foreigner engaged in a fresh love affair with it. Every episode features languorous, almost erotic shots of the ocean: Waves crashing, decadent marine views from million-dollar mansions, children frolicking in the surf, women pushing their rivals off cliffs and into the water in their dreams. Big Little Lies was adapted from Australian author Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel, set in an Australian beach town, but the material transposes perfectly onto the Pacific Coast Highway, where the high tide is violent and loud, where the sea literally churns.

It is almost too neat a metaphor for the inner turmoil of the women’s lives on the show, but then, California itself is one big clumsy metaphor about wildness and want; Vallee just uses that to his advantage. He has become a kind of visual laureate of shooting women standing on the edges of the country. In Wild, he shot Reese Witherspoon making her way up the Pacific Crest Trail by herself with a gritty vérité tenderness for the natural world as her character returns to herself among the redwood. In Big Little Lies, he again captures Witherspoon gazing out over the Pacific, taking in sunsets and lunar cycles, though this time she looks far more glamorous, and that much more tragic juxtaposed with the vast landscape. She has everything she could ever want, and yet, she wants more. Blue in a golden land.

Big Little Lies was ostensibly sold in its promos as a murder mystery. The finale delivered on this premise, though, as critics before me have noted, the crime was never the central point of the series. The point of the series is how women create community, how they can take their individual yearning and turn it collective, how utopias are born.

The story begins and ends at the fictional Otter Bay Elementary School. Here, a swirl of mothers of first graders get caught up in a tangled, rancorous mess. Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is a young mom who is new to Monterey and who has arrived in town still tortured by the memory of being raped six years prior by a man she only hazily remembers. Jane has a sweet son, Ziggy, the product of this assault. In the first episode, tensions start to boil when Ziggy is accused during a school orientation of bullying Amabella, the bashful daughter of Renata Klein (Laura Dern), a high-powered Silicon Valley executive who feels judged by her fellow mothers for working a full schedule.

Jane finds allies in her defense against Renata’s crusade in two new friends, Madeline MacKenzie (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), two polished blondes who waft two distinct veneers of moneyed perfection. Madeline is the group ringleader, a perky, bossy control-freak (Witherspoon firing on her best grown-up Tracy Flick cylinders) whose taut need to micro-manage has led to a muddle of personal problems: Her teenage daughter moves out of the house to live full-time with Madeline’s ex-husband and his earthy, sexpot yoga-instructor wife Bonnie Carlson (Zoe Kravitz); Madeline carries on an ongoing affair with a local theater director, and she feels trapped in her bland, sexless marriage to a kindly web developer named Ed.

Celeste, played with fragile finesse by Kidman, lopes around in buttery cashmere and camel-colored sheath dresses, the most elegant gazelle in Monterey. She looks from the outside, like a poster for having it all: A dashing, much younger lawyer husband who cuts a sharp profile in slim suits, a set of towheaded twin boys. In fact, Celeste has the most traumatic private life of all—her husband, Perry, beats her mercilessly and threatens her verbally with humiliation and death. Much of the series is devoted to Celeste’s therapy sessions, in which Kidman does some of the most nuanced work of her career, showing a woman slowly awakening to her own abuse and her need to extricate herself and her children from the violence.

What we know about all of these woman at the beginning of the show, is that a) they are all gilded with privilege, with the exception of Jane, who lives in a one-bedroom house and is therefore seen as something of a dangerous charity case, and b) that someone has been killed at Otter Bay Trivia Night, and that somehow, one or all of these five women was involved. We know this because a Greek chorus of chattering locals act as Our Town-esque narrators throughout the show, passing snide judgment on the group of women and trying to intuit their hidden animosities. Of course, the locals can never know what the women learn, in the final moments of the series, when all truths are revealed and Perry winds up dead at the bottom of the school stairs. Everyone has gathered in the same place for Otter Bay’s Trivia Night fundraiser, where the dress code is Audrey Hepburn for the women, Elvis Presley for the men. That night, Perry has discovered that Celeste intends to leave him, and he is on the warpath.

She runs to an isolated landing at the school, fearing for her life. She is soon joined by Jane and Renata, who have reconciled after learning that it was one of Celeste’s sons, and not Ziggy, who was the bully (Perry’s cruelty has become infectious at home), and Madeline, who cannot face Ed after grappling with her own infidelity. As Perry lunges for Celeste, and the women struggle to beat him off, Bonnie, who has been watching the attack from afar, sprints across the pavement in her Eliza Doolittle outfit and pushes Perry to his death. She is an unlikely hero, given that she never really fit in with the rest of the mothers—her sensuality is seen as a threat; she is the only one who is not white—but it also makes a kind of sense. The outsider becomes the ultimate insider, the valiant one, the one who must now be protected by the coven at all costs.

Because the show begins and ends with a murder, many have tried to classify it as a California noir, or as a high-stakes Desperate Housewives. What I realized, however, watching the finale, is that HBO made another Western, albeit an inverted one. HBO desperately needed a hit to follow up the success of Game of Thrones, and in fact found two, back to back, in Westworld and Big Little Lies. Westworld is a more literal spin on the traditional shoot-em-up, in which cyborg cowboys and brothel madams become sentient and decide to rebel against their own subjugation. Big Little Lies features a different vision of the West, albeit no less riddled with outlaws who feel that they are given tacit permission by the wilderness to misbehave.

Vallée often shoots Perry as one would a black-hat in a classic Western; in dark light, shot a little from below. He skulks around, the bad apple who goes from town to town abusing women, smashing his fists into saloon doors. As in most Westerns, a community must band together to rid themselves of this villain, to chase the toxic element away. What surprised me about Big Little Lies, however, was that it was women who were doing the chasing, who decided to defend their positions on the land. It is so rare, in popular entertainment, that we see a group of women, especially wealthy mothers, working together in the service of a common goal rather than competing with one another for status. In the end, the five women choose to defend their mutual territory rather than tear each other apart. They win the West for themselves, and for the safety of their children.

The blue feeling at the edge of California can easily make people feel lonesome, and separate. It is isolating to want so much, to yearn for so much, and to never feel satisfied, even when cradled in such heartbreaking beauty. But what Big Little Lies reaffirms, is that in the West, when you walk up to the edge, it is important to look around and see the others who are standing out on the bluffs with you.

Everyone is inventing, making it up as they go along. From one angle, this can look like a collective lie, a mass delusion. But what I took away from the finale is that there are some lies that must be shared, some burdens that can only be relieved by a mutually-understanding community. This is why people continue to amble to the crests of California, in search of this dreamscape, of a utopian kinship. Sometimes it can take trauma to find it, sometimes it can even take living outside the law with a shared secret, but in the end, the place will open up for those who choose to conquer it together.