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The Modern Metaphor Behind Big Little Lies

By Alyssa Seidman
Staff Writer

HBO’s latest single-series success, Big Little Lies, had its series finale on April 2. If you’ve been living under a rock since the show’s premiere earlier this year, Big Little Lies follows the “mothers of Monterey” and the seemingly perfect lives they live while dealing with community gossip, their fractured families and a murder case. The show is based off the 2014 book, written by Liane Moriaty.

The series traces events leading up to the mysterious murder at the elementary school’s annual trivia night. Each episode is intercut with tales from members of Monterey’s PTA pointing fingers at everyone, which left viewers guessing until the very end who killed and was killed. The women at the forefront of the scandal are Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), and Renata Klein (Laura Dern).

There are many dynamics at play which signal tension between the five women: Madeline and Renata are long-time “frenemies.” On the first day of school, Renata’s daughter accuses Jane’s son – the new kid – of bullying, which results in a malicious “mommy-off.” Bonnie is now married to Mackenzie’s ex-husband, and both Jane and Celeste are harboring pasts of domestic assault (Jane was raped and Celeste’s husband physically abuses her).

When you weave these dynamics together with how the producers frame the timeline of events, the safe bet is to say one of them gets the axe. They’re at each other’s throats throughout the series, competing to be the most revered, well-liked woman in all of California – in a way that is apropos of being from stunning, successful Monterey, of course – how do they not want to kill each other?

Well, what shocked myself and most of the Big Little Lies fan base was who, ultimately, killed and was killed. WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD. After Madeline takes off from trivia night to find solace, Jane goes to comfort her. Renata and Celeste follow shortly after, and Renata apologizes to Jane for giving her trouble about her son (it is revealed Celeste’s son was actually bullying Renata’s daughter, picking up from good ole’ daddy dearest).

Later, Perry, Celeste’s husband, approaches the group, looking to apologize to his wife for what feels to be the millionth time. Celeste then admits to Perry that their son was the bully. Refusing to accept this fact, Perry bursts out in a fit of rage, beating Celeste as Renata, Jane, and Madeline try to claw him off of her. Bonnie, noticing the commotion, comes to the rescue, and in an immense act of courage shoves Perry o of Celeste, and down the multiple flights of stairs below him.

Perry’s physical death can be viewed as the metaphysical death of toxic masculinity, which often plagues relationships, the workplace, and even high offices of power. Our expectations as a society when a show like this hits the airwaves is that every episode will result in a cat fight over petty issues or a misread look in the wrong direction. Big Little Lies is different. It paints a picture of strong, independent women who are pitted against one another as a result of rumors and bad blood. But when a more threatening entity arises, it is the duty of the women to band together, no matter the odds, in order to defeat that entity.

Perry represents toxic masculinity personified; the “mothers of Monterey” represent the movements and marches we witnessed leading up to the 2016 election and thereafter. They stand as a testament of resistance, of defiance, of hope for a more dignified future.

Witherspoon describes her production company, Pacific Standard, which had a part in pioneering the miniseries, as a platform that “elevates and champions female storytelling, and works to creates and curate powerful content by and for women.”

In a recent interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Witherspoon said, “There’s a huge female audience in television that we want to service and help, and projects like Big Little Lies help authenticate the female experience through storytelling.”

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