Abuse is a heavy and complex issue that is too often misrepresented in film and television. It’s sensationalized, exploited for the sexual pleasure of men, and unfounded by research. However, recent shows have heralded in a new era of television that finally portrays abuse in a reasonable, relatable light. One prime example is Big Little Lies, a critically-acclaimed HBO show with a prominent cast and a powerful message; the stories of abuse victims deserve to be told and they are much more than just a growing statistic. Not only does it address the struggles of victims, Big Little Lies dives deep into other topics such as womanhood, being a mother, unattainable societal expectations, and aims to reduce stigmas and silence concerning such issues.
Things are not always as they seem. Big Little Lies presents itself as a who-done-it story, as the first episode opens with a murder investigation underfoot, the killer and victim remaining unnamed. The townspeople— excluding the five protagonists and their families— are interrogated by the authorities, providing commentary on our cast of characters and the events that unfold. At its heart, however, Big Little Lies is a story about abuse through a distinctly feminine lens and its murder mystery plot is merely an extension of the aforementioned storyline.
The show begins with Jane Chapman, a young single mom, who is new to the tight-knit community of Monterey. She serves as the audience’s eyes, a protagonist, and plays a pivotal role in the events that unfold. It’s easy for viewers to relate to Jane; like her, we are strangers to this beautiful, perfect town and all its equally dazzling characters. Upon our introduction to her, Jane comes off as awkward, inexperienced, and a bit of an outcast. She is one of five female characters that the audience follows as the show progresses. Among those are Madeline Mackenzie, Bonnie Carlson, Renata Klein, and Celeste Wright. While each woman plays a crucial role in the story, with their own forms of strife, the most relevant one when it comes to the topic of abuse is Celeste.
As opposed to Jane, Celeste Wright seems to be a well-respected and accepted member of the community that has everything she could possibly want out of life. On the surface they appear to be very different women, living completely parallel lives. However, these women are complex, layered characters that go beyond our first impressions of them. They share the trauma that comes with abuse at the hands of the same man and are struggling to carry that burden. The compulsion to maintain appearances, to strive for nothing less than perfection, to ignore anything that poses a danger to it, is a damaging but grounding mentality of the picturesque community of Monterey. We see how it affects its residents in big and little ways, from the stress of Madeline’s ongoing affair to the burden of Celeste’s trauma. Especially in a female-driven show, it speaks on the tendencies of society— as well as women— to repress, stay silent, and internalize.
Celeste Wright hides behind long sleeves and concealer, determined to eradicate any spill-over of abuse into her public life. She tells her therapist, “Perhaps my self-worth is made up of how other people see me.” Her way of coping with the shame and low self-esteem is by winning the validation of others, though it’s often at the cost of her happiness. In her eyes, allowing anyone to get too close could upset the fragility of her toxic marriage and continuous denial of the horrors she faces. She works hard to hide herself from others, but is unmotivated to permanently end the vicious cycle of abuse. Her reasoning for this is that she doesn’t need to, as long as no one else knows and her reputation remains untarnished. It’s a lie not only to everyone she knows, but to herself as well.
Jane Chapman, on the other hand, fights against her trauma with a vengeance. While Celeste allows herself to slip away, Jane is determined to escape her past. She moves towns in constant search of “fresh starts” as if on the run. As much as she does not wish to be defined by her past, she can’t change it, which leads to a great deal of despair and frustration on her part: “I pretended it meant nothing so of course, it came to mean everything.” Jane swallows this pain, to stay strong for herself and her son. It’s the best she can do, given her circumstances. For Jane, things only begin to improve once she stops looking for her abuser, once he’s dead, and once she has friends to help her navigate this new life.
It was disappointing that season two opted for adding several subplots that served no purpose other than complicating the lives of the Monterey Five. I was hoping the second season would emphasize the aftermath of Perry’s death, the endurance of female friendships, and recovery. It would have made more sense for it to focus on the women coming to terms with their shortcomings and learning to let go of perfection.
However, the delicacy with which the show handled Celeste and Jane’s trauma is admirable, acknowledging that it’s not something that simply disappears once an abuser has left their victim. It also showed the struggles real abuse victims face: accusations of lying, victim-blaming, and failures to enact restorative legal justice. Jane and Celeste’s complicated relationships with sex are also thoroughly explored; a paralyzing fear of intimacy, spontaneous and reckless sex. It continues to tell the stories of those in the aftermath of abuse.
Bonnie Carlson, who spends the majority of season one as a background character, is brought to the centre of the story. Out of all the Monterey Five, she’s the most impacted by the lie. Bonnie was the one to push Perry down a flight of stairs and lives with the knowledge that she was responsible for that man’s death. In the first season, Bonnie seems nothing more than a conveniently-placed problem for Madeline, her sage disposition and maturity the source of Madeline’s resentment. The second season offers a new perspective on Bonnie, albeit a slightly problematic one. It’s revealed that Bonnie’s own mother was abusive, which explains why her reaction to Perry hitting Celeste was so visceral. There are many issues with the way Bonnie and her mother are portrayed in the second season, such as a failure to address the issue of race.
Her story isn’t nearly as developed as those of the other women, but it still gets its point across. That point is that the effects of abuse are long-lasting and universal; all these women couldn’t differ more in background, yet they’re so similar in how they manifest their trauma.
Bonnie is spitefully described by Madeline in the first episode as “bohemian and all-loving” and viewers might be inclined to agree with that interpretation. Who Bonnie really is, however, is a troubled woman trying to find peace in a chaotic and stressful world. Similarities can easily be drawn between her and Jane Chapman, both trying to free themselves of their pasts. Bonnie’s mother Elizabeth remarks to Bonnie how fond she is of “her walls” in regards to how she’s shut out her friends and family. This avoidance of Bonnie’s is in place to protect herself from others, a learned self-reliance from being unable to trust her own parents. She’s unsure of how to reach out in times of need, because she never had the luxury of doing so in her earlier years. Whatever the case, Bonnie suffers in silence and solitude.
Mary Louise, Celeste’s suspicious mother-in-law, plays a crucial role in the story of victims. She represents every person and voice that has rose in opposition against those brave enough to share their stories with the world. Hypocritical, manipulative, and cruel are her defining characteristics, though even she has her own complexities that the show doesn’t fail to reveal. She is a grieving mother that is quick to blame others for her loss, because the alternative is to blame herself. This is evident in how she projects her rage onto the five women after Perry’s death and on Perry after his brother Raymond’s death.
Big Little Lies is a story of victims. It’s easy to blame one person or one event, though things are always much more complicated than that. There are turbulent childhoods, histories of abandonment and poverty, lost loved ones, deeply-rooted fears. The lines between victim and abuser blur, as do the boundaries between good and bad, happy and miserable. The name of the show itself is a contradiction, a reflection of these coexisting opposites, Big Little Lies.
Technical: Storytelling Through Vignettes
The stylistic choice of incorporating two-second shots seems unnecessary in principle, though it provides a background of anxiety that effectively creates suspense while not diverting attention from the main story arc. We catch glimpses of Jane’s one-night stand with her rapist, memories of violence and humiliation. Mysterious footprints on a beach, automatic blinds whirring shut, the dripping of water.
The best example of this technique is during a conversation between Celeste and her therapist in episode five of the first season. When Dr. Reisman asks Celeste if she’s ever been afraid for her life, Celeste shakes her head and looks away.
Without warning, it transitions from the therapist’s office to a scene that was previously missing from the storyline. Earlier in the episode, Perry was shown to be upset with her. When Celeste tries to speak up for herself, he silently begins cleaning up the mess himself despite his wife’s protestations. He ignores her, verbally degrades her, then guilts her. We, the viewer, can feel Celeste’s confusion, contempt, and fear— yet we are powerless to act on that surge of emotion. It’s a gripping metaphor for Celeste’s predicament; despite everything that has happened to her, she still loves her husband, and is at a loss for how to leave him.
When the flashbacks begin, there’s no fading or black screen. It immediately cuts to Celeste’s hair being pulled and other flickering shots of her and Perry. Then it returns to Celeste in the office, crying. It’s all silent; even Celeste’s scream in the flashback is soundless. Most shows would set the ‘tone’ of this with dark, melodramatic music, but there’s nothing to distract the viewer, no explanation nor narration. There’s the ambience of the therapist’s office— the birds chirping, light breathing, the quiet shifting of Celeste on the couch— but other than that the viewer can only watch in complete horror as Celeste flips back and forth between the present and the past, reliving the same horrific moments from multiple angles, close-ups, and warped replays.
The memories are fragmented little blips that appear on screen for a few seconds, but the fact that they seem to be interwoven with Celeste’s current reality, even when she’s safe, is simultaneously terrifying and heartbreaking. It forces the audience to live and breathe Celeste’s perspective and that’s what makes this show so engrossing. From the way it’s shot, edited, and acted, it nails the psychological horror of trauma; the accompanying despair; the humiliation.
Personal: A Happy Ending
For those that has grown up in violent households, Big Little Lies is a revelation. Its wide array of female protagonists, connected but separate, are heavily relatable in their own ways. Initially, I was a bit skeptical of the show, wondering how on earth I was supposed to identify with upper-class white women; though it became quite clear to me by the end of the first episode what all the praise was about. It subverted my expectations, turned my immense distaste for the characters into something like love.
Big Little Lies handles domestic abuse in such a personal, thoughtful manner that I have never seen before. It plays such a crucial role in the development of the plot as well as characters, and also doesn’t fall into the traps some stories tend to. I found Big Little Lies in a dark time, when my increasingly toxic home life made it nearly impossible to juggle my social and academic responsibilities. The way they ended the first season was heartbreaking, shocking, but most importantly, optimistic. It served as a source of hope for me then, that perhaps I wasn’t alone nor doomed.
The image of footprints running along the beach, once belonging to Perry, are now claimed by children at play. They’d been a recurring association that Jane forms with her mysterious abuser, but not anymore.
Celeste dances at the edge of the shore, her shawl lifted by the breeze to reveal her skin, which she’s spent years meticulously covering up. She doesn’t need to anymore.
The mothers play with one another as easily and freely as children might, laughing under the sun. The five women stand together on the beach in solidarity, looking out towards the sea, unsure of what the future holds for them. They still have their own issues and challenges, but they also have each other. They can breathe now. Everything is going to be okay.