On Sunday, April 2, HBO’s limited series “Big Little Lies” came to its dramatic conclusion. The HBO miniseries is an adaptation of a novel by the same name, penned by Australian author Liane Moriarty, and depicts the tribulations of three power players in picturesque Monterey Bay, California. In the first minutes of the first episode, “Big Little Lies” previews a brutal murder, with both the victim and culprit unknown. Through the following six episodes, this whodunnit feels like a subplot, as the personal trials of the main characters become more and more problematic, and somehow, more interesting than murder.
As the show progresses, the audience gets a closer look at the personal lives of the main characters: Madeleine (Reese Witherspoon), a typical “helicopter mom,” has familial issues after her divorced husband’s new wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) grows close to her eldest daughter. In contrast, Jane (Shailene Woodley) is a new resident of Monterey, and is not endowed with same level of wealth as her friends. Finally, we have Celeste (Nicole Kidman), perhaps the most meticulously created character. Unbeknownst to her friends and family—who constantly drone on about her seemingly perfect life—Celeste’s husband (Alexander Skarsgård) physically abuses her.
While their stories seem disconnected, the first episode creates common ground for the leading characters: their children’s first grade orientation ends in Amabella—Renata’s child (Laura Dern)—being physically bullied by an unknown culprit, leaving bruises on her neck. While she points to Jane’s child, Ziggy, the town is disproportionately split on placing blame. It’s a classic “us against them” complex, but nonetheless, interesting and fresh as it juxtaposes the tensions of first graders and their respective parents. In this, their tribulations are not all that different.
However, the whodunit of both the murder and the bullying seem trivial when juxtaposed with the character development of Nicole Kidman’s character, as well as her volatile relationship with her abusive husband Perry, wonderfully played by Skarsgård. In this, “Big Little Lies” authentically illustrates a case study of domestic violence as it provides a nuanced depiction of how domestic violence really works. It’s never glorified or romanticized. In fact, sometimes it does not even look like domestic violence. The scenes of abuse dance on the periphery of marital rape, with both Celeste and Perry contributing to its ambiguity.
They start from trivial arguments and Perry growing increasingly agitated with Celeste; as the scene continues, often times he displays relatively smaller signs of aggression, whether it’s grabbing her arm too hard or holding her neck with his heavy hands. Celeste fights back—which she does not even consider self-defense, but abuse on her part—in retaliation, usually verbal and rarely physical, with a cry for freedom from his grip. As the struggle develops, they express their rage in sex, casually crossing the line of marital rape with Celeste as the victim.
Ultimately, Nicole Kidman’s character is the backbone of the show because of her character’s development surrounding the domestic abuse. In addition to being one of the lead actresses, Kidman serves as executive producer. In this, she meticulously researched cases of domestic violence to authentically portray the character of Celeste. In an interview with Variety, she described her Celeste and Perry’s volatile relationship as “the dance of death,” which perfectly encapsulates why her character is the backbone of the show: rarely does television depict domestic abuse the why Big Little Lies did, as a slow burning “dance” constantly tiptoeing the periphery of between life and death.
In retrospect, “Big Little Lies” got it right. It provides an unfiltered and unapologetic look into the shroud of a seemingly perfect marriage with violent secrets of domestic abuse. It doesn’t take an easy way out with just a hit, but gives an honest tale of what domestic abuse really looks like in a marriage. All the while, the viewer is casually reminded that eventually, the show will catch up with its beginning sequence of murder and mystery; in this, the viewer reflects: could this murder be the culmination of Perry and Celeste’s abusive marriage?
Photo Credit: HBO