Originally published on ChristianityToday.com, March 10, 2017
Big Little Lies is a lot of things: an adaptation of one of Oprah’s favorite beach novels, a miniseries produced by its stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, an excuse for innumerable shots of the coastline near Big Sur, a murder mystery unfolding in flashback, a satire of the privileged class and helicopter parenting, a melodrama about midlife crises, and a meta-commentary on how Hollywood’s female roles are comparatively less complex than the series’ characters.
While the plot of this new HBO series is moved forward by intertwined tales of mystery and friendship, its clearest preoccupation is the complexity of women’s identities, especially as they approach midlife. In the second episode, Reese Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, gazes thoughtfully toward the ocean when her first grader asks why Mommy so frequently stares at the sea. She answers, “The ocean is powerful. Mostly it’s vast. It’s full of life, mystery. Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface?” “Monsters?” asks Chloe. “Monsters? Maybe,” responds Madeline. “Dreams. Sunken treasure. It’s the great unknown.”
Their exchange works as a metaphor for how this narrative imagines its female characters: lasting but changeable, teeming with life, but maybe hiding beasts in the depths beneath the eye-catching surface.
Set in the town of Monterey, California, the story puts in motion a series of slights and confrontations that resemble a real-life “mommy war.” Central characters Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Renata (Laura Dern) are a veritable pantheon of mom types. Witherspoon is the over-involved “alpha” of the stay-at-home mom set. Kidman puts her almost too-polished cool to good use as the gorgeous mom with the gorgeous life. Dern manages an incredibly brittle yet believable performance as the career woman who juggles school events with corporate board meetings. The fourth notable character is Jane (Shailene Woodley), a young single mom just scraping by who is introduced to us in the first episode when she joins Madeline and Celeste for morning coffee. Leaning back from the table and assessing the scene in front of her—the seaside, the two beautiful moms who’ve invited her—she comments that it feels too perfect for her to belong in it. (Sometimes the metaphors aren’t all that subtle.)
A mystery as central to the series as its murder whodunit is how each of the major characters will navigate challenges to their sense of self. Each appears to the outside world as an archetype of a certain kind of female but is also savvy to how she is being perceived. Some of the most dramatic scenes show us (often private) moments when a woman’s actions or dialogue break with the expected cultural script for her archetype…
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