Fair warning, we’re about to spoil “Big Little Lies” for you. If you’re still making your way through this addictive murder mystery, then step away. If not, you obviously understand why we’re going absolutely gaga over the female characters in HBO’s newest hit.
It’s amazing what happens when you let women be people instead of props.
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Straight from the pilot, the women in this miniseries instantly grasp your attention. We’ve got Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), the stay at home mommy whose overdramatic personality is perfect for her part-time job at the local community theater. There’s Jane (Shailene Woodley), the single mom who sleeps with a gun under her pillow and a potentially troubled son in the room next door. And perhaps the most complicated of the bunch, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), has the perfect life to the perfect man and perfect towheaded twins — if you don’t count the fact that her husband regularly beats the crap out of her.
Other fierce females like Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), Renata (Laura Dern) and even Madeline’s socially conscious teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) catch the eye, as complex and sometimes misguided individuals instead of hollow caricatures; something that more often than not tends to happen with women who don’t hold the focus of the main plot on TV.
What makes these women so interesting is not the drama, scandal or even the impending murder that surrounds their lives and communities. It’s the fact that each of them has a past, and a personality so different from the next that it breaks them out of any stereotype or box you’d want to slot them in.
It would be easy to write Madeline off as the overbearing helicopter mom, whose vanity and pride dictate her every move. “Big Little Lies” plays into that trope at times, but more often than not depicts Madeline’s loneliness and insecurities as the driving force behind the crazy things she does. Rather than constantly pitting her against her ex-husband’s new wife (who can’t resist a catfight, right?) the show instead focuses in on her combative relationship with her ex, and how the memory of his constant laziness during their own marriage is constantly shoved in her face as he makes every effort to please his new wife and child.
Who needs something as hollow as jealousy over the hot new wife, when you can instead depict jealousy over the love and sense of partnership she quite obviously inspires in your ex?
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In a similar fashion, Jane is not simply the victim of her own story in a way that many characters who suffer sexual assault become. It seems like nothing can break this girl’s spirit; not even raising the child of her rapist when he seems to be exhibiting his father’s violent tendencies. We get to see her fall to pieces and build herself back up several times, all while supporting her little family through the worst of times and getting her son the help he needs.
That part really stuck out in Jane’s arc. When confronted with the possibility that her son could have harmed a young girl, Jane doesn’t write it off or dismiss it. She takes that kid to a child psychologist even when it’s obvious money is tight. While she makes every effort to make him feel believed and supported, she also doesn’t let her own bias make a potentially violent situation worse. Jane very consciously makes the decision to put that little girl’s safety over her own anxiety about what her son inherited from his father.
Finally, we reach Celeste. Dear God, the complexity of this woman is astounding.
It’s hard to tell whether Celeste has always been violent — and even gotten aroused at that violence — or whether this behavior has been programmed into her as a way to cope with her abuse. Either way, it makes for a truly interesting twist in this domestic abuse storyline that we always knew would end in tragedy. Celeste takes so much of the blame for the situation on herself, and not in the “Oh, how sad, the victim always thinks it’s her fault,” kind of way: She owns up to her own violence and bad behavior in a very real and heartbreaking way that doesn’t invalidate the awfulness of her situation. Watching her battle through the decision to leave a man she truly, deeply loves because he hurts her is as inspiring as it is distressing.
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It’s not surprising that audiences connected with these three women so passionately, considering they were afforded the kind of stories and attention that women don’t often receive on television. Violence, fear, pride and despair are all woven perfectly into the narrative to create a cocktail of complexity we love to see in female characters.
“Big Little Lies” spits in the face of something so easily passed as the Bechdel Test, and goes for the gold by telling deeply personal stories of women that have very little to do with the men in their lives. The show didn’t trivialize the male characters — we could write an entire essay on the messed up dynamic between Ed (Adam Scott) and Nathan (James Tupper) — but they are simply not the most important pillar of these women’s personalities. It’s refreshing to see women whose romantic lives are raw, and real, and not exactly pretty sometimes, because it makes them human.
No matter how much escapism people need or want from their chosen entertainment, stories like this that don’t let you escape are just as important in the landscape of TV as vampires, sexy doctors and superheroes.
“Big Little Lies” is available for streaming on HBO.
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