How Big Little Lies reveals the underlying pressures of American society

The hit HBO show focuses on the emotional realities of three mothers.


Roxanne Sancto


The title sequence set to Michael Kiwanuka’s Cold Little Hearts sees the main characters in Big Little Lies cruising the winding roads of Monterey, California, their eyes only ever straying on from the empty streets ahead to check the rear-view mirror and the treasures they guard with their lives: their children. The seaside backdrop and the ebb and tide of ambiguous silhouettes insinuating dark secrets to be found beneath a seemingly shallow existence, set the tone for a show in which the women are the undeniable orchestrators of a community’s downfall.

Men, though in many cases responsible for the festering rage that drives these women, become secondary characters with little to no say in their everyday lives and questions of child rearing. Husbands are practically rendered insignificant; they may be facing their own power struggles between them, but their league ranks on amateur levels in comparison to the intrigues and subliminal messaging their wives rule the schoolyards, carpools and households with on a daily basis.

Following the pilot episode – not so subtly titled ‘Somebody’s Dead’ – it is clear there is more to the politics surrounding Monterey’s club of Momma Bears. Introducing the town, its characters and usual dynamics through the eyes of new resident Jane (Shailene Woodley), the difference between her and the local, privileged women Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Madeleine (Reese Witherspoon) and Renata (Laura Dern) is immediately noted, but not dwelled upon.

Set in the not-so-distant past, the episode repeatedly skips to the present, in which the town’s people find themselves under questioning after the body of a woman is found washed up on the beach the morning after an extravagant Elvis and Audrey Hepburn themed fundraising party. The victim’s name has yet to be spoken, but upon reading between the lines, it’s safe to assume it is one of the Monterey women.

The intrigue is not immediate but builds on silent flashbacks, terrifying pieces of a horrific puzzle that make up Jane’s painful past. Even though Madeleine and Celeste, the two mothers she befriends on Ziggy’s (Iain Armitage) first day of school, move in affluent circles, they welcome her and offer much needed support – particularly Madeleine. This new connection threatens to be jeopardised when Ziggy is accused of trying to choke Renata’s daughter Amabella (Ivy George).

Renata, being one of the most influential women in town, has the power to make Jane and Ziggy’s life miserable but Madeleine is adamant not to let that happen. But although Jane is quick to stand up for her son, part of her fears there may have been a truth to Amabelle’s accusations, and the dark, heavily atmospheric flashbacks seem to confirm this theory.

In the third episode, ‘Living the Dream’, it is revealed that Ziggy is the product of a violent rape, and although Jane is doing her best to offer him the best life possible, she is unable to shake the gruesome events that led to his existence and can’t help but wonder about Ziggy’s genetic makeup. One can only imagine the reaction from the other Monterey mothers should this secret ever make it into the public – the competition between working, stay-at-home and tiger-mothers is at a constant, parenting insecurities are at an all-time high.

This kind of information circulating amongst the carpool gossip crew will undoubtedly cause for serious consequences. And this really is the driving story behind Big Little Lies; the murder investigation merely acts as a backdrop to the underlying pressures of American society and the darkly competitive streak of suburban living.

Each maternal figure is determined to keep up her respective image in order to distract from the realities that play out behind locked doors. Madeleine is the classic helicopter-parent who lives her life through her children, and feels highly insecure about the fact that her eldest daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) idolises her ex-husband’s hip and open-minded new wife, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz); Renata is a successful business woman who feels guilty for not getting to spend much time with her daughter Amabella and overcompensates with materialistic treats; Celeste is in an outwardly perfect marriage that has grown increasingly volatile and thrives on angry, violent sex.

They are all dealing with their respective personal crises and shame but are adamant to keep up the act in order to safeguard their statuses and that of their children. The mounting stress however, is causing the hive of queen bees to buzz so loudly, they are starting to lose the one thing that keeps them going: control.

With its slow pacing and haunting hints at a dark ending, Big Little Lies set itself apart from other dramas that have previously examined the plight of Desperate Housewives by quietly revelling in the characters’ emotional realities, as well as people’s outside perceptions. Witherspoon truly brings her character to life with insatiable anxiety, anger and sassiness, and the children – especially Iain Armitage and Darby Camp as Chloe – deliver outstanding performances. Set to a mesmerising soundtrack of the likes of Leon Bridges, Fleetwood Mac, PJ Harvey, Otis Redding and Charles Bradley, Big Little Lies promises a tantalising conclusion to its first season.

Published 12 Mar 2017

Tags: Laura Dern Nicole Kidman Reese Witherspoon Shailene Woodley

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