Film & TV

We'll Miss You, Monterey: Big Little Lies Finale Caps Off a Tumultuous Season

The final episode, "I Want to Know," bids farewell to the moms we grew to love and mistrust.
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Warning: This article contains big (and little) spoilers. 

 

Baseball bats. Baby pink power suits. Big Little Lies. The HBO drama has wrapped up its tumultuous second season in a near-satisfying conclusion, despite the setbacks of the season as a whole. The behind-the-scenes drama of Big Little Lies has rivaled the actual drama on-screen, placing a female director’s creative vision on the backburner for the sake of stylistic continuity, which apparently comes in the form of choppy flashbacks and blink-and-you-miss-it plot points. That being said, the actors’ performances have been some of the strongest of their careers, and the court scene between Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep could go down as one of the best in TV history. For all the series’ flaws, we’re happy to see it go, but we loved to watch it leave.

Bonnie’s characterization received the short end of the stick this season, with her guilt manifesting into woodland jogs and bedside brooding without any of the support of her so-called friends. The reveal that Bonnie herself was a victim of abuse at the hands of her mother rang hollow, especially with the knowledge that in the books, the abuser was her father (and neither of the parents practiced any kind of witchcraft.) Elizabeth’s stroke felt pointless except to give Bonnie another stressor, and Bonnie’s final-episode confession to Nate that she never loved him felt especially disappointing given that it took a woman’s pain and PTSD and made it about her husband instead. As the series’ only prominent woman of color, Bonnie deserved much better, and Zoë Kravitz would have been more than able to take on a challenge. Sadly, the writers didn’t give her much. 

Also shafted this season was Jane (Shailene Woodley), whose lukewarm romance with Corey only briefly simmered when he became the suspect of ratting out the Monterey Five. Jane deserves to be happy (and Ziggy deserves a willing playmate), but the screen time between the two felt awkward and rushed. The writers seemed to understand that Jane needed a love interest without taking the time to develop actual chemistry or magnetism. This stiffness could be a symptom of the post-production team editing out the romance to make room for the dozens of other empty plot points, but Jane, supposed to be one of the top five, took a backseat as an almost peripheral character this past season.

The pastel courtroom look that singlehandedly got Celeste her kids back. (c/o HBO)

 

With a cast this big and with this much star power, it’s natural for priorities to shift. Although Bonnie and Jane didn’t quite make the front row, other standout characters got their time to shine. Renata Klein proved herself to be the most quotable, GIF-able, meme-able character of the season, dealing with her husband’s financial mishaps and infidelity with the grace and poise of the Incredible Hulk. Although we may not have experienced her hardships, we can all relate on a deep, spiritual level to the woman flipping out in a Starbucks and taking a baseball bat to her husband’s man cave. Lines like, “I will not not be rich” will be ricocheting around the Internet for years to come. Her husband Gordon’s insensitivity also struck me as the real villain of this season, prompting many of us to think maybe every season should end in a husband’s murder. As a heavy-handed nod to the series’ final twist, Renata ended her destructive spree with the resolution, “No more bullshit. No more lies.” 

But has truth won out? One of the finale's happier moments occurred when Ed chose to forgive Madeline and renew their wedding vows in an intimate beachside ceremony. What should have been a restorative event soon felt meaningless and even cruel, as hours later, Madeline and the rest of the Monterey Five march into the Police Station, presumably to finally confess. Their friendship was the lie, and it couldn’t tear them apart any longer. This is all well and good, but does Ed know his wife might go to jail right after promising to be the best version of herself? The final scene might come as frustrating to some and inevitable to others, but for a series that floundered for much of its second installment, the confession felt like a fitting conclusion. However, it did make the stakes and the suspense of Celeste’s custody case feel all for naught if she was going to turn around and give herself up anyway. 

Speaking of that court case....let’s talk about Celeste Wright for a second. Or an hour. We’ve watched Nicole Kidman portray a woman in the midst of a breakdown for the better part of seven episodes, battling PTSD, a prying mother-in-law, and her own conflicted emotions surrounding Perry’s abuse. Although Celeste’s friends have been quick to stand up for her and defend her motherhood to Mary Louise, for the most part, she’s been a victim of her own fragility, fraying at the ends and attempting to hide the unraveling from her two boys. Which makes the examination at the opening of the last episode one of the most satisfying (and painful) moments of television to date. Celeste has stepped out of the grieving mother role to become her own advocate, grilling Mary Louise on her own questionable maternal instincts. She revealed that Raymond, Perry’s late brother, died in a car crash while Mary Louise was driving after she lost her temper and veered off the road. The tragedy prompted Mary Louise to blame the surviving son and kicked off a cycle of abuse all-too-familiar to Celeste. The scene culminated in a video of Perry beating Celeste, filmed on the family iPad by the young twins. It’s the bittersweet victory Celeste needed to keep her boys, but it came at the cost of retraumatizing just about every woman in the room. It’s hard to feel bad for a woman like Mary Louise, but Streep plays the grieving grandmother with desperation and a rain-soaked vulnerability that makes you wonder when the vicious cycle actually started. After all, we don’t know the story behind Perry’s father. 

Streep's embodiment of internalized misogyny and self-delusion carried us through this season's otherwise ambling, convoluted plotline. (c/o HBO)

 

Kidman and Streep are two actresses at the height of their craft in an industry that expects them to bow out after 30. For all of the female suffering, Big Little Lies’ greatest success has been the opportunity it gives to tell women’s stories (albeit mostly upper-class, mostly white women) and showcase Hollywood royalty in all the glory they deserve. This legacy makes the conflict with Andrea Arnold all the more disappointing, as female directors are already sidelined even in woman-dominated narratives. Moreover, some of the season’s most off-putting moments have occurred when a female character feels too obviously written by a man (yes, we can tell). Madeline’s wedding-day nostalgia trip felt especially stilted as if the writers got their impression of female behavior purely from rom-coms and a copy of Great Expectations. If more female-led ensemble casts were on the small screen, maybe we wouldn’t feel the need to make each one utterly perfect, but that’s the burden of representation in television. It’s hard enough to do it, and even harder to do it right. 

Now that the truth has come out and the kids are safe (for now), by what will we remember Big Little Lies? (I ask this under the pretense that they won’t deign to make another season.) We’ll miss Madeline’s sharp-talking nosiness and Renata’s PTA outbursts. We’ll miss that picturesque Northern Californian coastline and the hum of '70s classic rock that no seven-year-old in their right mind would ever listen to, but hey, it makes a better aesthetic than Radio Disney. We won’t miss Jane’s bangs, but we respect the trials she endured to get them. We’ll miss beautiful Coastal Living catalog homes and upscale SUVs, coffee dates and midnight beach rendezvouses. No other show has cultivated such an idyllic aesthetic within the mundane, and maybe that’s just what happens when you imagine a world where Nicole Kidman is a normal working mother, or Reese Witherspoon is just another busybody housewife. Despite its scattered renderings, Big Little Lies cast motherhood in a new light, giving beauty and depth to a role that was once considered a career death sentence. We can only hope that the series’ success prompts even greater exploration into these kinds of stories, moving beyond the cushy refuge of Monterey into more diverse territory. 

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