Email Roundtable #56 – Big Little Lies

In this week’s roundtable Jane and Kerri attempt to discuss Big Little Lies, the HBO mini-series about a group of women whose children are all in the same first-grade class. At the beginning of the series, Shailene Woodley’s character, Jane, moves into the Monterey Bay area and is quickly befriended by Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste (Nicole Kidman). Things take a turn when Jane’s son, Ziggy, is accused of attacking the daughter of Renata (Laura Dern). The truth is hard to come by. Big Little Lies involves multiple MYSTERIES (some big, some little) and there are MODERATE spoilers ahead. Read on at your own risk. 

There were a number of performances, usually musical, during the series. There are even some (with the moms and then the kids) in the opening sequence. What did you think performance (in general) meant within the world of show? What did “putting on an act/show” mean to you throughout the course of the series?

Jane: I like the term putting on a show. It reminds me of being a kid and putting on weird plays or whatever for my family. It was such thrill to be in command of someone’s attention. Throughout the series, I often got this “watch me, watch me” vibe from the kids and the adults. In the opening sequence; the tone shifts as the camera cuts back and forth between light and dark images framed by the kids playing grownups and the grownups playing kids for an invisible spectator.

I think the line between adult and kid gets blurry in BLL. I love to watch adults playing but there were points in the series where there is menace in their playtime. The finale is the most blatant example. There are all these adults dressed up in Elvis and Audrey costumes play acting. The costumes are a reminder that we were/are all kids. We all want to put on a show and be watched and liked. The wrong reaction to our performances instantly blackens the world. When Madeline surveys the party she observes that most eyes are on her. The camera reveals the expressions of the watchers and captures what Madeline suspects is a sharp shift from envy to judgement. She is instantly alone in a space full of people dressed like her.

Kerri: There is something that the show does expertly with performances and performing. There are specific performances that are embedded into the story of the series. These performances are clues to the audience to focus on the more day-to-day performances that are happening with each of the characters. There are the performances that happen at the end of the series at the “Elvis & Audrey” trivia night (why, by the way, is this a trivia night? Where is the trivia? If any trivia IS involved it must be of the most glamorous/least nerdy variety); there are the delightful lip-synch performances by Ziggy and the music loving whiz-kid, Chloe; there is Ed’s earlier full-on white jumper suited Elvis; and there is the Madeline-produced, town hall-maligned version of Avenue Q. Performance is all around us. These performances are fun and frivolous. But then there are the nefarious or dangerous performances. The performances people give when they go out in the world. I’m thinking specifically of course of Perry and Celeste. They are the “perfect couple” on the outside, on the surface. But their life is full of violence and manipulation. Perry is a monster and the “world’s greatest dad”. Celeste is smart, successful, beautiful and an expert at holding everything in. Everyone is hiding something on the show and acting to varying degrees. Perry and Celeste are just the most obvious example.

How did the performances in the karaoke (for lack of a better word) concert affect your view of the three characters and how they connect to the ending. Even if its feelings the performances brought out.

 Kerri: For starters, there was plenty that was ominous about that whole scene and “Audrey and Elvis” event. Everything happening with almost every one of the characters, in their romantic relationships, carries a sense (to wildly varying degrees) of dread. The horrifying moments with Celeste and Perry the precede and then intercut what is going on at the event are, for me, impossible to separate from each other. The scene itself is shot beautifully and everyone looks amazing but it’s that dread that infects everything. The three performances (by Bonnie, Ed and Nathan) too are all quite stunning (to the point where I said out loud, “is everyone in this town a professional singer?”) but they all have this weight. They are sad. Beautiful but sad. Violence begins Nathan’s performance after his encounter with Ed. Ed’s performance is full of desperation and despair as he discovers, while on stage, what he believes is going on with his wife and another man (he’s right). Bonnie is the character that I feel I know the least after watching the show. Her performance is incredible (everyone comments about how great she is) but at the time I was watching, it didn’t offer anything to me other than what it was. Now that I’m thinking about its connection to the ending, I feel like there was so much in Bonnie that no one knew was there. Her singing for one and, then, also what happens in relation to the mystery, the other women and the end of the series. Bonnie herself is a mystery. As, really, everyone was.

Jane: For me the talent show created an effectively confusing blend of playtime and danger. My feelings were flying all over the place. It was the perfect backdrop as tension swelled in the story. Each of the three performances baffled and delighted me.

Ed’s performance was surprisingly good but his voice was too meek for expressions of love in the lyrics. His performance was the most childlike. He wanted the words to be true but he knew that they weren’t. He is unable to fake it like the other characters on the show. I hate when people use the term “Lynch-ean” so I’m going to be a huge hypocrite here, because his performance was SO Lynch. It had wonder and horror and mystery all perfectly intertwined. And Laura Dern was there.

Bonnie also had a beautiful voice. She looked ethereal as she swayed under the palm leaves bathed in soft light. It should have been a powerful performance but there was something hollow in it. She never let us in. There was something wrong about the beauty we were seeing and hearing. This hollowness made her guttural cry at the end of the series so haunting. It was her only real moment and it was cutting.

And then there’s Nathan. Why was he such a good singer?!? The show set up the expectation that he wouldn’t be. He shouldn’t be. He’s such an emotionally clueless, childish jerk. I still can’t figure out where that voice came from. His song was the only performance that let the audience inside. It was powerful and vulnerable. . . and made NO sense! I loved it! I was so happy for him (that he was better than Ed) in spite of myself.

Not only is Big Little Lies a “whodunnit” but it is also a “who got done”. The answer to both mysteries aren’t revealed until the last episode. Did the mysteries work for you and what was your reaction to the reveal? 

Jane: It worked in the beginning. The mystery drew me in and got me interested in the characters and the show. However, as the layers of the characters begin to deepen, I was much more interested in their internal mysteries. The framing device of the interviews and the detectives started to feel gimmicky. I just wanted to get on with it! It also made me really dislike the other members of the town. They were so catty and two-faced. This seemed especially callous when it is revealed who was murdered and why.

Kerri: There are things that worked for me while watching Big Little Lies and then there are things that didn’t. Some of the more clunky dialogue (especially in the scenes between Madeline and Jane at the coffee shop, even though I loved both of those characters), for instance. And then, the murder. That sounds like a criticism and it’s not, well at least not really. The mystery, because of the way that the show is structured, mostly takes a back seat to the characters and relationships (and the INCREDIBLE PERFORMANCES, uniformly) that are the real stars of the show. The mystery becomes this kind of nagging thing in each episode. I knew it was there but I could kind of care less if we ever got to it. And when the BIG REVEAL happens in the last episode, it seems entirely possible and in keeping with what we know of the characters, but I also kind of wished everything wasn’t so interconnected. For the most part, I was fascinated by the way these women (always, always the women) befriended or made enemies of each other. The way these women were mothers. The way these women behaved with their respective partners. The way these women stood in their houses. Stood by a pool, by a sink, by a staircase (oh god, Renata’s house!). The mystery was secondary and I think that was by design. Because there is the BIG lie within the story of the show and then there are the LITTLE ones. And it’s the little ones that held my interest.

Big Little Lies is so stunning visually, it often took my breath away. Do you have a favourite visual or series of visuals?

Jane: In the opening sequence, there are several shots of characters driving and being quiet and thinking. These moments became my favourite part of the stellar opening. You don’t often see the BLL characters as themselves. They are always piling on to their exteriors, what they want others to see. I don’t think it’s easy to show characters just being, especially these characters. I felt like I was spying (and I liked it!)

Kerri: My favourite set of visuals was also the opening credit sequence. It captured so many things that became important to the series as a whole: driving, those beautiful beaches, and the shots of the kids “play-acting” as they dance and pose to the camera, mirrored by the women cat-walking toward the camera in their Audrey Hepburn costumes. Few opening sequences say so very much about a show and not many have pulled me in as immediately as this one.

Final Shoutouts?

Kerri: We hardly talked about Laura Dern, so I think a shout out is in order there! I’d like to give a shout out to Madeline and Ed’s kitchen and that amazing island in the middle. I’d also like to steal Chloe’s iPod.

Jane: That water! It so easily could have been a cliché but in the hands of BLL the water was a cast member. It was everything the characters were: mysterious, light, violent, innocent, dangerous, playful and had so many secrets hiding below a beautifully calm surface. In the sequence that reveals the mystery; the shots of waves crashing against rocks intercut with the violence of the scene was terrifying. The final crash made me gasp. Then there was this beautiful calm. It was a relief for a moment but there was also something haunting in the sea’s swaying without sound.

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