It turns out the mystery didn’t much matter.
The first shocking reveal toward the end of HBO’s miniseries Big Little Lies, which aired its final episode last night, was that the victim of the murder foreshadowed all series long had been cruel Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), pushed down a staircase by Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) in the midst of a crazed melee.
The second was that the identity of the victim, and the killer, ended up playing second fiddle to deep, rich themes that reached their full flower in the show’s final scenes. Throughout the series, both the composed Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and the raw-nerve Jane (Shailene Woodley) suffered, in different ways, at the hands of Perry. Celeste, Perry’s wife, had been brutally beaten and—as revealed in therapy scenes in which Celeste refuses to concede to herself what is obvious—convinced she could never leave her marriage. Jane, a newcomer to the show’s upscale seaside community running from unnamed trauma, initially seemed disconnected from the show’s action. But the pain in her past turned out to have been Perry’s having raped her, realized in a moment of wordless communication that proved the power of all the show’s actors.
The end of Perry meant the loss of a husband and father. It also put a conclusive period on a story that, in Celeste’s case, was likely to end in her own death. For Jane, Perry’s continued existence meant the simple absence of justice. Rough though it was, justice was served. But the particulars of how Perry was killed, coming as they do only after we learn he’s died and see the aftermath, matter little, and are treated as such—shot without audio and sped-up, as if to race through a final moment of cruelty before relief arrives. They come, after all, after we learn that the women of Monterey—not just Celeste, Jane, and killer Bonnie, but the bitter social-climber Renata (Laura Dern) and Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), whose bubbliness hid deep hurt—have banded together to protect one another. At a certain point, what difference does it make who did it?
For those who hadn’t read the novel on which Big Little Lies was based (and whose plot it closely follows), there was surely some key-turning-in-lock pleasure at learning the identity of victim and killer. And yet the show was wise to elide much of the novel’s laborious explanation, writing Bonnie as the person who killed Perry not because of complicated backstory but simply because somebody had to. (That it was indeed Bonnie, who’d been something of an outsider to the group, was all the more fitting—even the most unexpected can be saviors.) We miss the women’s explanations to police, most of which are shown without audio, but we see just enough to know that the women have, together, constructed a story about Perry’s having fallen which is just plausible enough. They are free to do what Perry, bent on isolation and control, did not want them to do—live bound not by ties of obligation but ones of friendship.
The show’s final scene, of the characters spending a day at the beach, feels free in a way nothing before it had; the show’s haute-California-casual look had been a somewhat confining prison up until now, when it finally looks relaxing. They’re finally free. Big Little Lies has a core of unapologetic “genre” to it—which is to say that it is pulpy enough to use death, sex, and outsized emotionality to make its points. But the treatment of the series as a revival of Desperate Housewives with A-listers has been frankly a bit mystifying; those same elements have been at the center of more or less every serious TV drama of the past decade, from The Americans to The Leftovers to Mad Men.
Big Little Lies provided actresses with opportunities to do serious, great work—it’s been gratifying in particular to see Kidman, one of the finest performers working today, get the level of praise that’s eluded her, somewhat, in recent film work. That said work begins with a “mystery” takes nothing away from it, but it’s all the more gratifying that the show both provided an answer and dismissed the need for one. Big Little Lies is well-made enough to provide satisfaction, and sophisticated enough to know that pleasures can come not just from following old narrative beats but from crafting wholly new ones. A solution to a mystery is easy enough; depicting the coming-together of an unlikely community, and making us feel for each member, is hard and worthwhile.
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