In February, HBO premiered its new miniseries “Big Little Lies” based on the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty. The show follows five different women, each at a different phase in their lives, each with different forms of baggage, but all of whom have children who attend elementary school in wealthy Monterey, California. Quite novel for any TV show on a major network, the show is very much driven by its female cast, and each woman is displayed as a complex, nuanced individual. For me, one of the most interesting aspects of the show is the way in which it displays relationships as most of us know them to be in real life. It doesn’t outwardly pathologize or idealize any one relationship—although it does leave us room to judge which of the relationships is the most healthy or most unhealthy.
Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is both high strung and fiercely protective of her family and friends. She and her second husband Ed seem to truly get along, with one major problem: their relationship lacks the passion Madeline so desperately craves. To view her dissatisfaction with him, while simultaneously watching his undying support for her, even as she repeatedly rants about her ex, is equal parts heartbreaking and completely understandable.
“I may not be the good looking, adventure ride,” Ed says to Madeline in Episode 2. “But there is something to be said for being there, for being truthful, for being someone you can steadfastly count on.” And most of us would probably agree that there truly is something to be said for that. That this kind of relationship is the relationship the better part of us should want and strive for.
But we also empathize with Madeline during an awkward sex scene in Episode 5 where she attempts to retrieve some of the passion missing in their relationship and asks him to have sex with him on the kitchen counter. The scene feels only slightly cringeworthy at best. Five minutes later, we watch Ed lovingly interact with their young daughter Chloe and remember what a good father he is. Our consciences are left running in circles.
Juxtapose that with Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry (the ridiculously good-looking Alexander Skarsgård). Their relationship oozes with sexual passion, often to the point of nausea for the other characters on the show. But their relationship is also laced with very serious violence.
Charismatic Perry often treats her “like a goddess,” but even more often is extremely controlling. He frequently chokes, slaps, and hits her. This physical violence often evolves into sex, sex that leaves both the audience and Celeste herself left to question whether or not it is consensual. In the opening of Episode 5, Perry returns home early from a tennis match and he and Celeste have aggressive sex in the kitchen. The sex leaves her with bruises and after it’s over he kisses her bruises and buries his head in her chest. As an audience, we’re left wondering if we just watched an enviably hot sex scene, or an instance of marital rape. And in that gray area is where the genius of “Big Little Lies” lives.
“We fight a lot, we yell, we scream. We just have a lot of anger that we need some help controlling,” Celeste tells the couple’s therapist (and herself). “We both become violent sometimes, I take my share of the blame,” she continues. “I’m not a victim here.”
Rather than glamorizing abusive relationships—as so many shows unfortunately do—it accurately portrays the complexity of abuse. It shows viewers exactly why it is so hard to leave an abusive relationship and in doing so, does victims of domestic violence a great justice.
It leaves both male and female viewers questioning the way they behave towards the opposite sex. And just as importantly, it proves that women’s lives, just as they are today, are interesting as hell.