What Lies Beneath
The final scene of Big Little Lies is of the five female protagonists playing on the beach with their children; the very last shot frames this innocent activity through the lenses of a pair of binoculars. That they are most likely held by a female detective, subverting the trope (and, uh, general perspective of mainstream cinema) of the male Peeping Tom, is perfect: this is a show (aired in the States on HBO) that has arrived draped in the trappings of Prestige TV, but has undermined them at every opportunity.
A couple of people have joked on Twitter that Big Little Lies plays like a female-centric reboot of True Detective (my humble contribution: “True D without the D”). It’s not really a joke, though; or, like most Twitter jokes it isn’t a very funny one: both feature sexual abuse, disintegrating marriages, a gruesome murder, a fragmented narrative structure, and a lingering focus on landscapes as the impassive backdrop to the trauma playing out in front of them.
But think how differently the camera approaches those concerns. In True Detective (there was only one season; the Colin Farrell sequel is a collective fever-dream), nude female bodies are plonked front and centre, either gruesomely mutilated or naughtily titillating – it’s porn, basically, either way. In Big Little Lies, we get regular glimpses of Nicole Kidman’s naked form, but frequently it is just before, or after, she has been subjected to horrific domestic abuse; there are also frequent scenes in flashback to a dishevelled Shailene Woodley basically topless in a sultry low-cut blue dress; her character in this timeline has just been raped.
Unlike Westworld, which wanted to have its cake and eat it, “critiquing” prestige cable’s lust for sex and violence and sexual violence while basically playing out like a teenage boy’s clammy-palmed Grand Theft Auto wank-fantasy, Big Little Lies does force us to confront the dark, unpleasant instincts that are at the heart of our lust for lurid storytelling presented like high art. “Prestige” is a frame you put around something, and Big Little Lies’ frame is gorgeous, but it’s also shaped in such a way that you’re forced to notice it. These are not the stories you’re used to seeing, the show says – What have you missed?
It does something similarly effective – but altogether subtler – in the way it allows its story to unspool. Where True Detective comes on like a guy whose two-foot schlong enters the room whole seconds before the rest of him does, laying its cards – Murder! Sexual Violence! Southern Gothic! – on the table as early as its opening credits sequence, Big Little Lies starts off in a way deliberately engineered to feel slight (even its title self-deprecates). The opening credits portray it as glassy lifestyle porn with fancy cars and nice clothes and pretty scenery; the opening episode features a murder but its real draw is the salacious potential of bitchy catfighting – all sass and shade and flame emoji putdowns. The instinct – my instinct – was to dismiss it as enjoyable trash, a gaudy high-budget soap. I did.
In my defence, I think that was the point. Our (my) inherent cultural myopia is built into the structure of the show, whose central, most wrenching storyline is precisely about how something can be very different under the surface from how it initially appears. In the first episode I got a creepy David Lynch vibe from the weird psychosexual games Alexandar Sarsgaard’s Perry played with Nicole Kidman’s Celeste: it seemed like a kink they were both equally into. By the final episode, when we see Perry brutally beating Celeste while their twin sons listen downstairs, the truth is undeniable, and the show we are watching has transformed from slight but riotous trashy fun, the sort of thing to binge on a Sunday night label-deep in your second bottle of oaky Californian Chardonnay, to an experience altogether more sober, and sobering.
Of all this show’s great achievements – the outfits, the hardcore real estate porn, the cinematography, the richly drawn characters, the music – this moment of realisation may be its most important legacy. To me, at least, this was a show about how easily – unconsciously – women are dismissed, whether as victims of abuse – the steps Celeste would have to go through to secure custody of her children, as listed by her therapist, make this poignantly clear – or as the central protagonists for a high-budget, glossy cable TV miniseries. This was some of the most compelling, wonderfully acted, gut-wrenching television I have watched in years; the violence and catharsis of the scene showing how Perry met his demise was uplifting, but also heart-breaking. There is nothing to suggest any sort of systematic closure; the next generation of possible abusers is growing up so fast already. It took five women to bring down one man bent on hurting them and stripping away their agency. How many shows like Big Little Lies will it take for HBO to stop making shows like True Detective?