The juicy final episode of HBO’s “Big Little Lies” revealed, as promised, who died and who done it. The murder mystery (if that death can be ruled a murder) was the least of the reasons to watch this mini-series — more on that later — but it did deliver on the minimal promise of the genre. At the end, we got a verdict.
But judgment — delicious, shameful judgment — that we got from beginning to end. Judgment was the series’ metier and its medium. Guilt — the guilt laid upon parents and especially mothers — was its true subject. Its strength was in how it let its audience indulge in judgment while the show itself suspended it.
Who was guilty among the moms of Monterey, California? She was, and she was, and she was, and she was, and she was. For being too poor, or too rich. For being overambitious, or underaccomplished. For being too hot, or not hot enough. For being too mean, or too nice. For being.
Judgment was issued by the characters and upon them. The members of the school community, interviewed about the killing that the show was keeping from us, were a catty Greek chorus. About Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), one of them said: “She grew up wanting to be Betty Grable. Ended up Betty Crocker.”
Madeline, for her part, judges her neighbors, especially Renata (Laura Dern). She judges her new husband, Ed (Adam Scott), to his face, without even realizing it, by way of complaining about her ex’s remarriage to a young yoga instructor, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz): “He got it all. He won.” (Ouch.)
Oh, and you were judging too, dear viewer, if you are not made of stone. Try to deny it! The tony setting and accouterments of “Big Little Lies” (which the show’s creator, David E. Kelley, transposed to California from the source novel’s Australia) were custom-made to fire the judgment synapses honed by years of class-conscious dramas and Bravo reality shows.
The lavish homes with their walls of windows (actual glass houses!), the fetishized beach, the fantastic stemware: All of it was coded to suggest an environment of privileged people fit for comeuppance and punishment. The arrival of Jane (Shailene Woodley), the single mom trying to make ends meet, resonated with a history of stories about the underprivileged, picked-upon outsider.
I watched “Big Little Lies” in Park Slope, Brooklyn, where performative parenting among the ostensibly laid-back grows organic and free-range. (For the East Coast take on this theme, see NBC’s 2015 “The Slap.”) But the core of this story is familiar anywhere: that kids are the world’s greatest font of guilt, an opportunity to relive your childhood anxieties in miniature and see their problems as repudiations of your own life choices.
The only force not rendering judgment in “Big Little Lies” was “Big Little Lies” itself, and the show’s empathy was its strength. Take Dern’s Renata. The show cued you early on to see her, as Madeline does, as a self-superior snob.
But as “Big Little Lies” went on, it explained Renata without excusing her. If she projected her issues onto her daughter, those issues were not imaginary. She was herself judged, in this Thunderdome of quantity-time parenting, for having a job that denied her playground face-time. She might be pushy and self-serving, but that didn’t come from nowhere. (Dern was perfectly cast, having played a character whose flaws were entangled with idealism in HBO’s “Enlightened.”)
The series’ willingness to suspend judgment and observe served it best in the abusive marriage of Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), which it presented first as a messy relationship of passion that boiled over into violence. It’s not that the show excused Perry, but it made clear how dangerous his abuse and Celeste’s denial were. To do that, it needed to show the audience how she could enter into that denial in the first place.
The murder mystery itself was the weakest element of “Big Little Lies,” though it was probably necessary to get the show made. Even on HBO, even in the age of Peak TV, you still need an excuse, a hook, in order to tell dramatic stories about domestic life. “This Is Us,” NBC’s big fall hit, had a narrative gimmick in its pilot and a life-and-death mystery through the end of its season.
“Big Little Lies” resolved the whodunit through a version of the “Murder on the Orient Express” gambit: Everybody done it, or at least — if Bonnie gave the final push — had a hand in it. The finale came a little too neatly to its peaceable conclusion, where the five women found common ground — that ground being the covetable beachfront where the kids frolicked ready for Instagram, no filter necessary.
But it also found a clarity in Kidman’s remarkable performance, as Celeste readied to leave Perry and confronted the fact that her son Max was the bully, embracing him and telling him, wrenchingly, “We all do bad things sometimes.”
Of course, a little voice inside me couldn’t keep quiet. Sure, we all do bad things, but we don’t all strangle people!
Then again, this was only one moment. Celeste was ending her marriage. She needed to extend Max the forgiveness that she could not afford to extend to Perry. For her son, she had to believe, there was still time.
In the end, who was I to judge?