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‘Sex and the City’ in Hell

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Shailene Woodley as Jane, Reese Witherspoon as Madeline, and Nicole Kidman as Celeste in Big Little Lies, 2017

On the surface, the popular HBO miniseries Big Little Lies would appear to be nothing but surface: scenic shots of picturesque Monterey, California; multi-million-dollar mansions with panoramic ocean views; stylishly dressed families eating breakfast at kitchen islands the size of many Manhattan kitchens; the melodrama of soap opera ratcheted up by the same narrative hook—a murder has been committed, but a chorus of peripheral characters debate who the killer might have been, and coyly refuse to tell us who was killed—used by several other premium-channel series (The Affair, True Detective) to inspire viewers to keep choosing their shows over the other available Sunday-night distractions.

Watching Big Little Lies at first feels like eating a pint of ice cream in one sitting, alone. It’s highly enjoyable, as long as one doesn’t think too hard or deeply about what the series is telling us. Not only does it address our aspirational real-estate fantasies and notions of sustaining female friendship; it also considers the misguided ways in which we raise (and smother) our children, the more distasteful realities of marriage, the perpetual, damaging, and frequently violent war between men and women, and the ubiquity of bullying—not only among schoolchildren but also among the adults who presumably know better.

Based on the novel by Australian writer Liane Moriarty and adapted by David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallée, Big Little Lies portrays a group of women whose privileged lives are, predictably, neither as easy nor as enviable as they might appear. As Madeline, Reese Witherspoon—projecting herself into the world like something shot from a cannon—faces a host of first-world problems: her tense relationship with her ex-husband and his sexy young yoga-instructor wife; her resentful teenage daughter; her sweet but boring second husband; and the resultant frustrations that she passionately channels into a community-theater production of the musical Avenue Q. Her friend Celeste (Nicole Kidman) has given up a law career to raise twin sons and placate her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), a man whose attractiveness and charm conceals the soul of an abusive, controlling psycho.

In the first episode, Madeline meets a young woman named Jane (Shailene Woodley) who lives in a modest bungalow that—lacking a terrace on which to sip cocktails as the sun sets over the Pacific—is, by local standards, a Dickensian hovel. A single mom, Jane has moved to Monterey to start a new life with her son Ziggy, the product of a brutal date rape. Madeline, who loves causes, takes on Jane as her pet project, especially after Jane runs afoul of the ferocious Renata (Laura Dern). A powerful Silicon Valley CEO, Renata feels despised and persecuted because she is the only one of the women who works full-time, and her free-floating, manic rage soon finds its inappropriate targets in Jane, the vulnerable newcomer, and the unfortunate Ziggy, who is accused of bullying Renata’s daughter.

These charges, and the children’s unwillingness to refute them, make Jane wonder: Is Ziggy a sadist like his father—or a victim like his mother? Tormented by two equally dire possibilities, Jane recalls her assault, dreams of revenge, and fondles a hand gun that, she tells Madeline, makes her feel more empowered. Indeed, the subject of female empowerment—of sisters doing it for themselves—is an important element in the series, and ultimately determines the final surprise, the big reveal, of the season finale.

And yet as we watch these apparently self-actualized moms gather for coffee at an upscale beach-shack café, we may find ourselves thinking: It’s Sex and the City in hell. The cosmo-drinking gals have gone West, settled down, found their mates—and it hasn’t gone well. Renata has the least awful marriage, as evidenced by a scene in which she and her lawyer-husband have risky sex in the office bathroom during business hours; but in a subsequent episode, he too is shown to be something of a bully. Marital ennui has driven Madeline into an affair with the married director of her musical, a romance that seems to be less about genuine passion than about her having too much time on her hands. And Celeste’s marriage is pure nightmare: the rough sex she enjoys with Perry becomes progressively angrier, more coercive and less consensual. Their violent encounters leave her with bruises that she has learned to conceal with make-up before visiting the couples therapist whom Perry has agreed to see.

What are we meant to conclude about the sexual experiences of women when we realize that two out of four of these smart, beautiful women have been—or are being—abused? Perhaps it’s a sign of the times in which we live, that something intended to be a frothy, sexy Sunday night entertainment (it has been described as “darkly comic”) should turn out to conceal a message about the prevalence of overt and hidden violence against women. After all, we have a president who has boasted about grabbing women by the pussy. It’s hard to keep reality from breaking through the pleasurable fog of escapist TV.

Kidman is an immensely gifted actress, and it’s her performance (far more than the oddly tangential question of who murdered whom) that keeps us riveted. Celeste is, in some ways, a variation on the role that Kidman played in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut: a woman who has learned to survive in a marriage by camouflaging her intelligence and complexity. It’s fascinating to observe the range of emotions, the aspects of personality Kidman projects—pride, dignity, shame, fear, helplessness and assurance, resignation, and determination—and her ability to embody destructive and dangerous contradictions. She’s at once flattered and stirred by Perry’s desire for her—and sensibly terrified of him.  

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Nicole Kidman as Celeste and Alexander Skarsgård as Perry in Big Little Lies, 2017

The interviews with her therapist, convincingly played by Robin Weigert, are particularly well done. Every one of Kidman’s gestures and facial expressions conveys the many understandable and inadvisable reasons for everything that she refuses to admit, even to herself. Raw and graphic, the scenes between Celeste and Perry can be difficult to watch: a husband grabbing and choking his wife, throwing her over a couch and against a wall. Some viewers may resent having been seduced from a pleasant immersion in real-estate porn to a considerably less agreeable encounter with violence porn.

Ultimately, though, what’s most upsetting about Big Little Lies is not the way the adults bully and abuse one another, but the way in which these loving parents treat their children. Renata and Jane’s initial face-off takes place at the excellent local public school, where, each morning, the moms kneel to bestow, on their kids, kisses of such tragic intensity that a stranger might well conclude that they were never going to see them again. Throughout the show, parents and teachers speak to the children slowly, liltingly, and often in the register of cartoon chipmunks; it’s almost as if they’re unsure about how well these kids understand English.

In one episode, we watch mothers deploying their hapless offspring as weapons against each other. To get back at Renata, Madeline schedules a trip to an ice-skating show on the same day Renata’s daughter Amabella is having her birthday party; Madeline’s hope is the Amabella’s classmates will ditch her celebration in order to accept the more attractive invitation. At such moments the series seems like a quasi-anthropological study of certain regrettable aspects of middle-class family life, such as the way in which children’s birthday parties have become arenas for school and community dramas of affinity and exclusion. 

When Madeline’s adolescent daughter Abigail is found to have been auctioning off her virginity, on the Internet, to raise money for a charitable organization combating sex trafficking, Madeline concludes that the best way to repair her bond with Abigail is by sharing the fact that she has cheated on her second husband. And among the things that finally persuade Celeste to leave Perry is the revelation that one of her twins has—either because of nature or nurture or eavesdropping—begun to mimic his father’s bad behavior.

My somewhat inchoate sense of why I found this aspect of the series so unnerving was greatly sharpened when, a few days before the season finale, I heard Northwestern University professor Laura Kipnis give a talk on rape and victim culture on campus. Why, she asked, have young people sometimes seemed to embrace the extreme gender stereotypes—aggressive males, passive females—that their feminist mothers had worked so hard to challenge? Why have college students been so ready—so eager—to see themselves as survivors of injury and trauma, as Kipnis argues they have been? Why are they so likely to see sex as a violation, as rape? Listening to Kipnis, I found myself thinking of Big Little Lies, of little boys observing or overhearing their deranged, hyper-masculine fathers, of little girls being treated like fragile flowers, too precious and delicate for this world. I thought of how the parents in the series routinely underestimate the acuity of their children’s moral awareness, of their ability to understand what the grown-ups are doing.

Among the segments that begin each episode is a kind of children’s parade; a procession of appealing child actors moving toward the camera, their faces bright, their shiny hair bouncing and swirling around them. The kids are lovely and spirited, and I’d always liked this scene. But by the time I’d reached the final episode, and after hearing Laura Kipnis, it occurred to me that I’d been watching something else: children playing children being schooled for unhealthy, even toxic adult roles. Here comes the future perpetrator, I thought. Here comes the future victim.