TV Review: Big Little Lies: ‘Somebody’s Dead’

Big Little Lies

S1, E1: ‘Somebody’s Dead’

Well, if we can’t have Hillary Rodham in the White House, at least we’ve got Tracy Flick in Suburbia

Grade: B+


American suburbia has long been a source of fascination and revulsion. There was a cottage industry examining the secrets and lies behind the shiny faces of PicketFenceia, long before American Beauty, Weeds and Desperate Housewives collared our eyeballs and the industry’s approbation. Neither is it particularly new to set ‘orrible murders in well-heeled neighbourhoods. Agatha Christie made a career of so-called ‘cosies’ way back in the day. And I’d argue it goes back even further – arguably, 1862 ‘sensation novel’ Lady Audley’s Secret is an honourable entry in the Horrible Secrets in Idyllic Town roster. Featuring a beautiful blonde, even.

There are three beautiful blondes (and one lovely brunette) headlining HBO’s Big Little Lies. Four, if you count Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard). And you absolutely should count Perry Wright. Roll call!

  1. Madeline Martha Mackenzie is the brittle type-A Alpha Stepford ruling the pack. Reese Witherspoon has played a variant of this character before – most famously in the great 1999 comedy Election. I would hope that Tracy Flick would never allow herself to be fooled into throwing over DC and burying herself in moneyed Monterey, but if she did, I can imagine that she would retain just that tight-lipped steeliness. Madeline Martha Mackenzie hobbles in her ridiculously high heels and her preppy flowered dress. She ticks off teenagers who text and drive. She takes broken birds under her wing. She hasn’t let a grievance go since she was born. She labours under a thinly-veiled sense of insecurity at the working mothers. She fumes at her deadbeat ex-husband and his lovely, young, mellow New Age wife (played by Zoe Kravitz) who probably gives ‘organic mint-flavoured blow-jobs’. She has no capacity for soulful musings about out-of-body experiences, being constitutionally incapable of inhabiting any body but her own lovely, tightly-coiled one. I know that I am meant to adore her, but what can I say? I do.
  2. Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) is another stay-at-home mother, I believe? Formerly a high-powered attorney, she now raises the tow-headed twins she has with her hot, much-younger husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). The rest of the town is spiteful and – of course – envious. But – as the closing moments of the episode make clear – there may be a pall over the Wright household. Perry seems to be a loving father and an adoring husband. But watch him when he issues a parenting diktat and Celeste does not leap to obey. There is real menace in the way he grabs his wife. Kidman’s a tall woman, but Skarsgard towers over her. The effect is definitely uncomfortable. And suddenly, their discussion about violent children who ‘seem sweet’ seems all the more disturbing. You see….
  3. Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) is a new mother in town. She is both younger and quite obviously poorer than the absurdly moneyed Monterey residents she runs into. When her son Ziggy (the almost comically adorable Iain Armitage) is accused by the obnoxiously-named Amabella Klein (Ivy George) of choking her, the event becomes instantly and uncomfortably charged.
  4. Amabella’s Paypal Board Member mother Renata (Laura Dern) demands that justice be done, and the flustered teacher flails into the very worst possible course of action: some sort of mediaeval Town Square where Amabella is asked to point out her accuser. Renata demands an apology, but Ziggy says that he didn’t do it, and his mother takes his side.

There’s a lot to unpack here: Renata is of course making a point of parenting, because she smarts at the implicit condemnation of the stay-at-home mothers. There’s a clear class dimension at the singling out of the new mum who ‘doesn’t fit in’. And Madeline’s instant championing of Jane bears examination as well. Is she – as her husband (Adam Scott) points out – drawn to broken people? Or is she taking up arms on behalf of a fellow stay-at-home mother? A little of both?

And that’s even before we get into the mysterious homicide that frames this episode….

Odds and sods

  • Ziggy looms up as Jane sleeps. Once again we are reminded of violence coming from the supposedly sweet…
  • Madeline is right to be concerned about Ziggy’s possible ostracism. Even the accusation of violence is enough for Perry to instruct his wife to keep their kids away from Ziggy.
  • Madeline’s ‘lifeline’ is a community theatre production of Avenue Q. Her ex’s new wife Bonnie has signed a petition against the production. I am 100% certain that Bonnie’s not the innocent All-Loving Earth Mother she seems to be. And I am also quite amused that it’s the young Boho fighting to ban the scabrous Avenue Q, and the prim Martha Stewart type fighting to keep it alive. Also, is anyone else reminded of the fabulous Allison from Orphan Black? Who also was super into a pitch-black community theatre production?
  • Jane Chapman keeps flashing back to herself in a blue dress. We’ll find out what that means soon enough, I suppose…

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