The most radical, interesting part of ‘Big Little Lies’ had nothing to do with who died

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This post discusses the plot of “Big Little Lies.”

Before the series finale of “Big Little Lies” aired on Sunday, I was discussing it with another critic who said he was frustrated that the death of Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), an executive who got pushed down a set of stairs in the midst of brutally beating his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), during a school fundraiser seemed to resolve all the main characters’ problems. By the end of the episode, Celeste’s best friends Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) have joined her on the beach, along with Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), who is married to Madeline’s ex, and Renata (Laura Dern), who had accused Jane’s son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) of bullying her daughter.

It’s true that on the beach in that final scene, there’s no sign that Madeline and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), have broken up over her infidelity or that Celeste’s son Max (Nicholas Crovetti) has escalated beyond schoolyard bullying — which Ziggy took the fall for — to full-blown psychopathy under the influence of his dead father’s genes and behavior. While that tableau on the beach looks idyllic from a distance, and in the relaxed faces of the children churning across the sand, it’s a more complicated image than it appears. Celeste’s arms are bared to the sun, but there’s a new tightness in Bonnie’s throat and expression; she’ll always carry the fact that she was the one who pushed Perry. The complicity between Jane and Madeline is warmer and softer than it used to be, but Madeline’s gaze off into the distance seems more contemplative and less confident; she was right all along that Ziggy was innocent, but in the process of having that certainty confirmed, she seems to have lost a step. The point of “Big Little Lies,” confirmed in this entire episode and especially in the final scene, is that no matter how good something looks, it’s never entirely all right.

The most radical element of “Big Little Lies” is the way both the novel and this adaptation employ anticlimax in their approach to the conflicts between the women themselves.

For much of the series, it seemed that the problems between them could only escalate, that Renata would slap Jane with a restraining order and that Madeline, in the throes of what seems like early-onset menopause, might have taken some terrible revenge in response. If events had followed this predictable course toward an open catfight, then “Big Little Lies” would have been a lesser show, although an aesthetically impressive and well-acted one.

Instead, it’s the men who follow this course in the finale: Renata’s husband, Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling), threatens Jane in public; Madeline’s current and ex-husbands, Ed and Nathan (James Tupper) make foolish efforts to outdo each other; and Perry proves unable to maintain the facade that he is a devoted and excellent husband and father.

The women resolve the tensions that have divided them over the course of the miniseries simply by listening to each other: Celeste believes Jane when she says that Ziggy has identified one of her twins as the person bullying Renata’s daughter (Ivy George); Renata believes Celeste when Celeste apologies on behalf of her son; and Renata proves capable of offering Jane a full-throated, comprehensive apology for her unkindness; despite her hurt over Nathan’s remarriage, Madeline is able to put aside her suspicions of Bonnie accept her as a parent and a friend. And when Perry begins to beat Celeste, they react automatically to protect her.

The twist isn’t that one of these polished, wealthy women is a killer, however instinctual Bonnie’s response was. It’s that the same intense feelings that initially divided these women also give them the tools to reunite and protect each other and their children. We’ve been so trained to watch women, especially white, wealthy women, destroy each other for our entertainment that it’s actually a surprise for a series such as “Big Little Lies” to depict women of this class as something other than emotional suicide bombers, destroying their own lives in ways designed to cause the maximum collateral damage.

Which is not to say that “Big Little Lies” ends on a triumphal note. In the most dramatic cut to black since “The Sopranos” went dark so abruptly that some viewers thought their cable had failed, “Big Little Lies” revealed that the characters were being watched as they played with their children on the beach.

For much of the preceding seven episodes, the characters have responded to their perception that they’re being watched by each other. Jane is afraid she doesn’t fit in at all, first because of her relatively modest income from her work as a bookkeeper, later because of the perception that Ziggy is a bully. Madeline knows she’s being watched by the drama teacher, Joseph (Santiago Cabrera), with whom she had an affair, and feels constantly judged by Bonnie’s persistently zen attitude. Celeste is terrified that others might find out that she is being battered. Renata feels resented for having a high-powered career and overcompensates by escalating situations at school.

But by the end of the series, they are under more persistent, and far more consequential, surveillance. If keeping up appearances was a way to manage their own anxiety before Perry’s death, it’s now essential to make sure the police don’t pursue a case against one or all of them. Rather than domestic life providing a metaphor for public policy or geopolitical conflict the way it does on “The Americans” to great effect, the end of “Big Little Lies” uses the idea of police scrutiny to express how tense it must be to feel yourself under constant observation.

That’s the thing about those big, oceanfront houses with their huge banks of glass windows: Anyone can see in.

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