As Jezebel’s two biggest Big Little Lies devotees, Bobby Finger and I had some final thoughts on the HBO series. Here we talk prestige television, Nicole Kidman’s endurance, gendered violence, and my recent conversion to the church of Reese Witherspoon. Needless to say, there are spoilers ahead.
STASSA: Bobby, what were your thoughts about the series finale? I already read the book, so I knew the eventual outcome but I thought the show handled the lead-up really well.
BOBBY: I kept telling myself I would read the book, but as the season went on it felt less and less important for me to pick it up. I was enjoying the week-by-week reveal. And was not disappointed by the finale!
How long did it take you to figure out who was dead while reading the novel? Or did you at all?
S: I was rooting for Perry to be murdered the whole book, so I kept reading it with that sense of (perhaps) warped justice. In terms of the series finale, I was really struck by the exchange between Jane and Celeste about whether or not violence was genetic. It was a really eerie summation of what the show is fundamentally about, I think.
B: I was convinced he was the murder victim by the third episode I think? And it didn’t take long after that for me to be pretty certain about his connection to Jane. I thought Madeline would be revealed as the killer, but only because I was expecting it to be a character without a direct relationship to Perry. (Jane or Celeste pulling the proverbial trigger felt easy somehow?)
A funny thing, though: I was predicting a “The Ladies Come Together” moment in the finale from episode one. But not because of anything I knew about the story! It was exclusively because of Reese’s involvement! The way she spoke (and Instagrammed) about the show in the months leading up to the premiere made me assume it would end with all the women coming to respect and befriend each other.
S: That’s an interesting point about Reese, she is really committed to adapting stories that are about women’s resilience. The trajectory of her career from movies like Fear to the grande dame of like “empowerment” movies/television has been really interesting to watch.
Plus, I’m sure you saw the New York Times story about her friendship with Laura Dern.
B: Boy, did I. The line about how their mothers became friends has really stuck with me.
S: I keep thinking about their moms holding hands in the theater!
B: Haha, what a story!
I read a summary of the book’s ending after the finale Sunday night to see how it compared. Apparently Bonnie’s character was a little more fleshed out in the book?
S: Yes, the book makes it much clearer that Bonnie was abused by her father.
B: Her reaction to Perry’s violence was better explained? Is this something that’s revealed early on?
S: It’s breadcrumbs, like everything else in the book.
B: Because it’s the kind of detail that would have immediately raised an eyebrow… I think. And I can understand why they left it out of the series.
S: It’s funny about Reese though, I was always very neutral about her until this series.
B: And now?
S: And now I’m a Reese Witherspoon convert, I think?
B: Haha, I think she’s a real charmer in everything that isn’t associated with Draper James.
S: I’ve loved Nicole Kidman since forever and I was doubtful when they first announced the show that Reese could hold her own with Nicole and Laura Dern.
B: It was so nice to see her return to that kind of delightful nastiness she tackled in Freeway and Election.
S: Yes! And I think, in Big Little Lies, she mixed that pettiness with a kind of empathy that gave Madeline more depth.
B: I was impressed by how convincing she was at being in love with Adam Scott. It’s common in this type of show or movie for the adulterer to realize they’re actually in love with their spouse but I don’t always buy it? You always sorta think they’d prefer the one they cheated with?
And that subplot was handled so well, specifically the moment she realized she was still in love with Ed.
S: Yeah, I think the concepts of love and marriage were intricately explored in the show in often very indirect ways.
B: But back to Nicole, I don’t think she’s ever stopped being given great roles or doing great work, but those roles—especially in the past decade—have been in real pieces of garbage.
The movie that comes to mind immediately is Stoker, which was a huge disappointment, but she’s just terrific in it.
S: Agreed, like the Diane Arbus biopic was just terrible, but she was good.
B: Ahhhh I forgot about that one. Ooof. Paperboy! Terrible. Grace of Monaco! Terrible. But she does her job when she’s on set!
S: I guess she plays the “fragile but not broken” role really well and there are only so many outlets to explore that well without falling into bad stereotypes about women.
B: What did you think of the actual murder scene? I was almost shocked by how well staged and edited it was. It feels rare for a show about a murder mystery to deliver a reveal as thrilling as that one. Even, like I said, when you’re pretty sure you’ve called it.
S: Yes! I think, too, the show wasn’t hung up on the reveal necessarily. So many prestige mysteries get so focused on that final moment, that final reveal. Big Little Lies was more interested in building the tension through relationships.
B: And the CRASHING WAVES imagery feels forced and silly on paper, but I thought it was effective each and every time it was used.
S: The mansions and the waves did their job every time!
B: There was so much more going on in this show than the pilot leads you to believe there will be.
S: It’s interesting how so many (male) critics treated it as little more than a late-night melodrama.
B: Like the “secret project” subplot, the play/cheating. And I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that they knew it had to end. And had the cast been any less A-list, I think the threat of continuing would have been there. This show needed people who were professionally unavailable! Who could commit to seven episodes and seven episodes only.
I feel like HBO would have asked them to throw in loose ends otherwise. Strings that could tie to future seasons.
S: I wanted to ask you what you thought of the series in the framework of what we call “prestige television.” There seems to have been a lot of debate around the show, or implications at least, that this wasn’t good television, it was just notable because so many famous women were in the show.
B: I think the series is definitely worthy of being called “prestige television.” But you’re right, the cast of famous women, plus the fact that it’s based on a bestselling book that you’d probably find on lists of “beach reads” didn’t do it any favors (at least initially) with that argument. I mean, that Times review you’ve mentioned before is so condescending, and characterizes it as a shallow soap almost exclusively because the central characters are women who aren’t in their 20s.
From the Times review:
Ms. Kidman and Ms. Witherspoon are executive producers of “Big Little Lies,” and you can see what they probably thought they had — a sexy mystery-melodrama that would also be a commentary on issues important to women their age (40s).
I think about the post you wrote about the response to the scene where Perry rapes Celeste typifies a lot of the coverage around the show. A lot of the write-ups were like, “Hey, look it’s a penis” and didn’t grapple with the casualness of violence that permeates the show. There’s an element of realism that was ignored...
B: I was actually at dinner with some people who said the only rape on the show was Jane’s. Which, among many things, just showcases how unwilling people were to treat the show seriously… despite everything.
S: Right? How many thinkpieces have been written about rape and Game of Thrones? It seems like prestige television needs this very clear articulation of violence against women—as either murder or rape victims to further the plot. But the lives of women can’t simply be violent just because they are.
B: It also needs at least one (and usually just one) woman who is immune to the violence and can be easily labeled a queen. Like Game of Thrones defenders could counter the arguments that the show mistreats women to an unforgivable extent by saying, “But what about Daenerys? Who slays? Yas queen.” Big Little Lies didn’t have that because it’s not a dumb show, and I think it left some critics (like Mike Hale at the Times) a little confused.
S: That’s an interesting point.
B: I think people didn’t know what to do with it. It’s a story that’s been told on TV countless times, but never like this, and with so much talent involved.