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‘Big Little Lies’ is a delightfully juicy melodrama

By Emily Johnson

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(Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/IMDb)

You can’t always get what you want.

A cover of the famous Rolling Stones song wraps up the finale of the seven-episode HBO miniseries, “Big Little Lies.” In the final minutes of the episode, the victim and perpetrator are revealed in a murder built up since the first episode only in flash forwards to future police interviews.

It’s a fitting song to end with, because even though now we have answers to the questions that have guided the series, it’s still not exactly what the viewers or main characters want. A cathartic end perhaps, but still not perfect.

“Big Little Lies,” based on a best-selling novel by Liane Moriarty, is about the parents and families of first graders in Monterey, California, an affluent beach town of competitive mothers, expensive real estate and vicious secrets.

It may sound like a “Real Housewives” drama, but that would be dismissing this show entirely. Much like “True Detective” in its aesthetic, the show is a deep examination of the complexities and vulnerabilities of human relationships and complicated dynamics therein.

With a paradise-like setting, the show’s main characters seem happily married and problem-less as we are introduced to each at their beach-front homes.

Jane Chapman, played by Shailene Woodley, is a single mother who moves with her six-year-old son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) to Monterey and befriends Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), mother to first grader Chloe (Darby Camp).

Madeline is resentful that her older daughter Abigail has grown close to her stepmother, Bonnie Carlson, the carefree yoga instructor married to Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper).

In the first episode, parents attend the first grade orientation, and in a witch-hunt like manner, one student, Amabella Klein (Ivy George), accuses Ziggy of choking her. Ziggy pleads that he did not commit the act, but Amabella’s mother, Renata Klein (Laura Dern), a successful CEO, launches a war against Jane, the new mother in town.

Jane later meets and befriends Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), a former lawyer who is married to the handsome and younger Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard). The two have twin sons, and are envied by the other parents in town for their lustful marriage.

Just as the series develops, so does the abuse in their marriage, which is characterized by violent fights and passionate sex, which seem to blur together. It is clear, as the season progresses and as Celeste’s denial withers, that it is, in fact, marital rape.

Celeste’s marriage is one example of how the series examines the intricacies of human life, trauma, abuse and grief. These moments in the show are often captured perfectly by the show’s music, which ties the subplots together. The music is just as much a living character as any.

Ziggy, in episode six, is obsessed with the Temptations’ “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” which he performs in a dance for Jane. This scene is embedded with the inner pain Jane holds for Ziggy’s father, a stranger who raped her, which resulted in her pregnancy.

Later, Ziggy performs the song with Chloe for Madeline and her husband Ed Mackenzie (Adam Scott). The scene transitions from their performance to Jane, who has been pulled over by the police after driving to the office of a man she believes to be her rapist and Ziggy’s father. The two scenes cutting from one another are a flawless juxtaposition, manipulating the viewer’s emotions.

Other songs like Leon Bridges’ “River” and Alabama Shakes’ “This Feeling” are meaningful inclusions that influence the show’s storytelling. And with the slow Rolling Stones cover, the last ten minutes of the show, almost like a caffeine-high, are confusing and thrilling.

With little dialogue – even the police interviews at the end are inaudible – it is disorienting for the viewer. When the episode was over, I nearly had the jitters. Maybe not the end I wanted, but the end that I needed.

Emily Johnson can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @EmilyAnneJohn.

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