Snaking up the Pacific Coast is a Monterey community whose sweeping homes harbor complications that swell on the verge of discovery. On the surface, the town glints with perfection, yet, once cracked open, the community’s crooked charm unravels, revealing secrets that sting.
Making its debut in February, HBO’s seven-part mini-series “Big Little Lies” unspools a cunning story that focuses on three complex mothers and the webs surrounding their lives. Based on Australian writer Liane Moriarty’s bestseller, the show blends dark humor with intricate relationships to craft an onscreen adaptation riddled with allure. The premiere, entitled “Somebody’s Dead,” anchors the series by introducing a murder set in the picturesque city of Monterey. Yet the crime is veiled in mystery, as the details and victim are left for us to speculate. Jolting us between scenes set in the present, abrupt flashbacks to the crime, and police interrogations, this first episode achieves a choppy rhythm that mirrors the community’s fractured relationships and families, whose secrets gradually float to the surface, tangled and tender.
At the storyline’s center are Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), and Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), three characters tethered to burdens that test their identities as modern women and mothers. Divorced and remarried, Madeline carries the strain of her past relationship and a guilty unfulfillment of being a stay-at-home-mom. As we quickly realize, the community is one powered by gossip, status, and schemes, and Madeline is the master of the game. Even so, we are drawn to her unapologetic shrewdness, which contributes to the show’s pulse, offering a character committed to the power of her voice.
Madeline’s best friend, Celeste, possesses a less pronounced strength, as she is bound to the fear of her relationship with her husband, Perry, which breeds both pleasure and internal anguish. After having her twin sons, she abandoned her career as a successful lawyer, yet like Madeline, bears the unsettling feeling that being a mother is not enough. Her attempts to return to work are met by Perry’s domineering resistance; he is a man with insecurities that fuel his physical and mental manipulation of Celeste. However, as new bruises bloom across her body, her idyllic conception of their love begins to escape her.
The third principle character is young single-mother Jane Chapman, who recently moved to Monterey with her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) to start anew, yet remains closely pursued by her tormenting past. With Madeline and Celeste emerging as valuable friends to her, Jane finally allows herself to articulate the details of Ziggy’s father—the man who raped her. Although her move to Monterey was intended to spark a new beginning, accusations at school about Ziggy’s violent behavior stir further unrest in Jane. On his first day of first grade, Renata Klein’s (Laura Dern) daughter blames Ziggy for physically hurting her, even though Ziggy swears his innocence. The event sets in motion a battle between the mothers, reigniting deep rifts between Madeline and Renata.
Despite the community’s divisions and varying family structures, a common thread ties the women together: their commitment as mothers willing to do anything for their children. Whether a stay-at-home-mom like Madeline and Celeste or a self-providing woman like Renata, these characters share maternal instincts, ones that source their intensity and unwavering presence in their children’s lives.
Along with its consideration of gender roles, the show explores the modern intricacies entrenched in family life, portraying precocious and curious children, strong mothers fueled by their own voices (and sexual desires), and dangers tied to male-female relationships. The dynamic characters and provocative themes drive a gripping narrative that unfolds in an unsteady cadence that holds viewers in eager anticipation. The repeating visuals of the winding Cabrillo Highway, the rocky cliffs that hug the Pacific, and the expansive homes that sprawl beach-side, reflect the towering mysteries embedded in this Monterey community, where everyone tells big little lies.