HBO’s Big Little Lies may be a Desperate Housewives–tinged murder mystery, but it’s also a study in twisted relationships. Madeline and Ed Mackenzie are suspended in comfortable, sexless routine, preoccupied with the stress of raising kids. What at first appears to be enviable passion between the painstakingly attractive Celeste and Perry Wright bubbles over into uncontrollable violence. And then there’s Renata and Gordon Klein: the twosome with the best ocean view — which, according to unofficial California beach-town social charters, always indicates the most money. The Kleins’ relationship appears to run on tastefully aged alcohol, dismissive platitudes of encouragement, and mutual success in their tech-industry careers. They are by no means a shining example of what a caring and balanced marriage should be, but they are the best portrait of a modern-day Silicon Valley power couple on TV.
To understand why the Kleins make so much sense as coastal tech royalty, we must first consider who they are as individuals. The power that Renata (Laura Dern) wields over Monterey is palpable even before she’s introduced: “Sometimes I think it’s like us against them: the career mommies,” town meddler Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) tells newcomer Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) as they drive to drop off their kids at first-grade orientation. “Them and all their various board meetings that are so important. Google this, Yahoo that. Please. I think they spend more time on those board meetings than they actually do parenting, if you know what I mean.”
All of Madeline’s childish feuds aside, she finds Renata irksome for the same reason that the tech industry is often unwelcoming to women: Renata is intimidating. The idea that a woman wants to not only be an involved parent, but also serve on the board of the Monterey Bay Aquarium (which, completely as an aside, has dope otters) and hold a high-powered position on the board of PayPal is threatening to a certain world order that Madeline, or some men in the workplace, lean on for a sense of identity or, more often than not, a reserve of power.
Renata isn’t particularly innocent here. She’s unlikable because rather than remain modest about her success, she flaunts it. Her ensembles are something out of a Marissa Mayer Vogue photo shoot: sheath dresses, understated jewelry, leather accessories, and a business-like belt always cinched around her waist to accentuate both her impossibly thin frame and her plans to head to the office later. She dresses her daughter Amabella in Burberry, interrupts conversations to take calls about Hamilton tickets, keeps a French live-in nanny named Juliette, and — you might not have caught this because she’s so low-key about it, but did you know she’s dedicated a great portion of her life to veterans? Specifically those with PTSD? (Every wealthy tech couple needs a visible cause.) She is a skilled and crafty negotiator who, when throwing in executive stock options to sweeten a deal, makes emasculating comments like: “Let’s keep these prepubescents flush in skateboards.” Around her fellow Monterey moms, Renata puts significant effort into pretending she’s overwhelmed by her professional responsibilities. Perhaps most notable to the larger Big Little Lies story line, however, is her inability to dial down the ruthlessness that aides her in the boardroom when dealing with matters relating to her daughter’s social life. Thus, her audacity to threaten Jane’s 6-year-old son, scream in rage at a fellow mom who delivers bad news, or bring her face uncomfortably close to Madeline’s to warn: “Do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday.”
Gordon Klein (Jeffrey Nordling), bless him, is much less intense. We first encounter him as he’s pouring himself a generous glass of Balvenie 25, a Scotch whisky that retails for a little over $400. We can only assume this is a common and necessary ritual before engaging with Renata on their patio each evening, even if he is staring at an obscenely luscious ocean sunset while doing so. In contrast to his impeccably dressed wife, Gordon leans hard into the hoodie-chic culture of his industry: full IDGAF beard, transition lenses, tracksuits, loafers that scream “I’ve given up,” and an unapologetically round belly that suggests plenty of boozy power lunches at the Rosewood Sand Hill Hotel. We don’t know exactly what he does, but the fact that his spacious office comes with a view, a personal bathroom, and the privilege to unashamedly prop his black-Adidas-clad feet on his desk hints that it’s an effortlessly lucrative VC gig. Gordon is the kind of guy who will steal a drag of a cigarette from the man he hired to play Spider-Man at his daughter’s birthday party, then drunkenly ogle a younger, hotter mom. But perhaps most telling: He is checked out of both Monterey’s social community and his daughter’s life at school. He leaves that to his wife.
Are they happy? As with many public career couples, happiness is a quaint annotation in a union aimed at much more ambitious matters. The foundation of the Kleins’ relationship is rooted in a love for money, influence, and adrenaline (the two went skydiving on their third date and have loud sex in Gordon’s work bathroom). Like the other couples in Big Little Lies, they engage in a good amount of self-medication and pretending to maintain a satisfactory exterior.
But here’s what’s most realistic about their dynamic: Renata encounters the same gendered behavior so common in her profession in her own marriage. After Amabella’s first day of school, Renata launches into a soliloquy about how insecure she feels around the other moms, how she feels judged for prioritizing work over family. Gordon is quick to throw bored compliments at the problem. He praises her looks, financial independence, and success, unwilling to understand or explore her feelings on the matter. Then, with the help of that Balvenie, he playfully slithers up behind her and whispers that she’s “beyond sssssexy.” Just when it seems like he has sufficiently distracted Renata from her own emotions, he concludes with his piercing dude perspective: “Women: You all want to be the envy of your friends, but god forbid you garner too much of it.”
Renata, to her credit, is disgusted with Gordon in this moment and others like it. But she seems resigned to the fact that — in her search for an equal on the plane of career, reputation, and income — she was forced to settled for a man who lacks the emotional intelligence or the motivation to understand her problems. To an outsider, Gordon’s choice to characterize her complaints as lady stuff while clearly delegating to her (and Juliette) the majority of the child-care responsibilities might appear to be a lazy assertion of male privilege. To Renata, who is probably accustomed to that kind of purposeful aloofness from the men of her industry, this behavior is a fact of life she must bear, along with everything else. It’s for this reason that Renata and Gordon Klein are a frustrating and relentlessly realistic power couple in tech. No one can claim to know how the relationships of Silicon Valley’s most powerful play out on their manicured Bay Area patios each evening. But given the tech industry’s longtime discriminatory attitude toward women, it’s possible that the personal relationships formed outside the workplace — no matter how lucrative — aren’t as enlightened as we’d hope either.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.