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The ‘Big Little Lies’ Finale Pulled Off the Murder Mystery

Reese and Co. didn’t forget about that dead body at the PTA event

(HBO)
(HBO)

This post contains spoilers for the finale of Big Little Lies.

Oh right, the murder. Remember that?

For much of its seven episodes, Big Little Lies seemed downright uninterested in the dead body it teased in the premiere, acknowledging its existence while coyly obscuring its identity. The action itself didn’t have the impending dread one might expect from a murder mystery; the catty townspeople being interrogated by police could just as easily have been giving their commentary from a post-PTA wine bar outing.

The mismatched stakes of petty exurban rivalries and violent death was one of Big Little Lies’ most effective hooks. But the show amped up the cattiness with enough complexity to make it more than mere scene-setting for the murder. Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), Renata Klein (Laura Dern), and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) initially came across more comic than sympathetic, rich women in pain whose stunning beachfront properties gave us a free pass for schadenfreude. Rather than ratchet up the suspense, writer David E. Kelley and director Jean-Marc Vallée turned their attentions to Maddie’s frantic denial of her own unfulfillment, Renata’s overcompensating for her insecurity as a working mom with feral protectiveness, and most wrenchingly, Celeste’s gradual awakening to the abusive reality of her own marriage. The choice to pursue character over mystery worked: It gave the protagonists’ rarefied problems unexpected depth.

This nonetheless put an astronomical burden on the finale to do all the heavy plot lifting. As Sunday night approached, the pressure was on: Could Big Little Lies stick this landing in a way that was satisfying, but not abrupt? Would the conclusion be shocking enough to deliver payoff, but not so much that it felt unearned?

As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. (“We” meaning viewers who hadn’t read the Liane Moriarty novel on which all this is based, or at least its Wikipedia synopsis.) While Big Little Lies’ juxtaposition of parenting squabbles with police sirens caused some cognitive dissonance in its middle stretch, the conclusion solidified the case this show had been making all along: The murder isn’t separate from the story’s less pulpy — and, to some viewers, more frustrating — elements. It’s directly connected.

The plot machinations that brought all five women to the site of the final confrontation were a tad convenient, but they were also surprisingly seamless. Maddie, ridden with guilt over cheating on her stalwart husband, Ed (Adam Scott), runs off in the middle of his karaoke performance of Elvis’s “The Wonder of You.” Her new friend Jane (Shailene Woodley) rushes to console her. Renata, well meaning yet tactless as ever, barges in to apologize for falsely accusing Jane’s son of bullying her daughter. Celeste flees from her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), who’s just discovered she intends to leave him. And seeing the ensuing violence, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) — the level-headed hippie married to Maddie’s ex-husband, and the quiet, unassuming presence we’d been coached to ignore all along — impulsively pushes Perry down the stairs.

Three disparate strands of the show converge into a single crescendo. There’s one misfire, too, an extra complication: Perry, whom Jane had supposedly never met before the fundraiser, turns out to be her rapist and the father of her 6-year-old son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage). Still, that twist was straight out of Moriarty, so it’s hard to fault the show too much for sticking to its source. (On the other hand, Kelley wisely left out some unnecessary backstory involving Bonnie’s personal history with abuse.)

Big Little Lies’ conclusion was as much a thematic statement as a potboiler: Parents have a ripple effect on their children, and vice versa. Maddie’s self-involvement and desperation have rubbed off on her teen daughter, who threatens to sell her virginity online for charity and backs off only when Maddie comes clean about her infidelity and unhappiness. A schoolyard dispute triggers bone-deep anxieties for Jane about traumatic nature versus loving nurture. Celeste realizes that no matter how firmly she insists Perry would never hurt their twin boys, his sickness affects them. And in the finale’s chilling opening shot, the sounds of a man throwing his wife to the ground filter through an air vent to the living room, where his children are playing video games. Child-rearing here isn’t a first-world problem, a source of stress that kicks in only after the lower rungs of Maslow’s hierarchy are fulfilled. It’s an existential quandary, an issue of identity and inheritance no perfectly planned play date can solve.

One could dismiss Big Little Lies’ conflicts as the stuff of mommy blogs and their passive-aggressive comment sections, not prestige TV. But the repression and image consciousness that run like pinot through this fictional Monterey have real and emotional consequences. Big Little Lies didn’t need a dead body to invest us in these women’s inner lives — extraordinary work by a justly decorated cast did that by the end of the first episode. But untangling the mystery gave us a fitting, fulfilling bookend. Let the Emmy race begin.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.