Reese Witherspoon

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Seven – “You Get What You Need”

(As I wind down my reviews of Big Little Lies, I realized I have never given a proper spoiler warning at the front end of any of these posts. Here we go, for the first time and the last, SPOILER ALERT.)

The last shot of the last episode of Big Little Lies implies room for a sequel, one which probably will not and should not exist. While Reese Witherspoon is seemingly all for it, director Jean-Marc Vallée is not, likely because he realizes that it would be quite difficult to top the seven essentially perfect episodes that he and the show’s wonderful cast and crew have created. I’ve mentioned before that this show feels like the pinnacle of event television, and I stand by my claim after watching last night’s finale.

“You Get What You Need,” named after the Rolling Stones song and this beautiful cover of it, which played over last night’s credits, manages to push the drama to 11 and appropriately conclude the show’s core mystery: who killed whom and why? The majority of the finale’s third act is set at the fundraising gala that this show has so concerned itself with, and the tension that builds is palpable, at the same time as it is startlingly brutal, particularly when it comes to Celeste and Perry.

Celeste continues her move out during this episode, and things seem to be going to plan. Perry has yet to find out and the apartment is slowly becoming furnished and ready for her and her children to move in to. This changes the night of the gala when, in a fleeting moment, Perry picks up Celeste’s phone to find a message from Celeste’s realtor. Skarsgard’s cold delivery of his lines in this scene is subtle and easily the most bothersome aspect of his character. Later, on the way to the gal, he erupts, telling Celeste he has these demons inside of him and acknowledges that he’s a flawed husband. The audience knows he’s not going to change, yet this scene still serves as a ribbon on top of what has been an incredible seven episodes worth of performances from the Emmy-worthy Alexander Skarsgard. I didn’t go into this show thinking that it needed a villain, yet I’m happy it did because Skarsgard is wonderful.

This outburst from Skarsgard leads to the scenes at the gala, where Madeline continues to struggle with her adulterous nature–again playing on the aspect of voyuerism, Madeline watches Joseph and his wife from afar (and vice versa) during Ed’s performance of Elvis’ “The Wonder of You.” Madeline, in her own words, tries to hold on to a false sense of perfection, which makes sense when looking at her character. Witherspoon plays Madeline as someone who has far more to her than meets the eye: underneath the blonde bouncy facade is a tortured woman, one who struggles to not only be the mother she feels she should be, but also a wife who loves her husband deeply, yet can’t show it in a way that feels natural to her. She’s bare in the most realistic way, especially after Jane meets up with her at the often-showed stairs under construction outside the town’s civic center. Madeline reveals to Jane that she was unfaithful to Ed, and she is then joined by Renata, and then Celeste, who has once again escaped from Perry. At the same time, Bonnie picks up on clues that Celeste is in a dangerous situation and follows Perry as he follows Celeste. I truly cannot describe this in a just way: this scene is wonderfully edited and shot, and manages to be remarkably clear, despite the fact that it’s following these five women all at once.

I believe this is the first time, since the premiere episode at least, that the entire cast of women is together at once, but it feels vital that they only appear with one another so often. As Perry walks up and joins them, everything falls into place: like many people had presumed, Perry is Jane’s rapist. The moment of realization on behalf of Jane, Celeste, Madeline, and Perry is so wonderfully done and brilliantly executed that I was beside myself while watching it. The entire series led up to one singular moment, and Valleé, as well as the entire cast, pull it off with flying colors. As Perry struggles with the four women, Bonnie emerges the spoiler and shoves Perry over the edge, killing him. This is the show’s biggest little lie: all five women cover up the fact that Bonnie killed Perry, and, through an ending montage, we see the lives of the women returning to a sort of equilibrium. Still, perhaps not all is well. The aforementioned last shot is through a pair of binoculars, looking down at all five women and their children with the sound of a lighter flicking, Detective Quinlan’s signature move.

Although the finale leaves a possible follow up open I don’t think it’s needed. The open-ended conclusion seems fitting for a show that has so reveled in the lives of these women–nothing will ever be perfect, yet that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t try to achieve happiness. Even if I don’t think there should be a second season, I understand why Witherspoon and the rest of the cast would: with all the wonderful personalities on set, it had to have been the time of their lives filming. Instead, Big Little Lies can end with a strong sense of satisfaction for the women involved, knowing that they’ve gotten over this bump in their lives, and with gleeful blindness at what may happen next.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Six – “Burning Love”

At the beginning of this episode I fully expected that, by the end, we would finally have an answer to our burning question: who killed whom? I falsely assumed that next week’s final episode would depict the fallout of our series-long mystery and our characters would have to pick up the pieces, yet I mistook Big Little Lies for other television shows. Had this show went the route of the often-comparable How To Get Away With Murder or even The Walking Dead but setting up a cliffhanger for its finale I wouldn’t have been surprised, yet thinking about it now I realize I likely would have been disappointed. Each and every week, even as the show has wavered between a solid A+ and a solid A-, I am amazed at how much this series is taking its time. I’ve mentioned in these reviews as well as amongst friends that Big Little Lies is the perfect excuse for a limited series and that HBO is the perfect network for it to call home. HBO affords this show immense liberty–for example, Witherspoon’s Madeline gives the greatest f-word laced tirade since Planes, Trains, and Automobiles in this episode–and this show has truly premiered at the perfect time and place. I predict this show will be endlessly re-watchable once it receives a home video release.

As of yet, things have still not come to a head for out characters, although long awaited plot developments have come to fruition, specifically regarding Madeline and Celeste. For episodes we know that Madeline/Ed and Bonnie/Nathan will have their dinner party, yet it finally happens in this episode with stellar results, excusing the show for dragging out the plot line for so long. The dinner scene is so interesting, I think, because it doesn’t really revolve around Madeline and Nathan like many expected it to–instead, the attention of the adults is drawn to Abigail, who has revealed that her super-secret senior project is to sell her virginity online, the proceeds going to Amnesty International. I can’t put my finger on it, but this shocked me. Although the whole of the show feels incredibly realistic, I at first did not think this seemed real, and it seemed too cartoonish for a show that dwelled in realism. After mulling it over the past couple of days, though, I have come to understand just how real it feels. In this time of armchair activism and faux-charity, Abigail’s disillusionment makes sense: she’s seen her mother exhibit these characteristics as well and, although deeply flawed and über-hip, Abigail thinks she’s making a difference. Of course the only reason for this story-line is to draw Madeline and Abigail close together as Madeline reveals to her daughter that she had an affair the year prior. (I also want to point out that Madeline’s vomiting reaction at the dinner table was by far the funniest and best used vomiting I’ve seen in the past decade, perhaps ever. Props to Witherspoon and Vallée for playing it so well.)

Another key turning point comes for Celeste, who seems to be finally breaking away from Perry. While all eyes point to the theatre as Madeline’s production of Avenue Q debuts, Celeste attacks Perry before the show and breaks his urethra after another attempted marital rape. We’ve come a long way since the production was almost shut down, but the musical still manages to be a key plot point and meeting point for the main characters, who are all there–even Bonnie and Nathan for some reason–except for Perry and Celeste. Perry lurks in the background of every scene he’s in like Jason Vorhees in the Friday the 13th series, and his injury feels more than justified yet terrifies us for what’s next. Just what will Perry do to Celeste in retaliation, especially if he discovers that she’s been quietly apartment hunting at the behest of her therapist?

Jane, meanwhile, manages to continue her self-doubt in a very interesting scene where she is trying to convince herself that her rapist might indeed be a good man and not someone worth shooting. This line of thought exudes Jane’s character who struggles with this all along. Although she doesn’t outwardly believe her son is an abusive bully, part of her still thinks he is due to the circumstances of his conception. Her nurturing wasn’t enough to combat the nature of his father. Even as she tries to make amends with Renata in this episode after poking her in the eye, this self-doubt is still there and the audience questions if Ziggy is a bully, too.

There is some wonderful music in this episode, especially the continued use of “Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone” by The Temptations and the titular Elvis song. There’s only one more week for me to be amazed at this show, and I anticipate next week’s finale to do just that, while still defying expectations that its genre has placed it in.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Five – “Once Bitten”

More so than ever I am amazed at how remarkably well Big Little Lies pulls off the dynamic of the American family, something it has been doing throughout the entire series, but something that it does particularly well this episode. Despite the fact that these families are lofty and obviously very wealthy, they feel incredibly whole and authentic, a large step in the right direction for “slice of life” television. While television shows such as Fargo and (more darkly) Breaking Bad have also touched on family dynamics in recent years, Big Little Lies uses the family as the entire basis on which the show is situated. The family, specifically the relationship that mothers have with members of their family, remains the focal point of the show, and the central star that the solar system of the series revolves around. These women are flawed, dark, complex, and, above all else, whole. The characters are remarkably well written and fleshed out, with most of the praise falling on the shoulders of their tremendous actors, as well as the tremendous editing of the show which I notice more and more each week.

In such a short amount of time this show has given us so much about our main characters, specifically Madeline, Celeste, and Jane, each of whom get ample screen time during the episode. The hour runtime of each episode helps the audience attach themselves to these characters, but the limited nature of the show also attributes to this–in the age of “event television” and the limited series, none more so than Big Little Lies cement themselves so firmly in their truncated series order. Each episode feels the perfect length and, although it would be quite easy to binge these episodes should they have been released all at once, releasing them once a week makes the feel more special, more justified. With only two episodes left, there isn’t much time for our characters to reach a homeostasis and each slowly advance towards the inevitable.

Nicole Kidman steals the show this week as Celeste travels to the therapist by herself unlike in last week’s episode where she and Perry went together. Triggered by yet another horrific incident of violence, which the audience is brilliant made privy to through the glorious editing, Celeste comes very close to revealing the true extent of Perry’s abuse before pulling back at the last second, hiding her bruises both physically and emotionally. Kidman is fabulous with the very tough and heartfelt dialogue written by David Kelly. I can’t even begin to understand Celeste, but I think that’s the point. It’s difficult to understand her motivations, yet they feel solely real, and Kidman solidified herself as an Emmy frontrunner for her performance this week.

Elsewhere, Jane inches closer and closer to violence by driving to meet up with the man that she and Madeline believe might be Ziggy’s father and the man who violently raped Jane. Gun in tow, Jane drives and faces him head on before scrambling out of the office with no clear indication to the audience what happened inside. Although her penchant for violence has been teased previously I still don’t yet think that Jane is ready to commit such an extreme act of violence, mainly for Ziggy’s sake. Perhaps Jane is the aggravator in the violence that this story has been framed around–indeed, one of the talking heads says “Jane Chapman? She’s crazy, too,” this week–yet something must put her into direct danger to literally pull the trigger.

We get our first real glimpse at the PTA fundraiser where murder is committed during this episode, and we get a further, very brief, shot of our lead detective played by Merrin Dungey but I remain surprised we haven’t seen more of after she’s given so much screen time in the pilot episode. Two weeks remain in Big Little Lies, so I expect our two timelines will intersect with bloody abandon very soon.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Four – “Push Comes to Shove”

After being pushed to the background in a way in last week’s episode, “Push Comes to Shove,” thankfully, brings Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline back to the forefront, and the entire show is better as a result of it. I could write an entire blog dedicated to my love for Reese Witherspoon and, specifically, my love for this character of Madeline, but this is not the time or place so I’ll keep my adoration brief: Witherspoon is phenomenal in this role. Every week she adds something new, creating a multi-faceted character who, very easily, could be one-note. If she isn’t at least nominated for an Emmy come September, there’ll be another blog post debating why that is–simply, she’s wonderful week-in and week-out.

Other than Madeline’s renewed prominence, the fourth episode of the seven-part series also managed to bring sex/sexuality into the narrative, and I was surprised at how long it took for HBO to do so. Although underlying themes of sex were essential to the series before–Celeste and Perry’s uncomfortable and abusive sessions, for example–“Push Comes to Shove” managed to make sexuality an important plot device for just about every character. Logically this makes a ton of sense as we inch towards our bloody conclusion: sex is power, and murder and pain is also power. The two are tied together in interesting ways during “Push Comes to Shove.”

Jane, after revealing to Madeline in the previous episode that she had been raped, expresses lukewarm interest in dating again, much to Madeline’s surprise and approval. Still though, I don’t believe the audience is supposed to buy this. After three episodes of foreshadowing that something very bad and sex-related happened to Jane, it’s obvious that Jane just wants to move on, which she cannot do, not yet. As Madeline and Celeste attempt to track down the man who raped Jane, Jane deflects, saying that she’d rather just start dating anew and forget about the entire situation. For Jane it isn’t easy either. Because of Ziggy’s continued prodding over his father’s identity–Jane takes him to see a child psychologist in this episode to qualm some of her worries about her son’s mental state–she cannot let go just yet, and indeed we see her looking up the man’s identity as well as the episode draws to a close.

On the other side of the situation, the previously asexual Ed and Madeline explore their sexuality in this episode, just not with each other. The episode opens with Madeline and her ex-husband Nathan meeting for lunch where Nathan proposes a couples dinner between he and Bonnie and Madeline and Ed. Hyper masculinity illustrates itself again in Madeline’s ex husband. Attempting to make sacrifices for his wife but only to make himself look good, he stresses intently that he’s doing everything to be a good husband. Ed, meanwhile, seems to actually enjoy being a husband, putting on an impromptu Elvis impersonation when she comes home: “I’m your nut job.” This meeting of Madeline and Nathan prompts Ed to meet Bonnie at her studio where awkward sexual tension ensues, casting a bit of a shadow on the previous “all-American husband” persona that Ed exuded. Checking out other girls and saying point blank to Bonnie that he only came to gyms because sweat turned him on, the seed of doubt is placed in Madeline and Ed’s marriage, a seed which grows and grows with each passing minute of the episode, culminating in the reveal that Madeline has had an extramarital affair with the director of her play.

This shouldn’t really be surprising. Although Madeline and Ed seem very much in love, there isn’t much sexual tension between the two of them and very little actual physical affection. After Ed’s odd tension with Bonnie, Madeline’s make out session with her director, which is prompted by their successful defense of the play against Renata, makes sense. Madeline’s affair is revealed later which, again, almost makes sense in contrast to the characterization and Witherspoon’s performance. Is Madeline hiding something else? Is Ed? There isn’t much time to find out–three weeks left.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode Two – “Serious Mothering”

As the fallout from Ziggy’s assault continues to permeate through the world of Big Little Lies the cast continues to receive ample opportunities to shine, many of them taking full advantage of the opportunity and running away with it in yet another very good episode of the HBO mini-series.

Battle lines are drawn very quickly in the episode, with the majority of our characters sitting on one side of the Madeline/Jane vs. Renata argument. Madeline continues to defend her new friend Jane and her son, Ziggy, while Renata fails to understand why Ziggy is still a member of the prestigious Otter Bay Academy. Although Renata makes a genuine attempt in the episode to move past the incident, Madeline again reignites the flames by confronting Renata for not inviting Ziggy to her daughter Amabelle’s birthday party, the same daughter that Ziggy choked in the previous episode. Madeline, ever the (wannabe) pacifist,  confronts Renata about the missing invitation to no avail, although Madeline’s youngest daughter attempts her own brand of pacifism by reuniting Ziggy and Amabelle in school, where Ziggy kisses the girl he previously choked. Another firestorm ensues, leaving Madeline’s social standing in no better shape than it was in the previous episode.

All these problems filter through Madeline, and, as played by Reese Witherspoon, she becomes the heart of this show, and our de facto main character in spite of the immense ensemble work going on. Witherspoon is terrific as Madeline, a character that feels very much like her, yet also a challenge, not unlike her portrayal of Cheryl Strayed in Wild. While not as physical as a performance Witherspoon commits the same level of energy and intensity, creating a character that is subtly transformative, careful not to show her true intentions but in brief flashes of anger and passion. This anger comes through clearly in episode two as she confronts her theatre coordinator for pulling the plug on her performance of Avenue Q. Entitled to a fault, but also intensely desiring and passionate, Madeline fails to understand why her performance isn’t allowed to happen–a disappointment which she takes out on Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz).

Although Bonnie is a pivotal character in this show–in this episode it is revealed that she took Abigail, her step-daughter and Madeline’s eldest to get birth control against Madeline’s wishes–Kravitz hasn’t been given too much to do, the only fault in any otherwise very diversified and fully-fledged cast. Laura Dern’s Renata and Nicole Kidman’s Celeste are given far more to do in this episode and their respective actresses take this in stride, so I’m confident Bonnie too will step into the forefront, similar to Adam Scott’s Ed.

While mostly echoing Madeline in the past episode, Ed gets more a voice in “Serious Mothering” including a key, and darkly hilarious, scene opposite Nathan, Madeline’s ex-husband. Threatening yet gentle, Scott is impressive in such a meaty role enriched with mystery, a collection of adjectives which can truly be used to describe every character in the show.

We don’t learn much about the present in this episode, and very little additional information is given to us about the show’s frame story: “who is dead at the PTA fundraiser.” There’s an obvious desire on behalf of the show’s creators to withhold this information, but the question is raised as to how long they can stand to withhold it. Because the series is only a mere seven episodes, we won’t have to wait long before we find out.

Review: Big Little Lies, Episode One – “Somebody’s Dead”

Quickly emerging as one of spring 2017’s freshest and sharpest series, HBO’s Big Little Lies manages to exceed the expectations set in front of it to present a show that is often funny, often mysterious, and consistently excellent in front of, and behind, the camera.

Adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same nameBig Little Lies is, from a creative standpoint, stacked with talent. Written by The Practice and Ally McBeal creator David E. Kelly, the show is most sculpted by its director Jean-Marc Vallée, helmer of recent Oscar-winning and nominated films such as Dallas Buyers Club and Wild. Reunited with his Wild stars Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern, Vallée feels right at home with the Monterey, California-set series, and anyone familiar with Vallée’s work will also feel comfortable as his visual style is well-used here.

Witherspoon is devilishly delightful as Madeline Martha MacKenzie–a television series name if I’ve ever heard one– a theatre producer and mother who takes a new mother, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) under her wing at the beginning of the school year for their children, where the series starts. Witherspoon is not new to a role like this: peppy, sure-footed and independent, Madeline is a stone’s throw from a character like Elle Woods from Legally Blonde or Tracey Flick from Election. Although familiar, this character feels like a bit of a further evolution for Witherspoon, who masterfully portrayed real-life hiker/author Cheryl Strayed in Wild. Madeline has more to her than meets the eye–spurned by her ex-husband, she is quickly painted in the show as someone who gets what they want due to hard work, without the risk of losing her morals and her responsibilities. This responsibility manifests in her teenage daughter, who is leaving for college. A key scene towards the end of the episode shows how important motherhood is to Madeline, which is perhaps why Jane Chapman is so important to her.

Woodley is also quite good as Jane, a mother of a six-year-old with an evidently checkered past if we are to believe the (outstanding) editing in the pilot. Feeling very much like Wild and Dallas Buyers Club, “Somebody’s Dead” intercuts scenes in the present, as Jane, Madeline, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Renata (Dern), and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) are dropping their kids off at school, to an event an unforeseen amount of time in the future where detectives are investigating the murder of an unknown person that occurred at a fundraising event for the school. Vallée keeps the identity of this person a secret through his skillful editing, creating a mystery that the seven-episode limited series will make room to answer.

Aside from Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman has the ability to steal the show. Although not given as much screen-time as her counterparts, Kidman’s character is presented as a successful one as well, with a wealthy life, nice children, and a handsome younger husband played by Alexander Skarsgård. Her side of the story, too, sets itself up as the one containing the most mystery with Skarsgård’s character, Perry, potentially being abusive towards Kidman’s Celeste, as well as their two twin boys. Celeste is surrounded by a wave of toxic masculinity, and her soft-spoken yet confident demeanor is a perfect one for the character, which I hope we see a lot more of as the series progresses.

With a strong pilot from an outstandingly capable cast and crew, Big Little Lies is setting itself up for greatness, and I only hope that it continues to build on the momentum it has created with its first episode. Mystery and intrigue can keep an audience for so long, but as shows like How To Get Away With Murder testify too, keeping that audience along for the ride can be a more difficult struggle.

For further reviews about Big Little Lies, read here and here.