How Schoolyard Drama and Domestic Violence Converge on ‘Big Little Lies’

The schoolyard drama tracks a parallel course with the adults’ storylines, which reinforces a through line of the series — the way we teach children to see threatening behavior as a prank, a joke, all in good fun.

The immediate pleasure of HBO’s Big Little Lies came from its chorus of catty helicopter parents: It’s easy to laugh at Renata’s overreaction to every perceived slight, played to the hilt by a razor-sharp Laura Dern, just as it’s easy to see Big Little Lies as a glossy soap opera elevated by its indie-film director, Jean-Marc Vallée. I’ve heard viewers question why the show even needs its murder-mystery undercurrent, a storyline that remains murky right up until the final episode. But as the series progresses — the penultimate episode, the last one I’ve seen, airs this Sunday — it becomes clear that the murder mystery isn’t incidental to Big Little Lies, which was adapted from Liane Moriarty’s 2014 novel. At its core, the series isn’t about gossipy housewives; it’s about the complex interplay between violence and desire.

The battle lines between the feuding parents are drawn in the first episode: When Renata’s young daughter, Amabella (Ivy George), accuses a classmate, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), of hurting her, Renata demands an apology from the boy, who insists he didn’t do anything wrong. Ziggy’s mom, Jane (Shailene Woodley), stands by her son, and Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) eagerly comes to her new friend’s defense. In retaliation, Renata executes a campaign to cancel the community production of Avenue Q, which Madeline is helping to produce. When Renata fails to invite Ziggy to Amabella’s birthday party, Madeline spies an opportunity for revenge and plans a trip to Disney on Ice on the same day. Confronting her at a tony wine bar, Renata seethes, “Do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday.”

The schoolyard drama tracks a parallel course with the adults’ storylines, which reinforces a through line of the series — the way we teach children to see threatening behavior as a prank, a joke, all in good fun. Kids and parents are constantly sneaking up on and startling each other; the series is full of seemingly innocuous scenes of playful family tousles that are hard to dismiss in light of the violence that swirls around them, just out of sight.

There’s a particularly incisive scene from last week’s episode, in which Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and her husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) — whose seemingly perfect relationship masks the serious physical abuse Perry wages on his wife, usually before they have sex — are having dinner with their two adorable twin boys. They don’t listen when their mother tells them to put their toys down and eat their food, but when Perry does the same, they snap to attention and pick up their forks. He lets out a big belch that makes the twins giggle and makes Celeste sigh and shake her head. Then his voice deepens: “Here comes the monster!” he cries, curving his hands into claws and rising from the table like a grotesque creature emerging from the sea. The boys shriek as he chases them around the dining room; in retaliation, they grab toy guns and start shooting. When Celeste cries, “No!” and jumps out of her chair, Perry yells, “Get her!” She runs into his arms as he pledges, “I’ll save you!” But instead, he holds onto her and instructs, “Fire at will, boys!”

The scene takes on a sinister resonance set against the backdrop of Celeste and Perry’s disturbing relationship, as does the plot involving Ziggy and Amabella. When their teacher passes around a stuffed animal named Harry for every child to hug, Amabella asks, “Does Harry want to be hugged?” Renata’s growing frustration with Amabella, who insists that Ziggy is no longer hurting her even as new bruises and bite marks appear on her body, mirrors the audience’s frustration with Celeste, who is constantly applying makeup to the bruises she sustains from her husband and yet keeps the abuse a secret from even her closest friends. When she discloses to Madeline that she and Perry often have sex after they fight, Madeline says that’s fucked up — but also kind of hot. Compared to Madeline’s lackluster marriage with her nice-guy husband, Ed (Adam Scott), Celeste’s sex life is enviably passionate. But Madeline doesn’t know the truth.

Like Amabella, Celeste refuses to talk about the abuse with anyone, until she finally discloses it to a therapist — who advises her to tell a friend so that she’ll have a witness to Perry’s abuse in the event of a custody battle. By juxtaposing Amabella’s situation with Celeste’s, Big Little Lies suggests how innocuous violent behavior can seem when you treat it like it’s normal.

For Celeste, the scariest thing is admitting that it’s not, because that would expose the lie on which she’s based her supposedly perfect life. To the Greek chorus of parents giving their testimony to detectives investigating the as-yet-unknown murder, Celeste and Perry have an obnoxiously perfect relationship, and Madeline is an insufferable busybody. But the viewer sees a fuller picture of Madeline: She may not be as demure and polished as Celeste, but Madeline doesn’t take shit from anyone; she may be combative, but she’s genuinely funny, and she’s a good friend — loyal, supportive, and willing to fight for what she wants and what she thinks her friends deserve.

But the Greek chorus doesn’t want to see the nuanced, complex truth about their neighbors. They crave high drama, and they reduce every person to a caricature. Both the moms and dads see women in conflict and call, “Catfight!” One mom tells the detectives that she was there that night at the wine bar when Renata confronted Madeline, and she swears she saw Madeline eyeing a steak knife. They smell blood, and yet they overlook the actual violence taking place right under their noses because it doesn’t fit their clichéd ideas about what it should look like.

By casting these people not just as adults but as (very involved) parents, Big Little Lies reveals the subtle ways in which we teach young people to romanticize violence and to weaponized romance — and how they learn that one usually follows the other. Ever her mother’s daughter, Chloe (Darby Camp) tries to get Amabella and Ziggy to make up by putting on one of her favorite songs and forcing them together. “Big hug, kiss, bang — everything’s better again,” she explains to her mother after her plan fails. After all, she says, that’s how mommy and daddy make up after a fight. And anyway, how could anyone stay mad when Leon Bridges is singing “River”?

Director Jean-Marc Vallée hammers home this idea when he puts that same song over the final scene of that episode, “Serious Mothering,” while Celeste and Perry have Skype sex. Earlier in the episode, Celeste bats off Perry’s cyber sex request after glimpsing a bruise in the mirror; but by the end, safely ensconced in her low-lit bedroom overlooking the ocean, her husband miles away on a work trip, she happily writhes on the bed in front of a laptop while Perry watches. Put a sweet, sexy song over a troubling scene, and bang — everything’s better again. I can’t remember a show or film that more effectively demonstrates the way women protect the men they love even when those men turn violent, or more effectively illustrates the biggest little lie of all: This is ok because he loves me.