A few thoughts on the finale to Big Little Lies coming up just as soon as I dress up like Audrey Hepburn in the jazz club scene from Funny Face…
Early on, Big Little Lies offered up a trio of mysteries: 1) Who was the victim of the murder committed on Trivia Night? 2) Who was responsible for bullying Renata’s daughter? 3) Who was the father of Jane’s son?
In the end, three mysteries turned out to be one, all with the same answer: Perry. (Technically, Perry and Celeste’s son Max is the one abusing Amabella, but as Celeste notes to Perry, Max learned that behavior at home.)
This solution (which I gather is faithful to Liane Moriarty’s book) is very thematically satisfying, and a bit less so narratively. It hits on various themes that Big Little Lies was discussing about the behaviors that parents pass onto children, the secrets friends hide from one another, and the difference between perception and reality even in a small, mostly fabulously wealthy community like this one. And the moment when Celeste and Madeline see Jane seeing Perry, and instantly recognize the same thing that she does, was beautifully set up, and then played by Kidman, Witherspoon, and Woodley (and, for that matter, Alexander Skarsgard, who managed to find the sweet spot where Perry was both a monster and a man who didn’t know how to stop being a monster). It makes sense that one of Perry’s seemingly perfect kids would be the abuser — one of the finale’s most satisfying moments comes when Jane tells Celeste what Ziggy told her, and Celeste instantly accepts that it’s true, rather than lashing out at Jane and indignantly defending her son — he more or less fits Jane’s narrative of the night she was raped, and it would have rung false if any of the story’s other rivalries had been the one to end in bloodshed.
At the same time, the series did such a good job of establishing the many complicated facets of the lives of women like Madeline and Renata and Bonnie(*) that it felt too easy to not only have all of the mysteries lead to Perry, but to have most of the crises seemingly solved by his death. Madeline is shaken into recognizing what she has in Ed, the clean-shaven Ed in turn seems to let go of his suspicions about Joseph and Tori, Madeline and Nathan and Bonnie and Ed all make peace with their presence in each other’s lives, and the five women and their kids — two of whose father died violently at the hands of one of the women (and, as an added bit of mental trauma for Max, on the same day his mother confronted him about abusing Amabella) — are all happily frolicking on the beach together in a manner suggesting Perry’s death fixed everything.
(*) One other story gap: Bonnie goes from a character who is very much wrapped up in her own life and her own drama with Nathan and Madeline and Ed into a woman who’s not only perceptive enough to figure out what’s happening between Celeste and Perry at a crowded party, but invested enough to run in and even deliver the fatal shove down the steps. I’m told there’s more to that in the book, but the miniseries could have done a much better job setting her up for that crucial role in the climax.
We know life is more complicated than this postcard-worthy montage can suggest. That was the whole point of the series up to that point, and the concluding shot of the group being watched through binoculars (by… the skeptical cop? one of the Greek chorus moms bitter she wasn’t invited to party with the cool kids?) suggests that things could get very messy again after we’re no longer watching. But the conclusion felt appropriate and pat at the same time.
Overall, though, the finale offered plenty of satisfying payoff to the series various character arcs, and allowed all the actors superb showcases in the closing minutes, whether Adam Scott surveying the crowd before Ed’s drunken, beautiful rendition of “The Wonder of You” (albeit one that, like Nathan’s performance, was dubbed by another performer), Robin Weigert’s halting physicality as Celeste’s therapist debated whether to follow her out the door, or the way that, intentionally, Witherspoon and Woodley seemed to be in one show and Laura Dern in another when Renata came to apologize to Jane while Jane was comforting Madeline. Because HBO made every episode but this one available to critics before the series debuted, it had been a while since I’d watched, but I instantly hooked back into all the emotions and felt pleased that the journey felt worthwhile, even if certain aspects — the whiny, caricatured Greek chorusers, in particular — never really clicked. Just a bunch of great actors teaming up with an excellent director (and a gifted writer whose familiar weaknesses were mostly curtailed because he was adapting someone else’s story) for a story told well without overstaying its welcome.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org