I’ve just come from a 6 hour binge of Big Little Lies that lasted until 7AM this morning, and I am an absolute fan of the HBO miniseries. It’s got a bitterly dark sense of humor, an intensely talented cast, and a tight storyline that doesn’t bore. In true HBO fashion, the show does not flinch from showing graphic content–in this case, domestic violence. While HBO does have a tendency to show graphic content just to show it (ahem, Game of Thrones even though I love it), the scenes between Celeste and Perry Wright, played by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard, respectively, are not only important to the story but important to viewers’ understanding of domestic violence.
It’s a cliche. It’s been heard before. And it’s nothing new. Relationship abuse can happen to anyone. 1 in 3 women have been a victim of some form of physical abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime. Abusers operate in a cycle; there are periods of calm and then periods of intense conflict and abuse.
The problem is, when you read that paragraph above, did you really internalize it? Or did you gloss over it because you already know all of those statistics?
As helpful as statistics are in measuring the breadth of a problem, it often doesn’t contexualize enough for people. Statistics are rote, boring, and easy to ignore. Stories like Celeste’s in Big Little Lies make you fear for all women in Celeste’s situation, a function of good storytelling and of the very real circumstances that victims of domestic violence face.
Even that word–“victim”–is given some thought in the show. When Celeste’s marriage counselor begins to earnestly probe for signs of domestic abuse, Celeste balks and says, “We both become violent sometimes, I take my share of the blame. I’m not a victim here.” She goes on to describe their relationship as just “volatile” with a lot of “passion.” To be fair, there are good moments. Perry seems to earnestly want to change at times, and he is the first to divulge the violence between the two to their marriage counselor. Celeste, too, sees that Perry can be a good father; he plays with their two sons, pretending to be a monster and chasing them around the table during a poignant dinner scene. Celeste goes on to tell the counselor, “I think about what we have, and we have a lot.”
People in abusive relationships are usually given little sympathy because “why couldn’t they just leave?” Indeed, this is a question that Celeste wrestles with at the end of each abusive episode with Perry, and every single time the audience believes she will finally reach out for help or come to her senses, we are abruptly met with her making excuses for her absences from social functions, the physical pains that she feels, and her husband’s behavior. When people ask, “Why couldn’t they just leave?”, the answer that is usually given is “It’s complicated.” And that is forcefully clear in Big Little Lies. Celeste wrestles with the notion that her husband is an abuser, a good father, and a good provider. In a community obsessed with appearances and keeping up with the Joneses, Celeste’s sense of how she appears to others also prevents her from leaving. She’s “not a victim.”
Nicole Kidman’s performances in her scenes with the marriage counselor are wrought with fragility, a woman coming to the end of her rope and also coming into her own. The pleading behind her eyes contradicts the words coming out of her mouth, and you can see the cognitive dissonance becoming more and more apparent as the conversation continues. In this moment, we as the audience are cheering for Celeste to finally figure it out, to finally get her kids and leave, and that is the moment that should stay with viewers. Because that is the moment that our lack of empathy–“Why doesn’t she just leave?”–becomes a fervent hope and an understanding of how difficult it is to just leave. This dramatic tension, the audience’s hopes and fears, becomes an educational tool for viewers of Big Little Lies to not easily dismiss the circumstances of relationship abuse.
The miniseries ends in an idyllic day at the beach among all of the main female characters and their children. Setting aside their petty Monterey housewife differences, the five women bask in the glow of the sun and in each other’s company, their unspoken friendships cemented through a final climactic struggle. There’s something to be said about the bonds of sisterhood in this final shot, the women having overcome their largest obstacle–a man bent on exerting control physically and sexually. Their free flowing hair, minimal makeup also suggests freedom from the bonds of what society expects of them: the doting mother, the bitch CEO, the gorgeous housewife. The violent assaults on their lives from society, from men, results in a violent, cathartic finale: a release from their trauma and from our ignorance.