To say I was blown away by HBO's Big Little Lies would be an understatement. It's kind of been Netflix's party for a while, but good on HBO, because the mini-series finale that aired Monday (2nd April) night is basically all anyone can talk or Tweet about (myself included, obviously).
A discussion I had with a couple of friends about the show led to a point in the conversation where one of them said, "The characters were all so relatable. I mean, except Celeste. Like, what the f*ck was that girl thinking?"
Another nodded, and added "Yeah. I would've left. She was incredibly weak. I've never wanted to shake somebody so hard."
A third piped in that, to her, Renata was the hardest shell to crack. "I had no sympathy for her. If I knew someone like in real life, I've avoid her like the plague."
I kept my opinions quiet, because why fritter away fun and disputable thoughts and open them up to debate when you can wax eloquent about them in an article instead?
What I wanted to say (but didn't) is that not a single one of these characters fails to drawn sympathy.
And every. single. one. of them is relatable.
I'll make my case by elucidating why about each character in detail, without all the horrid interruptions of counter-opinions that conversation brings.
Madeline Martha Mackenzie
It would be wrong to start with anyone else. Madeline is the unintentional centrifugal force that drives the whole woman-vortex of Monterey. She brings the characters together, and proves with a series of actions (not words) that she's a pretty stand-up mother and friend (particularly to Jane). But what I found incredibly relatable about her was her residual feelings about her ex-husband, Nathan and her having cheated on Ed.
The fact that her resentment for Nathan still bubbles under the surface of her incredibly together life is depressingly real. It is that Freudian Id that doesn't forgive or forget when someone abandons us, and leaves us to fend for ourselves (with or without child in tow). We've all felt that way about a man we have a deep history with, who we always believe will be a little bit ours, no matter who he else he belongs to.
The fact that she cheated on Ed, to me, was a beautiful aspect to her character—something several people in my life disagreed with. Her being drawn to this other man in this raw, visceral way—and acting on it—was so believable it was bothersome. Her 'perfect' relationship with Ed actually doesn't deserve the quotes I put it in, because in a lot of ways, it was perfect. It was a rare union where the love between them was evident and had staying power—it just didn't translate into the physical. And her breaking it with infidelity was neither laudable nor condonable, but it certainly was understandable. Anyone who has had a solid, but routine, relationship has felt that way at some point.
Jane is the most stereotypically 'feminist' character (the others are too, just wrapped in some layers first)—single mom facing the world head on, a victim of abuse that powered through every day with renewed strength, you catch their drift. But Jane was symbolic of a certain brokenness and anger in any woman that's dealt with any gender injustice—and, let's face it, on some level that's all of us—and that made her character strange and perhaps unsympathetic, but definitely relatable.
The rape that led to her son, Ziggy, both dominates her everyday headspace, and sometimes fades into oblivion, because it's overtaken by myriad other pressing concerns that threaten her life at every stage. There's no better phrasing than that. Abuse, for a lot of women, is something that you can't shake off for all your trying—but it doesn't cripple you into not dealing with the rest of your life. Jane is emblematic of that tired strength, and you can see her on the verge of breakdown as things get worse and worse with her son, and with her position in society because of it—but you never see her breakdown. That verge is something every woman has been, and stepped back from in order to stay strong and carry on.
Renata just straight up makes me want to cry. I have been that bitch at work, in a grocery-store line, in a cab stuck in traffic and on date night, and only I have known where I was coming from. Renata isn't a bad person, she's unfathomably helpless—a cardinal trait that reaches it's pivotal peak when she begins screaming at Amabella in frustration to tell her who's been bullying her. She's part-woman, part-trapeze-artist, and she's always balancing the multiple aspects of her life precariously as she teeters along. She is successful and hard-working, but she is perceived as nothing but cold and hard.
You feel, especially, a deep pang of sympathy when she scoffs about how she used to be 'fun' enough to bungee-jump, and laments that she's nothing like that now. Even f*cking her husband on the sink is an aberration, one that rears its ugly head in one of their later fights. Renata is the embodying of that feeling of doing so much, and yet feeling like the world thinks you're doing nothing, and being haunted by that every day.
Bonnie's character might seem like a trope, but she's actually one of the most sympathetic characters on the show. While she fits under standard category of 'hot-next-wife-of-ex', she is far more riddled with complexity. She is seen as an idea, and not an entity of her own, until much later in the season where we first get a glimpse of her in a real sense, in a conversation with Nathan. Uptil that point, Bonnie is that gorgeous woman Madeline's ex married, and now goes to yoga and PTA meetings for. Bonnie is Madeline's daughter's new best friend. Bonnie is that sizzling thing at a children's birthday that moves slow, but steals the show with just the energy and sensuality she exudes.
But Bonnie is also just trying to keep up with her husband, that comes in tow with a complex past and a trying daughter. She's also stuck in a situation where she cares about a child and hasn't the authority to demand change from her (Abigail and the Virginity Auction comes to mind). You also see a marked difference in the sensual perception of her, and the reality in the way she dresses to the outside world and the way she does at home. In her own space, she is swathed in large, downy coats and loose pants, ascribing a certain simplicity to her that we don't see in the version of her that wears (the sexiest!) sports bras, and long, flowy dresses. It's almost poetic how her effortlessness has so much tireless effort hiding behind it.
And finally, my favourite...
Why, you ask, is this beautiful battered wife my favourite? Because the writers took the time to layer this character—and her relationship with Perry—like a decadent dessert. It lets you in to the inside of a relationship and a mindset it's ever-so-easy to scoff at from a distance, and blew the whole thing wide open. Her relationship is far from black and white. When you hear about a woman who's husband has hit her, a volcanic pop of rage happens in your intestines and you say "I would've left him that very minute." But the truth is far from that.
Her husband isn't an alcoholic, a bad father, even a bad citizen until the darkest innards of her personality come to light in the chilling finale. Celeste looks at him every morning knowing this is a man that hits her... but he loves her madly, he loves her children madly, he is the very epicentre of her life. She describes in a session with her the therapist the idea of leaving him being analogical to 'tearing flesh', and it's something that instantly strikes a chord.
Because, at some point in our lives, we've all been too weak to leave someone or something we know we need to leave. Whether it's a toxic friend, lover or job, we've justified the pros in our head and convinced ourselves we might never do better than this. We've sold ourselves short to the point that we're not even saleable anymore. It's the saddest thought in the world, and we've all thought it, because it's also the most human thought in the world.
And that's why, on some level, these women are the saddest, most beautiful and most human women in the world.