Big Little Trust Funds

HBO’s latest limited series is a masterwork of horror—and its looming monster is wealth.

Renata Klein asking herself Big Little Lies's animating question: Where can you go when you've made it to the top? (HBO)

“Why don’t many people like talking about money?” a recent wondering on the Q&A site Quora reads. Answers include observations like “money is a very personal thing” and “money is how we measure each other, how we keep score, which makes the subject uncomfortable for most people, especially when we feel we don’t measure up favorably.” The insights are accurate, but their premise might be ever more questionable: Money, as a topic, is losing its bashfulness. A socialist, this past year, came close to winning the presidential nomination of a major American political party. The current president rose to that position in part because he so openly boasted about his wealth. A spate of recent TV shows—Atlanta, Breaking Bad, The Good Wife, and many others—have taken the bland upper-middle-class environs that formed the backdrop of so many prior entertainments and upended them. They have made money a thing. American culture, in the aggressively awkward way it goes about making much of its progress, is currently engaged in breaking what the finance site The Billfold called “one of the last taboos .”

Which makes one of the early conversational monologues Madeline Martha Mackenzie participates in in Big Little Lies, the limited series whose finale will air this Sunday on HBO, especially striking. “The over and under in this town is about $150,000,” she announces to Jane Chapman, a new fellow resident of Monterey, California, and a woman whose acquaintance Madeline has made mere moments earlier. “I work in community theater,” Madeline says—“20 hours a week. So I’m definitely an under.”

But Madeline, the show will very soon confirm, is not really an under, and her work not really “work” in the way most Americans live that concept. She lives in a beachside mansion that looks to have leapt straight out of a Pinterest board. She never seems to re-wear her clothing (even her yoga pants). There is always a selection of fresh fruit on display in her rambling, eat-in kitchen. Madeline has a 6-year-old daughter who feels comfortable declaring, to Jane’s son Ziggy, “When I grow up, I’m gonna run a massive label.”

Wealth, in this show, is not merely a background affair, in the aesthetically and aspirationally pleasing manner of Desperate Housewives, most American sitcoms, and literally every film produced by Nancy Meyers. Big Little Lies is instead a comedy of manners that breaks what was once a cardinal rule of American etiquette: It talks, openly and unapologetically, about money.

But the show does more than that: It makes money into a character—specifically, a villain. Wealth, in Big Little Lies, looms and taunts and warns of violence to come. The mansions of Monterey are, in director Jean-Marc Vallée’s presentation, not just beautiful, but also vaguely ominous. The “ocean” in “oceanfront property” reads not merely as awe-inspiring, but also as threatening. Madeline, with her daughter next to her, contemplates the Pacific from her porch, as seagulls squeal around her: “Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface?” she muses. “Monsters?” Chloe offers. “Monsters, maybe,” the mother replies.

It’s like this throughout the show: the spectacular and the spectral tangled up in each other, suburban banality sidling up to the environmental sublime. In Vallée’s Monterey, the heights of economic success—the Sub-Zeroes, the Vikings, the SUVs with Bang & Olufsen sound systems—hint, themselves, at falls to come. Big Little Lies may be a soap opera, and a family drama, and a nuanced tale of friendship and of parenthood. But it is also a murder mystery, and in that it is profoundly creepy. Its drama offers clues that suggest how lives lived in privilege could culminate in crimes of passion. And the vehicle of the violence, the show repeatedly suggests, is the very thing Madeline breezily discusses with her new friend: wealth. The monsters of Big Little Lies may be hidden in the Pacific; they are also present, miasmically, in the form of money that is ostentatious and excessive and so very sorrynotsorry—consumption that is, in the end, all too conspicuous.

“In an affluent community, a suspicious death at an elementary school fundraiser draws attention to the friction amongst some of the mothers,” HBO’s gloss on the series sums things up. Money, here—the clause that precedes all the others—permeates everything else. And it can create, Vallée and the show’s writer, David E. Kelly, suggest, as many problems as it solves. Renata Klein is convinced that her 1-percent status is one of the reasons that, as she confesses to her husband, “I am not liked.” Madeline, the type of person who does best when she is striving, finds herself, despite her Pinterest-perfect home, bored, and thus volatile, and thus prone to dedicating her energies toward people and causes that don’t deserve them. She has it all, which is also to say that she has nothing left to want. Call it the affluent mystique.

And then there’s Celeste Wright, imprisoned most directly by her abusive husband but also by other people’s confining assumptions about her picturesque life: the handsome, charming partner; the moppeted offspring; the cliffside mansion that offers not so much “views” as it does “vistas.” With its sharp angles and flowing spaces, all in the style of Late-Modern Subtle Showiness, their home suggests not just that its owners are living the American dream, but indeed that they have captured it for themselves, keeping it to live out its days in a guest suite they have outfitted with Kiehl’s skincare products and Egyptian cotton bedding.

But the Wright home is also undeniably creepy. Its interior is dark, even in the daytime. Its master suite features a capacious walk-in closet (with, hold on to your Instagram, mood-lighting), but the room’s central decoration is a bonsai tree—a discordant suggestion of nature potted and pruned and controlled. The home is studded with the kinds of architectural details—mirrors, bay windows, frosted glass—that are meant to add interest and invite in the light but instead hint at looming threats: of exposure, of manipulation, of surveillance. In one scene, Celeste presses her hand against the frosted-glass door of the boys’ bedroom. She’s simply coming to visit her sons; for a moment, though, before the hand is revealed to be Celeste’s, the frozen appendage, disembodied and eerily shadowed, suggests how easily the sinister can lurk even in the most intimate of places.

It’s only in part because of the production design—the ominous opulence of it all—but there is something decidedly Gothic about Big Little Lies. Uncontainable passion, fraught eroticism, the vague but pervasive sense that characters will die big deaths as well as, this being also a soap opera, little ones—it’s all the stuff of the literary Romantic, firmly in the tradition of The Castle of Otranto and Frankenstein. The sandy beaches where Madeline, Celeste, and Jane run from themselves might as well be moors. The Wright mansion could be a feature in Architectural Digest, or the cover of a modern take on Wuthering Heights. Vallée washes his shots in muted colors (many of the show’s outdoor scenes have been filmed on overcast days, making Monterey’s sea not so much blue as wine-dark); the shrill cry of the gulls form a constant soundtrack to characters’ lives; David Kelly imbues their dialogue with double entendres that manage to quadruple the creepiness. (“This is Monterey,” Madeline informs Jane, when Jane thanks her for her kindness—“we pound people with nice.” Celeste lets the bizarre joke hang in the air for a moment before adding, “To death.”)

It’s notable that, in literature, the Gothic movement—its emphasis on the terrors that lurk everywhere, because indeed they lurk in us all—was preceded, in many ways, by an architectural one. Horace Walpole’s Strawberry Hill, the neo-Gothic home in London whose gaudy turrets launched a thousand gaudy imitations, helped to inspire The Castle of Otranto, which in turn fired the imaginings of Shelley and Byron and Poe. Dark mansions, giggling gargoyles, the old stubbornly and self-consciously resurrected in the new—Big Little Lies pulses with that ancient sensibility. (Monterey was the first capital of California, named by the Spanish in 1776, after they colonized the area; the city is full of carefully preserved reminders of that old and often tragic history.) As bored housewives live their lives, waves crash violently against rocks. Scenic beaches are overlaid with images of guns, and sexual pleasure, and sexual violence. Each installment of the seven-episode series opens with a shot of Bixby Bridge, spindly and suspended precariously between coastal cliffs, a visual reminder of how easily things that are lovely can crack and break and fall. This is the land of the beautiful and the damned.

And the demons, too, are everywhere here, lurking, looming, waiting—and, in the manner of the modern monster, disembodied and ethereal and, as such, so very hard to destroy. Ziggy’s father. Madeline’s indiscretion. Amabella’s tormenter. Ed’s leering look at 16-year-old Abigail as she makes herself a snack in that sprawling, sparkling kitchen. When Madeline, Celeste, and Jane meet for coffee at a shabby-chic cafe on the Wharf in Old Monterey, they are followed by a man who ducks, furtively, in the shadows. Perry Wright proves how great he is as a father—this, it will soon become clear, is a key and confusing element of his own monstrosity—by pretending to be a monster. “Mmm, she is delicious!” he growls to his sons, of their mother, as they giggle in delight. The book Perry reads the boys in another Great Dad moment goes like this: “G is for George, smothered under a rug. H is for Hector, done in by a thug.”

Which is at once extremely charming and extremely unsettling: a classic parental moment made subtly sinister by a parent who, in the grand tradition of Romantic monsters, is something other than what he seems. And it’s money, notably, that helps to make him monstrous—money that helps bind Celeste to him, and that helps to make him seductive. “First one to the car gets a dollar!” Perry yells to his sons as they leave for school, and this is the first clue that something is amiss. Money isn’t merely what Perry has; it is part of who he is.

The same can be said of Monterey itself, a place where people spy on each other from within their leather-trimmed SUVs and where 6-year-olds expect to become not astronauts or presidents, but music moguls. “Did you ever want it, did you want it bad?” the show’s theme song, Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart,” asks at the outset of each episode, as parents and kids drive in distractible silence across impossibly beautiful highways. The question—the “it” left unnamed and expansive—is followed immediately by a declaration: “Oh, my, tears me apart.” One episode of the show is titled “Living the Dream.” It is preceded by one titled “Somebody’s Dead.”

Big Little Lies arrives on the scene, as it happens, during a cultural moment that is extremely anxious about wealth and privilege. Americans may be talking more about money, breaking that last taboo; as we do so, though, we are also growing ever more resentful of it. Equality is the ethic of the moment. Yet here, via HBO, is inequality on full, nuanced display—here is wealth, punished for its riches. Wealth, like some flinty god, doubles in Big Little Lies as a kind of fate—and not, in most cases, a good one. In a culture and an economy driven so forcibly by the dark arts of the hedge fund, the Protestant ethic no longer means what it once did; as wealth becomes ever more detached from hard work, money takes on an ever more spectral quality. Finance is confusing. It’s fraught. It’s a little bit, yes, monstrous. The flip side of the American dream is that, just as the song says, it can leave people wanting, and bad, and torn apart. It can result in even the kindest and smartest and most soulful of people finding themselves, in the end, conspicuously consumed.