A Satisfying Finale for Big Little Lies

The star-studded HBO limited series came to a compassionate conclusion for (almost) all of its characters.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle / HBO

This post contains spoilers for the series finale of Big Little Lies.

And so it ends, as it should, not with a bang but a thud. Well, presumably several thuds, receding in proximity but increasing in stickiness. The mystery is solved: A wife-beater on the verge of transitioning to homicide is instead dead at the hands of a group of women brought together in victimization and mutual support. And with that, Big Little Lies, which began as a show about rich, catty moms trying to score social points against one another by manipulating children’s birthday parties and the like, completes its evolution into something much richer and more resonant.

I’ll confess, my wife and I saw this coming. (Well, mostly she did, but I adopted her predictions immediately.) As various other tensions and conflicts wound down or petered out, the story of Celeste’s abuse by Perry became the central narrative engine of the show. Yes, tonight’s finale tried to keep a few of the red herrings swimming—Gordon threatened Jane (and Tom!) at the café; Ed spilled a drink on Bonnie; Nathan sang way better than he was supposed to—but it was increasingly clear where this was headed.

Perry’s attacks were growing ever-more harrowing, to the point where they needed to be portrayed at a distance, through splintered memory-flashbacks. Celeste’s meetings with the therapist were quietly, methodically, and spellbindingly breaking down the walls of her denial. (Nicole Kidman did some of the best work of her career in those scenes, and I can’t say enough about Robin Weigert, who played Dr. Reisman: an understated yet unforgettable performance.)

The one wall that remained was Celeste’s conviction that Perry’s violence was not affecting the twins. And given that we still needed to unravel the mystery of Amabella’s bully, it seemed inevitable that one choker would beget another. It was, among other twists, a sharp subversion of Jane’s fear that Ziggy had somehow inherited his own father’s violent predilections. As Jane unwittingly prods Celeste, “I had to face the fact that violence could be in his DNA, given who his dad is.”

One of the most satisfying elements of Big Little Lies was the way it gradually extended empathy across almost all of its characters. Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline, originally introduced as a nosy control freak, a kind of grownup Tracy Flick, was revealed to be fragile and all-too-fallible. Celeste’s perfect self, marriage, and children were revealed to be anything but. Adam Scott’s Ed, initially almost a marital afterthought, found a quiet dignity and strength and was ultimately rewarded with a touching Trivia Night rendition of “The Wonder of You.”

But all of those reassessments came fairly early in the show’s seven-episode run. What was perhaps most touching was the show’s evolving treatment of characters who spent much of the series as objects of annoyance or worse. (I’ve been a sucker for stories that allow their antagonists to find redemption at least as far back as 1984’s Splash.) Laura Dern’s Renata—brittle, status-obsessed, quick to ascribe blame—was the second-closest the show came to having a villain, and an early, obvious candidate to kill or be killed. But over the last two episodes, her moving scenes of mutual forgiveness with Shailene Woodley’s Jane humanized her as a concerned mother doing the best she could (and appropriately horrified when she realized how wrong she had been). The fraught relationship between Madeline and her older daughter Abigail even seemed to be thawing into reconciliation.

Which left Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie. Though never a villain, she was certainly a foil: the too-good-to-be-true second wife who seemed custom-designed as a mirror to the other women’s imagined shortcomings—young, beautiful, and, worst of all by far, genuinely, utterly, almost intolerably nice. She was the last female character that the show granted its protagonists—and, by extension, its viewers—license to dislike. And, of course, she was the one the show ultimately allowed to save them. (I haven’t read the novel, but it’s my understanding that, in contrast to the show’s vague suggestions of a difficult past, it makes clear that she had been abused by her father.)

The show’s spirit of generosity is not, of course, without limit, and it has been clear for some time that Alexander Skarsgard’s Perry is beyond redemption: Perry, who brutally beats Celeste and imagines it’s because he loves her so much; Perry, who pantomimes a monster with his kids and then becomes one with his wife. (It is no coincidence that Celeste and Perry are introduced, way back in the first episode, to Charles Bradley crooning, “I’m a victim… of loving you.”) If Perry is among the more indelible fiends of the small screen, it is surely in part because he is such a plausible one, his crimes rationalized as easily as they are provoked, his belief in himself as a fundamentally good guy so impervious to self-reflection.

Was the finale’s suggestion that Perry was also Jane’s long-ago rapist too on the nose? I certainly felt so. But at least the director Jean-Marc Vallée—whose work on the series was also above reproach—left himself some wiggle room. Was it really Perry? Or does his embodiment of male predation merely insinuate its way into her memories of trauma? (Here, too, the novel is apparently more specific that he is, in fact, the one.) And as long as we’re quibbling, the idea that a jury would find Bonnie—or any of the women—guilty of a meaningful crime under the circumstances is utterly ridiculous.

The show was always a bit of a bait and switch with its heavy intimations of woman-on-woman violence, in particular with its early chorus of police interviewees: “Women don’t let things go”; “They’re the Olympic athletes of grudges”; “I believe that women are chemically incapable of forgiveness”; etc. But the bait was intriguing, and the switch, which came gradually and then all at once, even better: a highbrow Desperate Housewives revealing itself instead to be an engaging celebration of the power of sisterhood.

I have not always been a huge fan of the show’s opening and closing montages, which have on occasion seemed forced and unnecessarily arty. Tonight’s close was split across two songs. The latter, an Ituana cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” was apt, if a touch obvious. But what immediately preceded it was nothing short of masterful. Agnes Obel’s piano-only “September Song”—introduced, of course, by Madeline’s younger daughter Chloe, the show’s resident music director—glided over scenes of the same five women, elegantly but incongruously interspersing a joyous beach trip and a violent act of self-defense. In its closing moments, Big Little Lies offered two visions of solidarity, at once completely different and somehow the same.