Big Little Lies: The Poetics of On-Screen Trauma
Years after first watching The Hours when I was 11, the few scenes of the film that I remembered haunted me. I could see Virginia Woolf (Nicole Kidman) sinking into the river, Richard Brown (Ed Harris) deliberately falling from his window, and Laura Brown (Julianne Moore) floating in a hotel room submerged in water. The images from those scenes were fragmented, but they pulled me back in again and again. When I finally watched The Hours again, I felt like I was retrieving lost memories whose shadows had always been lurking under the surface. As Philip Glass’ music soared, the images I remembered found their meaning. The Hours and Big Little Lies both immerse you in the soft pace of their interwoven stories. Big Little Lies is as much a story about family conflicts as the story of a murder, and, like The Hours, the show's beautiful balance between evocative music and powerful images left me feeling haunted.
Big Little Lies slowly uncovers the complexities beneath five women's day-to-day routines. The show revolves around three women specifically: energetic Madeline, played by Reese Witherspoon, enigmatic Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and the newcomer “Jane no middle name Chapman” (Shailene Woodley). They are introduced to us when the police interrogates community members about them after a murder at a school fundraising. In turns, witnesses characterize each of the women with a set of stereotypes. Madeline is “nosy,” and “things never blow over when [she] gets involved - they blow up.” Celeste has a perfect life, and she and her husband are disgustingly sweet together. Jane is nothing but trouble, and no one knows anything about her. Big Little Lies purposefully makes us view the three through these judgements before letting the characters speak for themselves. Initially, Madeline comes across as a stereotypical PTA mom whose children are, self-admittedly, her whole universe. But her nagging and her overinvolvement in school drama reveal her fears of letting her children go. Every day, she loses them a bit more and more, and she is learning to accept that. Her friend Celeste has a ridiculously good looking husband, Perry, who is a great father to their adorable blonde twin boys. He even reschedules his work trip to attend their first day of school. But Celeste is startled whenever he sneaks up on her. She looks off into the distance whenever he isn’t smothering her in kisses. There is a threatening undertone to everything he says.
Before the end of the first episode, Perry lashes out at her and grabs her shoulder violently. Bruises spread and fade across her skin throughout the miniseries. Then, there is Jane Chapman whose son’s father is “not in the picture.” Through disjointed flashbacks, we soon piece together that she was sexually assaulted. The show’s women are not just mothers or wives. They struggle with their fears, their insecurities, and their trauma.
Big Little Lies’ strength is reflecting the characters’ trauma in the show’s structure. The glossy surface of the show mirrors the characters’ seemingly perfect lives. However, this surface is cut up as flashes of different cryptic scenes interrupt the narrative. These flashes consist of memories as well as fantasized scenarios of revenge and liberation. It is through these flashes that the show makes us experience the symptoms of the characters’ psychological trauma. When Jane goes jogging in the early morning, her run is repeatedly disrupted by memories of her running on a beach in a torn blue dress the night of her assault. Big Little Lies goes back to these images again and again, adding new elements depending on Jane’s mood. When she is angry or distressed, she sometimes imagines herself chasing the man who raped her. She imagines raising a gun to him in an attempt to regain control over her nightmares. These flashbacks and imagined confrontations are at times detailed, while other times, they are brief snippets of footstep marks in the sand.
The show blurs the lines further by making us question what we are seeing. Jane is home one night when an intruder shows up. She unlocks her bedside table drawer in a panic, pulls out a gun and shoots the man. Immediately after, we realize she imagined this scene, and her gun is still safely locked away. Celeste is also tormented by the trauma of the domestic abuse she suffers. We sometimes see her covering up a new bruise before a violent flashback reveals how Perry caused it. Both Jane and Celeste’s traumatic memories are intrusive and disrupt the show’s narrative. They occur both when they’re alone or in the middle of a conversation. The two women are unable to forget, and the show prevents us from forgetting. We are submerged in the characters’ memories and anxieties.
While we are overwhelmed with images, Big Little Lies reinforces their impact through a well-crafted soundtrack and detailed ambient noises. The last episode begins with a simple shot of an air vent near the ceiling. At first, all we hear is a video game playing in the background. As the camera zooms in on the air vent however, we can make out thuds and a woman whimpering. Despite the near empty visual field, we can infer from the audio that Perry is beating up Celeste while their sons are playing video games. This powerful scene exemplifies Big Little Lies’ ability to achieve subtle poignant effects.
The show recreates its characters’ trauma through visual and auditory stimulation, and builds up their impact progressively until the finale. During the last episode, all the parents are reunited at a school fundraiser, which is set as the murder scene from the beginning. I won’t spoil what happens, but I do want to focus on the ending’s execution. Celeste, Madeline, Jane, and another woman are away from the party when Perry finds his wife and confronts her. His sweet facade is gone, and the tension is palpable as his dangerous nature becomes clear.
However, before we can see what happens, we are jolted ahead in time. Police lights seep into the frame. The camera follows the detectives to the body, and we realize the murder has taken place. In that moment, the show chooses to reveal who was killed when it has inevitably already happened instead of capitalizing on a heightened dramatic scene where it is about to happen. The how was about to lead to the who, but the show overturns this expectation at the last second. Instead, the who happens before the how, which takes away the suspense.
When the how is then revealed, Big Little Lies further removes us from the action. We are finally seeing the most critical scene, but the audio of the women and Perry fighting is muted. Instead, nostalgic piano music plays. Time would almost be suspended if it were not for the violent images sprawled across the screen. As the women struggle against Perry, he pushes them and kicks his wife to the ground while flashes of the ocean crashing into rocks mirror his movements. The music prevents us from experiencing their struggle viscerally, forcing us instead to be helpless witnesses of this man’s violence. By preventing us from a cathartic release, Big Little Lies confronts us to the women’s trauma under the thrall of patriarchy. We know who dies, but we are detached. We watch what happens without being emotionally overwhelmed. Instead, as the waves leap, and Perry whips around, the piano’s notes engulf us in an eerily calm liberation. Every precise detail in Big Little Lies - whether it is the music, a charged silence, or a flashback - resonates across the screen. And when the credits end, the pulse of the show's ocean waves keeps beating long after.