Elementary school recess wars (between mothers). Fundraiser murder mysteries. Long shots of suspension bridges over the Pacific.
Neither is Reese Witherspoon’s high-strung mom, Madeline Martha Mackenzie, who’s worried about her impending identity loss when she’s no longer a full-time mom, just high-strung. Nor is Nicole Kidman’s Celeste Wright, whose main personality trait seems to be “beautiful.” Nor Laura Dern’s Renata Klein, who manages to fit in playground arguments between her tech company's board meetings.
No: The main stars of HBO’s Big Little Lies are the houses, which are just unfair, plain and simple. Filmed in Monterey, California, the beachside mansions of Big Little Lies are enviable coastal gems.
In the laws of the universe, either you get skyscraper-sized windows or a beachfront view. You get a kitchen island the size of New Zealand or you get views of the California sunset. Well, the women of Big Little Lies may be at risk of murder, but they certainly get it all when it comes to prime real estate.
Yet as Big Little Lies' first episode reveals, these houses hold greater significance than their function as interior design porn. When at home, the main characters are their most exposed selves. With a dash of close reading, we can tell that each at-home scene reveals some secret aspect of the characters' inner lives.
So, let the psychological snooping commence.
First, let's get the real real estate centerpiece out of the way. Gigantic windows, a landscaped patio, a man draped over a white outdoor couch. Renata Klein’s backside silhouetted against a purple sunset. Alone on the camera, surrounded by a house funded by her high-powered job, Renata admits to her husband that she’s disliked by the other women. Standing before the mountain view, Renata's solitary position corresponds with her isolation from the other women.
Moving down the block, Renata’s arch-nemesis, Madeline, occupies a house that’s decidedly more lived-in (and also mostly kitchen). From countertop clutter to stained dish towels, Madeline's house is a flurry of activity and personality.
At the dinner table (dinner island?), Madeline's two daughters sit like angsty ducklings in a row with her too-scruffy husband, Ed, played by Adam Scott. At the head of the table, Madeline is both in charge and set apart from her family members. Later on, she and Ed somehow manage to have a fight in front to the most beautiful ocean vista I’ve ever seen. I guess if one is steeped in beauty, one becomes immune to it. Madeline's scene at home shows that while the family fights, it's clear from the scattered belongings and intimate mess that a family lives there. The same can't be said for Renata's.
The show's final real estate centerpiece proves that not even the most photo shoot-worthy Monterey mansion is safe from threat.
We’re first introduced to Celeste’s house through outside narration. While in the interrogation room, other Monterey residents comment on the enviably affectionate marriage between Celeste and her husband, played by former True Blood vampire Alexander Skarsgård.
Cut to the tallest, trimmest, most photogenic couple on TV making out while their twin spawn bashfully look away. The scene is outdoors, light-soaked, and sublime. Ah, the perfection of a marriage from the outside looking in.
A few scenes later, we move indoors — and in that dark, carpeted room, we get a glimpse of the marriage that these interviewers don’t see. Instead of the sun, Celeste is illuminated by a computer screen. For a second time, her husband Perry sneaks up behind her. In this instance, however, there’s an element of snooping, distrust, and foreboding. Perry tells Celeste he doesn’t want his sons socializing with Ziggy after what happened in the schoolyard. When she moves, he leaps up, grabs her arm, and violently forbids it.
Later on, Celeste looks at her sons and husband playing in the far-off light. From this vantage point, Kidman looks at her family from a distance, the way the interviewees did. Yet ever since Perry’s violent streak manifested itself, it’s clear that Celeste recognizes this idyllic backyard scene to be nothing but a mirage.
These women derive pride and status from their homes and families. It’s no surprise, then, that so much is revealed through the way they function within their own spaces. It’s more than just good interior decoration. It’s characterization, too.