A good actor can play a plethora of different roles. Ideally, they get to do so over the course of their careers. However, some characters are so iconic and important to an actor’s career that they are forever associated with the performer. Emma Watson will always be Hermione to me, just as Alfonso Ribeiro will always be Carlton. Neither of them deserve to be typecast, but they’ve been burned into my pop culture memory as those indelible characters. I didn’t think the same was true for Reese Witherspoon after she played Elle Woods in 2001’s Legally Blonde. But now that the actress has returned to produce and star in HBO’s new series Big Little Lies, I can’t help but think that I'm seeing the older version of the only person to ever make law school seem cool to me.
In Legally Blonde, Elle is an optimistic law student from a wealthy family who's set on proving to her ex-boyfriend and herself that she is no dumb blonde. With fierce determination, and an overly bubbly personality, she graduates at the top of her law school class and winds up engaged to a successful attorney. It’s the kind of happily ever after that puts a woman on the path to live the exact life that Madeline Martha Mackenzie has on Big Little Lies. These may be fictional narratives, but the realities of American life make the case for Elle growing up to be Madeline.
Madeline is a manipulative housewife in the wealthy town of Monterey, CA. Her persona is the exact opposite of Elle's cheerful heart of gold in Legally Blonde. But with abundant financial resources and free time, she has the same spiteful determination to remain the queen bee of the other PTA moms that Elle has to prove her ex wrong. Madeline has even held onto a little of Elle’s dim wit. In the first episode she thought a little boy shouldn’t be accused of choking another girl unless there was proof, because “bruises heal, but stigmas can last a lifetime.” Sounds like the same person to me.
Madeline is on her second marriage — not surprising given that the divorce rate in the United States is over 50%. That Elle would end up divorced and remarried 16 years later isn’t unlikely. Madeline feels like she is missing something, having traded the promise of some different tomorrow for full time motherhood years before, and is now grasping at straws for a sense of fulfillment. I imagine that it’s the same decision that an idealistic Elle, wanting to be the best mother possible, would have also made after having a child. But motherhood and marriage aren’t easy. And the rough edges that make Madeline such an interesting character seem to be the direct result of having that bubble of perfection burst.
Obviously, there are a few details that prevent me from making the claim that Madeline is literally Elle 16 years later. Madeline never went to law school and already had a daughter by the time Elle enrolled. Neither of Madeline’s husbands started their own law firm like Emmet did, and I’m sure she’d rather die than bend and snap like Elle.
Witherspoon might resent this, but I love how her new show seems to be a time-hopping continuation of Elle’s story. Perhaps I’m too invested in my imagined fan fiction, but Big Little Lies might be offering us all a glimpse into the real ending of Legally Blonde.