It would be limiting to bind the diverse experiences of women solely along the continuum of violence that often warps our lives. But every day I’ve grown accustomed to hearing a new story about a woman beaten or killed by a man she’s crossed paths with. Sometimes the violence is intimate, like the 44-year-old woman who was shot by her boyfriend last fall when she declined his marriage proposal. Other times these acts are perpetrated by strangers. Take for example the several women from San Antonio to Spokane who have been viciously attacked, even killed, in the past few years after turning down the advances of men they didn’t know. Violence like this is an epidemic. It stains the lives of women regardless of race, age, sexuality, culture, or status. But it’s easy to believe a woman like Celeste wouldn’t deal with this. She’s beautiful, rich, exceedingly privileged with a husband who seems obsessed with her. But as Big Little Lies has carefully argued, perfection is impossible and violence must be reckoned with lest it consume your entire life.
“You Get What You Need” opens with Celeste and Perry’s twins playing on the couch. A commotion can be heard coming from the vent. At first it’s hard to parse out if this is the sound of Perry’s abuse or intense sex. But when you see Celeste half-dressed on her bathroom floor, struggling to breathe, it becomes clear Perry has been hurting her. The episode later comes back to this opening incident in order to track how Celeste ended up cowering on the floor. As Celeste prepares her new apartment, her lingering bruises bring up memories. Set to the sound of crashing waves and seagulls, flashbacks of that morning play out. Celeste cries. Perry wraps his hands around her throat. Perry punches her brutally in the stomach. Every time she flinches in pain is a reminder that Perry won’t change.
The violence in this episode isn't just between Perry and Celeste. Consider Joseph’s ominous threat to Madeline when she talks about how his wife, Tori (Sarah Sokolovic), was slowly driving past Madeline's home. The way he spits the insult “self-entitled rich bitch” ripples with fury. Renata tells Gordon that if she were shot in the head at trivia night, the other mothers would merely wonder why she didn’t have the nanny take the bullet. Then there is Gordon’s pointed warning toward Madeline and Jane that forces the café owner, Tom (Joseph Cross), to kick him out. The finale is taut as piano wire. It left me on edge because the threat of violence is around every corner.
After Perry’s abuse, Celeste finds her way to Dr. Reisman. “You know your husband is ill Celeste but so are you,” the therapist says. Celeste continues to insist on maintaining appearances and that Perry would never hurt their children. But as she learns, Perry doesn’t have to hit them for his abuse to cause damage. Jane hears from a reluctant Ziggy that one of Celeste’s sons, Max, is responsible for bullying Amabella. Jane of course tells Celeste. With all the emotions running high, the school’s trivia night fundraiser proves to be a boiling pot of revelations that leaves no one unscathed.
Madeline has grappled with keeping her past affair with Joseph a secret from Ed. But Ed isn’t a fool. When they arrive at trivia night it’s impossible not to notice the tension brewing between Tori, Joseph, and Madeline. All three of them continue to look at one another throughout the evening, which Ed witnesses first hand. There is never a major blowup between Madeline and Ed, but it’s clear he knows. This only makes his somber rendition of Elvis’s “The Wonder of You” even more wrenching. The song is clearly directed at Madeline, and she loses it. Reese Witherspoon nails the quiet heartbreak of this moment. When Joseph tells Tori he's going to the bathroom, I figured he’d confront Madeline again. But instead of exploring their relationships with men, the finale focuses on the ties that bind these women. It’s Jane who follows Madeline and comforts her. “You’re not perfect, welcome to the club,” Jane says.
That’s something Celeste needs to here, too. At home, Celeste and Perry are about to leave when a curveball is thrown. Perry notifies Celeste that she missed a call from the property manager of her new apartment. My heart sunk. That apartment needed to be kept secret for Celeste’s plan to work. Celeste and Perry's car rise is nerve-racking. Will he get angry? Try to distract Celeste with seduction? Beg? “It’s too late,” Celeste says. Perry decides to bypass the red carpet and pulls over forcing Celeste to have a conversation. He’s a stuttering, scared mess in the face of her resolute desire to leave him. His refusal to let her out of the car makes his promise to change ring all the more hollow. She’s only able to get out of the car after Renata and Gordon knock on the window, distracting Perry momentarily.
Celeste tries to maintain her distance from Perry. She reveals to Renata that it’s Max who has been abusing Amabella. She borrows a phone in order to advise the nanny to take her sons to the new apartment. But she can’t escape him for long. Between the clinking glasses and glitzy costumes, Bonnie notices Perry manhandling Celeste and decides to follow Celeste to make sure she’s okay. By this point, Renata goes to apologize to Jane who is still comforting a clearly drunk Madeline. Celeste interrupts their conversation for help of her own. Perry trails behind her imploring her to come back with him while Bonnie watches from nearby. Soon all their facades come crashing down. As Jane watches Perry her eyes widen out of fear and recognition. The look that passes between Jane, Madeline, and Celeste, with nary a word spoken, says it all. The brief flashback of Jane on the beach only confirms it: Perry raped Jane.
It isn’t until near the very end of the finale that Perry’s bloody corpse is seen half-way down the stairs. Big Little Lies doesn’t dwell on the murder or the procedural aspects surrounding it. Perry’s funeral is shown briefly. The detectives believe Celeste and her friends are lying since their stories are a bit too similar, although there's no concrete proof. Detective Quinlan can’t understand why Celeste would lie, since the manslaughter was in self-defense. That’s because Celeste didn’t kill Perry. It’s Bonnie who pushed him to his death.
With each of the women on the show, there is a strong juxtaposition between who people believe them to be and who they really are. But Bonnie gets no such distinction. She’s painted in broad strokes and is defined by the way others see her: young, sexy, bohemian, infuriatingly perfect. It’s that last aspect that is most damning. Big Little Lies has dismantled the idea of perfection that each woman represented in their own way to show the complex human underneath. That Bonnie gets no interiority and yet is responsible for killing Perry to save the other women is a glaring fault. What does it say that the only Black woman of consequence, who also ends up having a very important role plot-wise, is scantly developed? This doesn’t ruin the finale for me. But it is a blemish that can be hard to ignore considering the show has been marvelous granting an interior life to the other characters and argues for the importance of bonds between women.
The ocean has been an all-consuming metaphor for the lives of these women. On the surface it’s beautiful, but it also holds untold depths and chaos. It makes sense that director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelley choose to end here. Bonnie, Renata, Jane, Madeline, and Celeste have brought their children to the beach to play. There isn’t any dialogue. But the joy and comfort is apparent. The investigation is an afterthought. What matters is how tragedy has bound these women together. Facing the ocean with the sun on their skin, they’ve found something they didn’t have at the beginning of the series but needed desperately: true, open friendships.
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