Spoiler alert: Bonnie Carlson is black. Considering Zoë Kravitz portrays the character on Big Little Lies, this should be obvious, but it doesn’t seem like the Big Little Lies writers got the memo. Leading up to the show’s season 2 finale, there have been a few excellent takes on the HBO show’s glaring blindspots when it comes to Bonnie’s race. Vanity Fair, Vulture, and The Atlantic are just a few of the outlets that have called out David E Kelley and co. for overlooking the clear racial dynamics that would exist in a town like Monterey. If the Big Little Lies writers were hoping Bonnie’s race was something they could ignore and no one would notice, like Renata Klein (Laura Dern) pretending she’s still rich amidst a bankruptcy scandal, they were just as wrong as Renata was when she married her philandering, embezzling, toy train-obsessed husband.
The Emmy-winning series has thrived by striking a rare tone between nuance and melodrama and has delivered some of the most exciting and deeply rich female characters on television in recent history. Yet Bonnie’s race and the implications it would have on her life in Monterey have been an afterthought. The fact that Bonnie is a black woman hasn’t been addressed in hushed conversations about that time she killed a rich white dude. It hasn’t been addressed in relation to her parenting a black daughter who doesn’t look like her classmates. And perhaps most glaringly, race hasn’t been discussed in the unraveling of Bonnie’s marriage to the white Bro of Monterey, Nathan Carlson.
Vulture’s Angelica Bastien answered the question of what Bonnie deserved in season one. The answer is more. According to Bastien, Bonnie deserved more than to be relegated to a Carefree Black Girl archetype. She deserved more than to go an entire season without the series even acknowledging that she’s a black woman married to Nathan living in a rich, predominately white town. Bonnie deserved the layers and complexity afforded to the other four of the infamous Monterey Five: Renata, Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), Madeline Martha McKenzie (Reese Witherspoon), and Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley). Zoe Kravitz is giving the performance of her career, doing the most with what she’s given. Nevertheless, her heavyweight costars are simply given more material to work with, and Kravitz is left straining to convey a character that truly resonates with viewers.
In season one, she was “insulted, vomited on, disrespected, and treated as mere eye candy, instead of a human being with her own desires and tragedies.” And as Bastien points out, “she’s doing all of this while navigating a predominantly white space.” In season two, more time (aka any at all) is spent on Bonnie’s backstory. She was raised by an abusive black mother, Elizabeth Howard (Crystal Fox), and a docile white father (Martin Donovan), who never stood up for her. That tumultuous relationship with her mother is why she’s the one who pushes season one villain Perry Wright to his death. Perry’s death, and the decision to tell police that he fell, and not that Bonnie pushed him, is the show’s Big Lie.
The season two finale of Big Little Lies left fans with one big cliffhanger: The image of the Monterey Five rolling up to the police station together, in sisterhood and solidarity, to presumably turn themselves in for lying about how Perry died. Of all the falsehoods floating around Monterey, this one is positioned as the most egregious, but the biggest lie Big Little Lies tells is that Bonnie is just like every other one of her partners in crime.
As Shamira Ibrahim writes in The Atlantic, “The show fumbles an opportunity to explore the implications of a Back woman coming forward and admitting to killing an influential white businessman, the fact that black women may not be believed in these situations, and even the nuance of the detective who is doggedly pursuing the group being another black woman.”
In all of Bonnie’s agonising over the murder, we are never given the indication that Bonnie’s distress has to do with the thought of a black woman handing over her fate to the justice system in America. In all of the scenes in which Bonnie seems like the black sheep of the Monterey Five, we’re never told that some of those feelings are because she’s black. Ask any black woman who lives in a predominantly white space and we’ll tell you that there are daily microaggressions (I know Madeline went straight for Bonnie’s braids the first time they met) you have to mine, and that race comes up every damn day, whether you want it to or not.
The reason these Bonnie omissions are even more apparent is because every other character gets the depth Bonnie doesn’t. How many times have they told us Madeline’s deepest insecurity is the fact that she never went to college, or Renata’s is that she grew up poor and has been chasing wealth ever since. Celeste and Jane are bonded by their trauma at the hands of a horrible man. Each of their relationship issues are dissected in detail. We know why Jane is hesitant to be intimate with her new love interest, we know why Madeline and Ed were hanging on by a thread all season. But when Bonnie reveals to Nathan that she never loved him, the only context we’re given is from earlier in the season in a monologue by her mother.
In that scene, Crystal Fox’s Elizabeth delivers a pitch-perfect read of her daughter that culminates with, “What are you doing [in Monterey]? I haven’t seen one black person since I’ve been here.” Fox told Vanity Fair that the line was ad-libbed. Bonnie’s mum implies that she picked Nathan on purpose to hide from her past because he’s a dense dude who wouldn’t make her talk about her feelings. If that’s it, if Bonnie shut out Nathan so she wouldn’t have to have conversations about identity, tell us. Show us. Again, ask any black woman who is in an interracial relationship, and we’ll tell you that even if you’re married to the wokest white person (and we know Nathan is not that), race is still something that comes up. Constantly.
If David E Kelley’s resume is any indication, we know that the Ally McBeal scribe isn’t the greatest at writing characters of colour. You could also argue that Bonnie’s race is left out as a plot point because she was a white character in the books. If that’s the argument, all it proves is that it’s not enough to re-write a white character as a black one without doing the work to make them authentic.
In two whole seasons of Big Little Lies, Bonnie was involved in a conversation about race one time, and it wasn’t even in the original script! The lives of black characters don’t have to be about trauma all the time, but when the entire show is about trauma and complex human dynamics, race has to come in to play. When the character has faced suffering her whole life, to ignore how race factors into that suffering is to ignore Bonnie’s entire existence.
Big Little Lies season two is available on Sky Atlantic and Now TV