Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers for the HBO series “Big Little Lies.”
The final episode of the HBO miniseries, “Big Little Lies” (2017) took viewers on an emotional roller coaster on April 2. The series has captivated its audience with artful shots and complex characters, but perhaps the show’s most fascinating aspect is its use of false antagonists. At the beginning of the series, all the main female characters are pitted against one another. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Renata (Laura Dern) engage in vicious first-grade birthday party politics, Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Renata despise each other after Amabella (Ivy George) accuses Ziggy (Iain Armitage) of choking her and Madeline loathes Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) for meddling in her daughter Abby’s (Kathryn Newton) life. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is the only woman in the series who seems somewhat removed from all the cattiness, although she sides with Madeline and Jane. With a physically abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), Celeste has more urgent problems than birthday parties.
Viewers are inclined to side with Jane, Madeline and Celeste, turning Bonnie and Renata into antagonists of a sort. Bonnie is aggravatingly perfect — unlike Madeline, she always keeps a clear head and never loses her temper. As she tries to keep the peace between Madeline, her husband Ed (Adam Scott) and ex-husband Nathan (James Tupper), her attitude sometimes comes off as high and mighty. It is easy to dislike Renata’s character, because she targets the vulnerable and tragic single mother, Jane.
As the series’ events unfurl, attitudes toward these antagonists start to change. Viewers begin to develop respect for Renata’s ability to balance motherhood with a high-power career and sympathize with her anguish over the fact that her daughter is being harassed, and there is nothing she can do about it. Tiny arguments between Bonnie and Nathan show that Bonnie’s life is not actually perfect, and viewers start to pity her for being caught in the crossfire between Nathan and his ex-wife.
By the final episode, when all of the characters attend the school trivia night, the women of “Big Little Lies” have become a united front. Jane and Renata bond over their fierce protectiveness of their children and become good friends. Bonnie and Madeline become teammates in parenting out of necessity when they discover that Abby is auctioning off her virginity to strangers on the Internet. The alliance between the four women is made explicit in the scene where they fight Perry and eventually kill him. When Jane realizes that Perry is Ziggy’s father and the man who raped her, it becomes clear that he is the show’s only antagonist. When Bonnie gives him the frantic push down a staircase that leads to his death, viewers see that the women of the show have been battling the same demon all along: gender-based violence.
Early on in the series, it seemed that “Big Little Lies” would pander to the type of audience that loves female cattiness, gossip and woman-on-woman hate. The show seemed perfect for people who watch “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” (2010–present) for the scenes where rich white women throw cosmopolitans in each other’s faces. With this in mind, the finale of “Big Little Lies” is particularly powerful. The makers of the show set their audience up to anticipate exactly what they would expect from a group of rich, superficial mothers and then pulled the rug out from beneath them. Judging from the overwhelmingly positive response to the show, viewers have never been so glad to land on their butts.