What other shows can learn from Big Little Lies' spectacular finale
Big Little Lies was deeply satisfying in ways television these days rarely dares to be.
But perhaps the best thing about the Big Little Lies finale wasn't the solution to the mystery. Yes, it is gratifying to watch Celeste's abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) — who turns out to be Jane's rapist — meet a fitting end. It's remarkable to watch these women flood the incident in a wave of white noise that drowns out what actually happened.
But as lovely as those sublime beach-shots at the end were, what struck me most was the spectacle of five Audrey Hepburns murdering an abusive Elvis. That's amazing. Hepburn's trademarks were her elegance, her tininess, her doe-like perfection; this is not the actor you'd choose for a bad-ass beatdown. And yet: To watch every character she's played team up — as embodied by five remarkable actresses who bring the symbolic power of their own respective filmographies — and murder a rapist with Elvis-the-Pelvis sideburns? That's a mind-shattering spectacle. It's a mash-up of American cultural touchstones whose symbolism goes on for miles. And it perfectly complements the undercurrent of gendered violence that makes this glossy show work.
If good television means knowing the precise scope and ambition of the story you want to tell and telling it perfectly, Big Little Lies is excellent TV. This was always a beautiful series about beautiful people. It was stunning and rich and yes, flawed: For all the nuance it brought to an abusive relationship, it proved to be oddly uninterested in (and unaffected by) Anabella, the little girl being abused at school. But I'm impressed by the boldness with which the petty parental gossip and deeper floods of feeling coalesced to produce an evening that acknowledged a) all the ways these people half-deserve the vicious stereotypes to which the "Greek chorus" consigns them, but b) finds particularity and even transcendence there, and c) rejects the ethically ambidextrous terrain that constitutes so much television nowadays and commits — strongly — to a 100 percent conventional, genre-conforming ending.
I made the case some weeks ago that Big Little Lies was an intelligent satirical inversion — that it flipped the script on viewers who scorn the Real Housewives aspects of shows like this one by aligning them with the vicious talking heads who got everything wrong. I stand by that. Still, I'm struck, given the finale, by how absolutely this finale sidestepped parody. Did you imagine that a show with five A-list actresses would dress them all as Audrey Hepburn in order to have them gang up on an Elvis-impersonating rapist without making that funny? Or, at the very least, grotesque? Did you foresee that the precursor to this assassination of an abusive husband dressed up as Elvis would be not one but two Elvis impersonators producing oddly moving performances to their wives? In any other show, this whole setup would have dripped with cheap irony. In this show, earnestness paid off. Zoe Kravitz singing Elvis Presley's "Don't" as Bonnie at this juncture is arresting, and not just because of her incredible voice; the lyrics resonate so eerily with Celeste's predicament that they somehow authorize Bonnie's intuitive connection to her:
Don't, don't, that's what you say
Each time that I hold you this way
To put it another way, Big Little Lies moved gently beyond the satire and landed the story somewhere hard and sincere.
This show has a lot to teach us about what good television can do — specifically, how sometimes it's okay for TV to trust its genre, even if it scratches a little at that genre's conventions. We live in a moment flooded with ambitious and sometimes wonderful TV series that forget that lesson and lose their way. Either they're hedging for a second season, or burying so many Easter eggs they forget to install an actual plot, or they're simply members of the growing pantheon of Bad Philosophical TV (which now includes Legion). If those shows can be said to share a central flaw, it's that they're attempting too much. (These shows are also hamstrung by the fact that they want to be renewed; Big Little Lies benefited from being a mini-series with a beginning, middle, and unambiguous end. More mini-series, please!)
It is rare for a "prestige" television finale to truly and spectacularly pull off exactly what it set out to do — no more, no less — and to trust that a story well-told, well-acted, and well-directed is enough. Big Little Lies did just that.