Big Little Lies, "The End of the World"
By Phillip MaciakJune 25, 2019
Phil Maciak asks why Big Little Lies is so unwilling to follow the money in "The End of the World," the third episode of its second season. There are spoilers below, but, be aware that Phil doesn't say anything about the climate change stuff in this episode. There was once a time when he was optimistic about a Sunday-night HBO drama series taking climate change seriously as a subject, but that turned out to be a big sham, and he looks like a real dupe for ever believing in it. So he's not going to talk about climate change here. Not today.
Previously: Season two, episode two, "Tell-Tale Hearts"
Why I'm a Dernie Bro
This week, Bernie Sanders released a plan for cancelling student loan debt, which comes on the heels of Elizabeth Warren’s own student loan forgiveness plan, which comes on the heels of a college admissions scandal featuring Aunt Becky and other wealthy California families buying their children’s way into college, which comes on the heels of, you know, the crippling student loan problem in America. Meanwhile, on Big Little Lies, Madeline’s daughter just wants to skip college to work at a for-profit homelessness prevention start-up.
Democratic politics in this country is moving further to the left — trying to, at least — and a big part of that move is the decision to put economic inequality at the center of the discussion. Not quite so for the Monterey Five. Income inequality has always been an enabling factor of Big Little Lies — the fact that Otter Bay is a public school is the show’s first joke — but it has rarely been more than that. The show’s events are impossible to imagine without structural inequality, but we are meant to infer rather than investigate the available critiques of these rich and (often) bad people. This show is sometimes funny, but it’s neither a comedy nor a satire. The thing about the homelessness start-up is a bitter joke; money, when it gets mentioned or when it gets noticed, is almost always a joke. Big Little Lies is much more comfortable teasing the rich than eating them, taking the extravagance of this setting jokingly but rarely seriously. So it’s been frustrating, this season, to see a show with such potential relevance to the economic life of the U.S. in 2019 dodge that relevance at every turn.
Money is more of a metaphor than a subject for Big Little Lies. Despite Andrea Arnold’s involvement, and despite the constant visibility of wealth, it’s a marginal narrative concern for the show. That doesn’t mean the show is uncritical about it. The vulgar wealth that literally enables the series, and against which Jane is contrasted in the first season, isn’t viewed kindly. Every domestic interior, whether the blinding whiteness of Madeline’s kitchen, the cutting glass of Celeste’s view, the perilous height of Renata’s house, or even the haunting, wooded isolation of Bonnie’s outdoor space, is a place of beauty and danger equally. But the money that pays for these things, and that they in turn signify, is rarely itself seen as part of the danger. We aren’t supposed to blithely accept the virtuous wealth of these one-percenters, but neither are we supposed to too closely consider it. The wealth that undergirds much of the violence, irresponsibility, entitlement, vanity, and suffocating social disease is secondary, most of the time, to the violence, irresponsibility, entitlement, vanity, and social disease. Now that Jane is a part of the Monterey Five, her class position is less interesting to the show’s writers. And the references we have to it so far this season — in the form of her rejection of Celeste’s offer of child support — again seem to be the means by which the show can pivot to what it sees as its more central subjects: family, recovery, community, life after trauma. Money means more in the symbolic economy of this show than it does in the actual economy.
These are good and valuable things for the show to be about, obviously. Two weeks ago, I praised the show for its willingness to zero in on exactly those subjects, to dig deeper rather than spread out or run it back. But, as Jane said last week, these episodes show us a show that is spreading out, or rather, spreading thin. Rather than focus on interiority, the show is building networks of the gaze, structuring itself around the watchers and the watched. Of course, a show structured in that way needn’t overlook financial concerns — “follow the money” was essentially the catchphrase of The Wire, the twenty-first century’s best piece of art about economic injustice and surveillance both — but Big Little Lies does. In retaining its investment in the murder mystery of it all, the thin vestiges of remaining plot turbo-charged by Detective Meryl Streep’s sudden appearance, the show frees itself from the obligation to look at these characters beyond What They Did Last Summer. Lost in this is an exploration of Bonnie’s consciousness that isn’t an explanatory revelation of her hidden past, and lost in this too is an examination of what’s really rotten in the state of California.
I’m not forgetting about Renata and her memes, though. I’m as thrilled as anybody that Laura Dern is rising in these episodes. And I’m extra-thrilled that her plotline is focusing in on money and corruption. But I also fear that the vague yet inarguable and catastrophic financial crimes of Renata’s husband are a kind of easy out for Big Little Lies. The money’s unavoidable; Kelley and Moriarty know that. So they’re talking about it, but they’re doing so by scapegoating, or at least picking off the easiest mark. Rather than having the show really think through the corrosive effect of all this wealth on everybody, including the characters we like, and including the characters whose positions seem less defined by performative spending, we are instead focusing in on the easily indictable crimes of an unlikable felon and the venal, if operatic, reaction of his wife. (It’s worth noting, of course, that Laura Dern is doing extraordinarily fun and surprisingly textured work, given how many of her lines seem written to be yelled at full volume. Her performance is a separate issue from what she’s being asked to perform.) Renata’s howling rage about her own financial insecurity can thus easily play as personal psychosis rather than contagious illness. What if Adam Scott’s Ed had lost all of his and Madeline’s money? What if Perry’s will hadn’t provided for his family? What if the show had introduced financial instability through the medium of any of its many characters who have not so far been narratively defined by overreaction and hyperbole?
Whether it’s disinterest or timidity, the show seems unwilling to say — outside of a kind of friendly smirk or eye-roll — that this sort of wealth is a problem if it isn’t a federal crime. Even as we are now meant to perceive Renata as an ally rather than an enemy to our protagonists, giving her this plotline only further siloes whatever critique the show has planned off to the side. In three episodes, the show has had an awkward time establishing the outlines of a real-seeming friendship between Renata and Celeste-Madeline-Jane — the first season’s clique — and that only makes matters worse. Dern’s narrative isolation and spectacular vanity can allow the show to conceive of a universe in which the dilemma of all this cash is isolated to bad actors, not a bad system.
Again, though, the show’s not uncritical about money, nor is it even wholly uninterested. But, so far, a lot of what we get is both subtle enough to be missed and a credit to Andrea Arnold’s light but definite touch with the material. I was particularly struck by Madeline’s Buick. There are two conversation scenes between Madeline and Celeste this week that occur in the driver and passenger’s seats of her Buick SUV. Sure, there’s some product placement going on, but Arnold makes sure to de-glamorize, even uglify and anonymize the interior. Both reverse shots here emphatically sink the women in their bucket seats, framing them with bland, featureless leather and an embroidered “AIRBAG” label.
These are shots that emphasize the “utility” of these sports utility vehicles, but they also aggressively resist any kind of commodity fetishism or even beauty. This object crowds the frame, suffocates its inhabitants, but it holds no aesthetic value for us as viewers. (The establishing shot is likewise distant enough that we can’t even see the logo of the car.) And all of this is punctuated by the final shot of the sequence: a two-shot of Madeline and Celeste holding hands beneath the dashboard and its blank screen.
The kitchens and the verandas might carry the germ of a critique within them, but they remain beautiful to behold; this scene, instead, is set within the gutless interior of performed wealth. This scene, to me, is the sort of nuanced, visually meaningful exploration of money that contrasts with the blunt disposability of, say, Gordon’s lavish toy train set. In other words, the show is writing checks aesthetically that its narrative can’t (or won’t) cash.
Not every television series in the year of our lord 2019 needs to be about income inequality, and not every series about money needs to be as grandiose in its representation of corruption as, say, Billions or Succession. Those shows focus on power brokers and stock brokers, easy targets those shows run unsparingly through the meat grinder. They allow us to take some pleasure in the earthly delights that Bobby Axelrod or Tom Wambsgans enjoy, but they are always relentlessly clear about who the bad guys are, and that those bad guys are everybody. Big Little Lies is a different show, often a very good one, and given the delicacy and importance of its preferred subjects, it’s ultimately good that everyone on this show isn’t presented as a mustache-twirling villain. But, especially with Andrea Arnold behind the camera now, it seemed that we had an opportunity to talk about the piles of money lying around everywhere and what they mean. There’s time still with Renata’s pending bankruptcy, with Jane’s growing set of relationships with other working-class millennials, even with the currently rejected but still dangling strings attached to offers of child support for Ziggy, time for the show to follow the money. Arnold’s already looking at it; somebody just needs to say something.
I’ve got a plan for that,
Previously: Season two, episode two, "Tell-Tale Hearts"
Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in Slate, The New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.
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