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Big Little Lies episode 1, “Someone’s Dead”: the killing isn’t the show’s most compelling mystery

Everything’s a little too obvious at this point, and it almost doesn’t matter.

Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Spoiler warning: This article recaps the first episode of HBO’s Big Little Lies and discusses specific plot details at length.

“Someone’s Dead,” the series premiere of HBO’s Big Little Lies, was designed to lure you in with some big mysteries. The biggest one, of course, is which character will end up dead and who will kill them.

The show skillfully uses the impending homicide — alluded to through a series of flash forwards — to spelunk through the show's small-town setting of Monterey, California, and tell stories that go beyond someone murdering another human being.

The three main characters will all become suspects. While we’re getting to know Madeline Martha Mackenzie (played fantastically by Reese Witherspoon), Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), we’re simultaneously analyzing their every move, their family lives, and their interactions with other people, wondering if these women are capable of killing someone.

The homicide also promises to offer commentary on the idea of class divides in an affluent seaside enclave. Beneath the surface of the area's million-dollar views and wealthy families is a collection of crooked moral compasses mounted on perpetually sliding scales.

It almost doesn’t matter if you figure out Big Little Lies’ main mystery. Those who’ve read Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name have an upper hand here, and knowing how the messy story of the show's rich, mostly white characters unfolds no doubt changes the viewing experience. But there’s a lot more going in Big Little Lies’ Monterey than the death that's teased in the series premiere. And the homicide isn’t the only mystery. Here are some of the others introduced in the first episode.

Who’s hurting Amabella?

Amabella is a too-precious name that says more about the parents who chose it than it does the child it belongs to. I’m sure there are great people in the world named Amabella, but on Big Little Lies, the moniker serves as an extension of an overbearing mother. Laura Dern is excellent as Renata, a type-A personality whose child needs a name as special as she is.

But even with her dumb name given to her by her helicopter mom, Amabella doesn’t deserve to be bullied on the first day of school. We don’t see the incident in question, which apparently involved Amabella being choked by another kid and the encounter somehow going unnoticed by adults. All we have to go on is an accusation from Amabella. And because Renata is a set up as an antagonist, and because Jane's son Ziggy is shown to be a sweet little boy, it’s hard to believe her.

My guess: The real bully is one or both of Celeste’s twin boys.

While Big Little Lies is about fantastic outdoor-indoor living spaces and one mysterious death, it’s also about parents’ behavior and the effect it has on their kids. Madeline’s sass is alive and well in her sniping, salty daughter Abby. Jane’s conversation with her own mother reveals a brittle relationship, of the type she’s clearly trying to avoid with Ziggy. Amabella shrinks in response to her mother’s protective brashness.

With every action they take, parents shape their children’s behavior and lives.

Keeping in mind the story that Big Little Lies wants to tell about parents and their kids, it would be a twist if Celeste and Perry’s violent relationship didn’t manifest in their boys.

Who’s watching whom?

Big Little Lies’s first episode makes clear that in Monterey, you’re always being watched, even when you think you're not.

The parents and teachers being interviewed in the police interrogation flash forwards know a lot about Madeline, Celeste, and Jane — one even mentions the moment where we see Madeline fall and how her twisted ankle kicks off her friendship with Jane, even though Jane and Madeline are the only adults we see in that scene.

And there’s also the question of what everyone sees versus what everyone says. There’s a lot of politics at Otter Bay Elementary School, and a lot of two-faced interactions. The witnesses the cops are interviewing about the homicide aren’t exactly altruistic or objective. They have motives, biases, and alliances, and who knows if what they’re saying is even the truth.

Why is Madeline so eager to help Jane?

I found it impossible to watch “Someone’s Dead” and not think of Mean Girls. Hearing Madeline’s peers talk about her brought to mind the high school kids in Mean Girls talking about their self-appointed queen bee, Regina George. And like Regina George did with new-girl-in-school Cady Heron, Madeline very quickly befriends Jane.

As they drive to school together, Madeline is already talking about the various parents and giving Jane the lay of the land. She offers up Chloe’s popularity to help Ziggy (and Jane) get acclimated to the school. After dropping off the kids, she’s already revealing the details about her ex-husband and giving Jane leads on jobs.

It’s a very sudden friendship that feels like there’s maybe another motive. Does Madeline like having a pawn? Is it a pay-it-forward situation of sorts? Does Renata’s obvious and immediate dislike for Jane make Madeline seize on that friendship more? Is she itching for a fight?

What’s also fascinating is that Jane’s sob story is something close to what Madeline deeply fears Abby will live out. We see Madeline scold Abby about her test scores. She wants her daughter to go to college and get a good job, and be wealthy enough to live comfortably on her own. Being a single mom with a one-bedroom place in Monterey seems like the kind of fate Madeline wants her daughter to avoid.

Madeline also seems eager to help Jane because everyone else in her life is independent. Calling Chloe precocious is an understatement. Abby doesn’t need her help either. Her ex-husband is doing a little too well without her. And all of this independence kills Madeline, because so much of her identity — as we see in the late-night scene with Abby and the piano and the talk about her losing her children as they grow older — has been wrapped up in caring for the people in her life.

So who’s dead?

Full disclosure: I haven’t read Big Little Lies’ source novel, so I’m not really sure how this story unfolds.

As much as I would love to see this whole series end with Madeline killing Renata (and Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon gnawing on every available fiber of scenery), I really don’t think the show is going to be that pulpy or soapy. At this very early juncture, I’m guessing Perry bites the dust and either Celeste, Jane, or Madeline kills him.

If there’s a weakness to this show, it stems from laying out the villains and the heroes a little too neatly and too obviously. Its plot doesn’t feel like there’s room to grow out of the expected. Perry is violent, and I just have a feeling that he might do something in front of everyone at the fundraiser night — the big event we’re told about in the episode where the death occurs — which results in retaliation from one of our main protagonists.

But I actually don’t even mind how tidy the show’s plot seems, because of what else the show is doing.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée is skilled at constructing visually arresting scenes. David E. Kelley’s writing, when it hits that sweet spot between breeziness and saltiness, is addictive. Reese Witherspoon’s performance as the queen of Monterey’s mean girl contingent is delicious, as is Kidman’s dangerously brittle Celeste. And thematically, I’m interested to see the heft it brings in future episodes.