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Big Little Lies season finale, “You Get What You Need”: a thrilling, terrifying end to the series

Nicole Kidman deserves an Emmy for this performance.

Big Little Lies/HBO
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.

This article discusses the season finale of Big Little Lies, “You Get What You Need,” and contains major spoilers.

“You Get What You Need,” the seventh and final installment of HBO’s Big Little Lies miniseries, is profoundly gripping, arguably one of the most engrossing and uncomfortable TV episodes of this young year.

The hour was designed to scare you, to gnaw at your emotions, to keep you in a heightened, tense state; after watching it, I was emotionally spent.

As it turns out, all of Big Little Lies mysteries revolved around Perry.

Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) is Ziggy’s (Iain Armitage) dad and Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) rapist. One of Perry and Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) twin boys is hurting Amabella. And it’s Perry whose death the show has been teasing since its first episode; according to the show’s biggest little lie, Perry accidentally killed himself by falling, but we — along with Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Renata (Laura Dern), Jane, and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) — know the truth of what really happened.

While the answers to these looming questions were satisfying, satisfaction wasn’t the finale’s greatest achievement. “You Get What You Need” was a compelling culmination of Big Little Lies’ deft tone and pacing, its leading actresses’ eminently masterful performances, and a showcase of what we’ll all miss now that the series is over.

The opening scene set a terrifying, thrilling tone for the entire episode

HBO/Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies’ finale opens with a shot of a vent. It’s in Celeste and Perry’s house, and at first, all you can hear is the click-clack of joysticks from the video game their sons are playing. As the camera zooms in, your ears start to strain to pick up the sound that’s hidden beneath what we hear.

And you know what you’re expecting — the sound of him hurting her.

It’s a quietly startling entry point and feels like the beginning of a horror movie — appropriate considering Perry is a Jekyll-Hyde monster. And it quickly gives way to confirmation that, yes, Perry was abusing Celeste yet again. It seems even worse than the previous times too.

That malevolent scene gives “You Get What You Need” an undercurrent of terror, changing the way you think about the rest of the scenes to follow.

It imbues Gordon’s restaurant confrontation with Jane with a pang of fear, like violence might ensue. The scenic shots of waves crashing on Monterey’s rocky shore are supposed to be beautiful, but feel dangerous. Madeline getting Chloe into the car for school and seeing Tori (Sarah Sokolovic) driving away has a hint of malice to it — you get the sense that Tori might confront her to do something more serious. When Perry and Celeste leave for trivia night after he reveals he listened a message from her real estate agent, there’s a chilling sense while watching them walk away that the minute they’re out the door and alone, he’s going to hurt her again.

Director Jean-Marc Vallée’s work is excellent, turning up the tension in the episode with a rattling, relentless boil and ultimately giving the show the sublime ending it deserved.

Perry is a monster, and Alexander Skarsgård played this loathsome creature so well

Prior to the season finale, I rewatched Big Little Lies’ previous six episodes and was surprised to realize how little Perry actually appears on the show. For such a forceful, overwhelming presence, he has maybe 15 minutes of screen time over six episodes (which run for a total of around 360 minutes).

But Perry is omnipresent.

Even when he isn’t around, and even if Celeste is in a safe place like Dr. Reisman’s office, you’re still scared for her. You can feel him lingering. It’s easy to imagine him just barging into scenes he has no reason to appear in, like the one in which Celeste is setting up the new apartment she’s planning to escape to with their kids.

That Perry is so terrifying and maniacally oppressive is a testament to Skarsgård’s performance. His face sharpens into demonic anger at the drop of a hat. It softens just as fast when he’s around his sons. The tremble in his voice when he’s berating Celeste is sneakily vulnerable, but also alarming.

Skarsgård gets to unfurl his level 10, intimidating Perry one last time in the finale. Celeste comes downstairs dressed as Audrey Hepburn from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and the twins are in awe of how pretty she is. Then Perry follows in a full Elvis getup, complete with a black pompadour wig.

He twirls around, popping his hips, and posing like Elvis. And then in a flash he brings down the menace, telling Celeste she has a message from Tracy, her property manager.

It’s a brilliant moment of acting from both Skarsgård and Kidman. Perry’s talking to one of his sons about a loose tooth, while simultaneously reciting Tracy’s message. Celeste tries to evade, but Perry keeps pushing, signaling that he knows about the apartment she rented and that she wants to leave him.

This brief scene reduces Perry to his core: a gentleman and a monster.

He’s a great father, tending to his little boy and the kid’s loose front tooth. He holds his child’s face in a completely tender way. At the same time, in the same voice he’s using to soothe his son, he’s telling his wife he sniffed out her plan. And we’re all scared because we’re afraid he’ll hurt her even more.

There’s meaning behind Madeline, Jane, and Celeste all going as Holly Golightly to trivia night

Shailene Woodley and Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies during the big PTA fundraiser. HBO/Big Little Lies

Is it a surprise that Jane, Madeline, and Celeste all chose to go as Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s to Otter Bay’s “Elvis & Audrey” trivia night? Considering that they’re all friends, how iconic that role was for Audrey Hepburn, and how these women stand out from the rest of the crowd, it makes sense.

But what if there’s something deeper there? What if we take into consideration that these women could really relate to Holly? Or that perhaps Big Little Lies writer David E. Kelley and series director Vallée wanted to draw a connection between Holly and these women?

Holly, in both the movie and Truman Capote’s original novella, is trapped in a world dictated by the men in her life, but maintains an appearance of being completely content. That’s alluring to the narrator/Paul Varjak (in the movie, the narrator is an actual character), but he slowly puts the pieces together and comes to better understand this intriguing woman (apparently people are still shocked to find out Holly is an escort). The climax of the movie is a moment when Holly is forced to make a decision about her life, knowing it will never be the same depending on what she chooses.

It’s easy to see how Jane, Madeline and Celeste are in a similar situation.

Jane is always on the move, never letting anyone get close — deciding to stay in Monterey forces her to face her demons. Madeline seems to have the perfect marriage and perfect life, but she weighs whether to burn it all down and come clean about an affair. Celeste, like Madeline, has a perfect facade of a marriage that hides the perpetual cycle of abuse she’s in.

If that’s the case, aren’t we all the narrator/Varjak? Weren’t we seduced by these glimmering, expensive lives and drawn deeper into how ugly they could be? The messier the women’s lives became, the more addicted I became to watching Big Little Lies.

And like Holly, all three women faced a monumental moment in this season finale that changed their lives depending on the choices they made.

Big Little Lies’ central death isn’t nearly as interesting as how the show depicts abuse

In a weird stroke of luck, all my predictions about who died, who hurt Amabella, and Jane’s rapist were spot-on. This never, ever happens to me (see: every prediction I’ve ever made about any Shonda Rhimes show). And while I get that Big Little Lies had built itself around Perry’s death, I think it was perhaps the least compelling thing about the show.

What I keep coming back to, and what the show really did an excellent job probing, is the idea of abuse and its roots. Big Little Lies questions whether abusers and violent people are taught to be that way and constantly worries that it stems from something in our nature, something we’re born with.

When Jane calls Celeste and the two meet so that Jane can tell her that her son Max is Amabella’s bully, the two women have a pivotal exchange.

“Violence could be in his DNA, considering who his dad is,” Jane says about Ziggy, trying various ways to comfort Celeste and even suggesting that it might still be Ziggy. “They’re kids, though, you know? They bully. It’s human nature. They grow out of it.”

“Sometimes they don’t,” Celeste replies.

Part of Celeste’s poignant response comes from experiencing firsthand how sometimes men don’t grow out of hurting women. But there’s another layer to it. In her own head, finding out that Max is bullying Amabella is confirmation that Max is taking after Perry and that she has to leave Perry for Max’s sake — he won’t grow out of it if he sees his father hurting his mother.

Jane also doesn’t know that Perry is abusive or that her son is actually the half-brother of Celeste’s twins. I’m not the biggest fan of the “violence could be in his DNA” line, as it’s a bit on the nose and does a little too much telling instead of showing. But Kidman and Woodley both do a fine job of giving us more in this scene, and it sets up the big reveal with Perry, and the conflict of nature versus nurture, at the end of the episode.

There’s also a moment between Celeste and her therapist, Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert). The entire scene is short, as Celeste rushes to Reisman after Perry beats her. Reisman tries to convince her to leave, but Celeste is still reluctant. There are two things Reisman says to her in succession that stood out to me.

“Your husband is ill, Celeste, but so are you,” Reisman says, pointing out that Celeste needs help too. “There are children in the house.”

Celeste takes Reisman’s statement to mean that Reisman believes Perry will eventually hurt the children when hurting her isn’t enough. But it could also be interpreted as a warning that the boys will learn to mimic their father’s abuse. That they’ll grow up to hurt women like their father did. (Jane has a similar fear, but it’s less formed since she doesn’t know who Ziggy’s dad is until the last few minutes of the episode.) And it’s this fear, and Perry’s abuse manifesting in Max, that finally gets Celeste to see the light.

The realest moment of the finale was one of its simplest

There are few things in this world that will make you feel more lonely and sad than having to assemble complicated Ikea furniture by yourself after a terrible day. Celeste’s breakdown was strangely relatable.

And finally, there’s one thing I’m calling bullshit on…

HBO/Big Little Lies

Everyone in Monterey can carry a tune and sing Elvis? I absolutely loved how Big Little Lies ended. But give me a fucking break.

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