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Big Little Lies’ most riveting moments are the silent ones between women

The HBO drama is a stunning study in the unspoken language women use to survive.

(Warning: This article contains major spoilers for the entirety of HBO’s limited series, Big Little Lies.)

For all of the lethal barbs, snappy comebacks, and compliments dripping with poison condescension that first defined Big Little Lies, the show’s most powerful moments came when no one was speaking at all.

The seventh and final episode of HBO’s miniseries (“You Get What You Need”) let snap all the tension that had coiled into knots over the weeks, somehow both suddenly and in excruciating slow motion. And no scene illustrated that simultaneous horror and release like the climactic one of the finale — and really, the entire series — when all the women stared at each other in silent urgency and immediately understood everything without saying a single word.

If my calculations are correct, there are approximately 10,000 things happening all at once in this scene. But the most obvious revelation is one that the entire series had been building to: Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) share an abuser in Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), Celeste’s violent husband who had, as it turns out, also raped Jane years earlier.

Jane’s eyes stretch wide with shock. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), jaw setting with determined anger, urges Celeste to look at their friend and understand — which she immediately does. Just offscreen, their erstwhile rivals Renata (Laura Dern) and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) connect the dots, their faces ashen and taut with alarm.

In seconds, and with the threatening man in question standing mere feet away, these women trust each other completely. It’s an unflinching instant of wordless recognition, an understanding so deep that speaking its underlying fear aloud is unnecessary.

It’s a feeling of awful, vital solidarity — one that I, and countless other women, know all too well.

I’ve known it in bars, in cabs, in dark corners of darker nights. I’ve been Jane’s terror, Madeline’s urgency, Celeste’s escalating fear. More times than I can count, I’ve been Renata and Bonnie’s bystander panic, feeling the claustrophobia of being near a volatile man, the bile of fear rising in my throat.

And okay, maybe none of my scenarios ended with an impaled body — but I’ve sure as hell been the stark relief they all shared on that windswept beach at episode’s end.

To be totally honest, seeing this intimacy reflected onscreen in such a bruising way wasn’t at all what I expected from Big Little Lies. I assumed I was in for a few episodes of beautiful people doing vaguely unattractive things against a picturesque backdrop, roll credits, fin.

I’ve rarely been more grateful to be wrong about a show.

Big Little Lies lures you into believing it’s about salacious suburban gossip, before revealing a more vulnerable core

Group photo of the Big Little Lies cast (Jane, Madeline, and Celeste).
Jane, Madeline, and Celeste before they became murder suspects.
HBO

The genius of Big Little Lies is that it initially looks like yet another in a long line of shows about rich women behaving badly, winking at the possibility of sex and/or deceit lying around every immaculate corner. It kicks off with the promise of murder, teasing out the possibilities in snarky flash-forwards to police interrogations. It beckons us into the stunning (but tasteful!) excess of Monterey, lined with sprawling mansions underneath a luxurious slate gray sky. It invites us to watch Laura Dern and Reese Witherspoon spit acid at each other over their kids’ birthday celebrations, raging with pent-up ambition and each dying to call the other a horrible bitch (which they usually do, the second the other’s safely out of sight).

Its first couple episodes hint at darkness via those flash-forwards and brief hints at the depths of Celeste’s toxic marriage. But the beginning of Big Little Lies mostly concentrates on the politics of elementary school carpool lanes and restless housewives tearing out each other’s throats for lack of anything better to do. This makes us think we’re getting a glimpse at lives that sparkle, when in fact, they’re all just desperately hoping the shine distracts everyone from the trauma that lies beneath.

With every passing episode, Big Little Lies peeled layers off its own skin to reveal something rawer and dangerously vulnerable. While Witherspoon’s spitfire Madeline and Dern’s seething Renata kept lobbing delicious insults at each other, the drama unfolding beneath the suburban pageantry wasn’t so much dramatic as deeply sad in a way no one onscreen could quite express in words.

So the heart of Big Little Lies isn’t salacious gossip, but rather the lonely darkness that pulses just beneath it. You start to see it in Madeline’s blank stare, the one she only allows herself when she thinks no one else is watching. You see it in Jane’s steadfast determination to (literally) run past her pain, to leave it so far behind it can never catch up to her. You see it in Celeste’s flinch at her husband’s touch, or even (especially) in the times when she gives into his demands with something akin to gratitude.

In other words, you see Big Little Lies’ true self when no one is saying a thing.

Big Little Lies knows that the best — and often most difficult — way to get to the truth is to look between the lines

HBO

During every episode of Big Little Lies, I was most riveted when it got quiet.

This is in part thanks to the fact that David E. Kelley’s dialogue can get obvious to the point of distraction. The worst offenses come from the Greek chorus of snippy Monterey rubberneckers (mostly the try-hard brunette parents our heroines never care to know), who gush clunky lines like, “have you heard of helicopter parents? Well, these women are kamikazes.”

But when we finally get to see how everything went to hell in the finale, and the women we’ve come to know hashing out their side of the story to the police, we don’t get to hear their side of the story at all. From Madeline, Jane, Celeste, Renata, and Bonnie, there are no pithy lines, no schadenfreude, no wry observations dropped in sneering triumph.

Instead, we watch from behind the detective’s double-sided mirror as the women mouth incredulous words, their faces scratched and struggling to keep their composure. When someone tries to turn the sound back on, the detective stops him. She doesn’t want to hear what they have to say, she insists with so much venom you can practically hear her eyes rolling, because she’s “so sick of these fuckin’ lies.”

It might be condescending, but as far as getting to the bottom of the matter goes, the detective’s right. On Big Little Lies, there are worlds of truth weighing down its silences.

Most of the series’ most memorable scenes — give or take a shrieking Renata — are the sparest ones. Think of the times when Celeste, bruised and quivering and defiant, sits across from a therapist (Robin Weigert) and desperately tries to avoid the truth about her abusive marriage. But she’s there for a reason; she knows it, and the wary therapist knows it. The two stare each other down as if daring the other to crack first, choosing their words and glances with such precision that they might as well be performing open-heart surgery.

In between the quippier dialogue, the series shows the women at their most pensive and vulnerable in wordless flashbacks: long car rides, stolen glances set to a meticulous soundtrack. When Jane sprints down gray beaches as the wind lashes her chapped face, she doesn’t have to speak her frustration; we feel it. When Celeste feels her husband approaching and starts to shake, she doesn’t need to scream to let us know she’s petrified. Even Madeline and Renata — the two characters most prone to scathing outbursts — express their unhappiness with longing looks and offhand scowls.

And as they all come to learn, finding out who the others are means looking past the basics of what they say.

The same holds true for the show itself. Instead of depending on its photogenic actors making meals out of the scenery, Big Little Lies revealed its luxurious trappings to be nothing more than a veneer concealing much uglier truths.

It’s like the detective said — or, more fittingly, implied: Sometimes, the best way to find the truth is to stop listening, and start watching.