This article contains spoilers, so if you haven’t seen “Big Little Lies” Season 1 yet, and you’re planning to, close your computer right now, throw it aside, round up your three best friends who have nothing to do today and watch all seven episodes tonight. In this article, I am going to do my best to convince you why Reese Witherspoon is your new favorite character on “Big Little Lies,” when, at first, you thought you hated her.
The show opens with police sirens, and the implication that someone in the sunny town of Monterey, California, has been murdered. Someone is dead, someone is to blame and the whole season builds up to the grand reveal of who is at fault.
Interviews with the locals are a nice touch to really bring home the idea that Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, is behind it (or just a huge b—tch). They talk about how she always has her nose in everyone else’s business; she has a freakish obsession with perfection and wants everyone to believe that her life has no hiccups, which is, of course, all the more reason why the people in the interviews seem to love to tear her down. These interviews weave through each episode of “Big Little Lies” to provide context, telling viewers who the main characters are, from an outsider’s perspective, and why everyone is pointing fingers at them.
In her first scene, Madeline talks to her daughter, Chloe, who, at 9 years old, already has no tolerance for her mother’s controlling personality and parenting style. Right off the bat, we get the impression that she is trying to turn Chloe and her older daughter, Abigail, into picture-perfect Monterey socialites, but the two are rejecting her like a white blood cell rejecting a disease.
Or at least, this is what the show wants you to believe, at first. She is immediately stuck with a forehead label that reads, “Controlling Mother, Lacking Sympathy. If found, please call Shailene Woodley.”
Enter Shailene Woodley’s character, Jane, who provides a tasty juxtaposition from the crazy, egocentric behavior that the rest of the town of “Big Little Lies” thrives on. The two characters meet just after Madeline stomps back in her high heels, after yelling at a teen driver who had been texting behind the wheel, and trips. Jane sees that her ankle is in pain and offers to take Madeline and Chloe to school drop-off, as she is going to the same school for her son’s first day.
You want to roll your eyes as Madeline tells Jane about a play she is setting up downtown and refers to herself as a “Working Mommy” and complains about how people don’t take her seriously. At the beginning of the show, everything Madeline says or does, from the way she holds her purse (with a bend of the elbow, almost as though she is trying to show off her manicure) to the debacle she starts with her arch-enemy, Ronata, over drama between children at school, makes you believe she is a catty, drama-seeking, rich, white mom in California, with nothing better to do than turn her daughters into everything she wished she had been when she was young. As “Big Little Lies” progresses, however, she shows her true colors.
Early on, we can see that while Madeline is unbearably superficial, she has an arsenal of intelligent comebacks that make us sense she is more than she seems. The first time we see this is at her dinner table, when she and her daughter Abigail quibble.
Her husband, Ed, played by Adam Scott, tries to prevent it from growing into a larger argument with a little “Alright … ” to which Madeline responds, “’Alright,’ what? That wasn’t nothing, Ed. Now, would you like to assign a meaning to that, or was it just some sort of nervous tic?” A new layer is peeled from the shiny porcelain skin of the rich mother with pearl earrings, and it shows a level of capability that reeled me closer to her side. Humor is a sign of great intelligence.
As the show progresses, we watch as more and more layers peel off from her façade. Her friendship with Jane grows deeper than a simple ploy to get another working mom on her side through all of the drama we thought she had stirred up. We learn that everyone in “Big Little Lies” is messed up in the head — including the men and women being interviewed, who think they have the inner workings of everyone’s lives all mapped out. Really, they’re the catty ones who started this whole mess; Madeline feels the need to strive for perfection so that they won’t talk bad about her.
We see how compassionate Madeline can be when she learns that Jane’s son, Ziggy, was a product of rape. We see her cry and ache over the pain in her own life, and her desire to resolve issues between her daughters is not because she wants them to have a higher opinion of her, or for them to think she’s unbreakable, but because she really does want the best for them.
She is trying. She’s not the greatest parent in the world; no one is. In fact, the only character who seems to fit the trope of the perfect parent later proves to be an abusive spouse. Not everything is as it seems in this show.
The point where I became truly and fully devoted to Madeline is when she finds out her daughter Abigail, at only 16, is selling her virginity online to protest to child sex slaves, for a charity of her choice. Madeline throws up at the news and walks down to talk to her daughter, who, until this moment, had been convinced that her mother never experienced hardship in her life.
Madeline lectures her about the sort of mistakes she made in the past, and she tells Abigail that while what her daughter is doing is for a good cause, it can ruin her life. Crucially, she is not telling her to stop; she is just giving her some well-earned life lessons on what it’s like to royally screw up.
She goes on to confess to her daughter that she cheated on her husband, Ed, and that she’s been through some deep trouble. It’s the first time we see her daughter appreciate that her mother is a real person, who only wants the best for her kids and isn’t just trying to make debutante replicas of herself to flaunt around to her friends.
In that moment, all you want to do is hug Madeline and assure her that she is doing her best to balance a failing career, a rocky marriage and the well-being of her two daughters, not to mention the hardships her friends have piled onto her shoulders.
Witherspoon’s character cared about everything that went on in and around her life, and while, in the beginning of “Big Little Lies,” it was easy to interpret her actions as simply stirring up petty drama, the pot had already been stirred, and she was trying to stir in the other direction in an attempt to slow it back down. When you think it’s easy to judge a book by a cover, you run the risk of becoming one of the snotty interview people who decide what kind of person she is.
But, let’s be real, if you’ve seen the show, you hated her at first, too.