Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée promised answers, and last night’s finale delivered. (Spoilers ahead.) We know who was bullying Amabella (Ivy George); we know who Ziggy’s (Iain Armitage) father is; we know who died on trivia night; and we know why. The fact that the answers to those season-long questions aren’t terribly surprising doesn’t blunt the finale’s impact; the episode, and the whole series, benefits from a refreshing sense of clarity, a repudiation of the concept of the big, final twist that no one saw coming. You can’t claim to be shocked when a tidal wave roiling in the distance finally crashes on shore.
Of course Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgård) son, Max (Nicholas Crovetti), was the one who choked Amabella on the first day of school; of course he swore Ziggy to secrecy. For six episodes, we watched this seemingly perfect, poised woman come to terms with her abusive husband, with the help of a sympathetic therapist played by an excellent Robin Weigert. We watched as what looked in the first episode like a disturbingly kinky relationship was revealed as something far more dangerous, and far more common. It’s only once Celeste learns that her son is hurting another little girl — which she discovers after a particularly vicious beating courtesy of Perry — that she realizes it’s time to go. As Celeste tells Perry about their twin boys, “They know what their father does to their mother.”
Less obvious is the revelation that Perry is the one who was killed on trivia night, a merciful plot turn that wrests power away from him and gives it to the band of women — Celeste, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Renata (Laura Dern), and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) — whom everyone in the idyllic seaside town of Monterey views as rivals mired in petty squabbles. As it turns out, the Greek chorus of parents offering their misguided testimony to detectives throughout the season has it all wrong. Convinced that town busybody Madeline must be responsible for Perry’s death, they’d be shocked to learn that it’s Bonnie, the freewheeling, peace-loving, yoga-instructing wife of Madeline’s ex-husband, who pushes Perry down a set of concrete stairs while he’s kicking the shit out of his wife.
In retrospect, the parents’ testimony functions as tidy misdirection, and a reflection of the melodrama that the residents of this tony central California town read into the lives of their neighbors — while overlooking the real “drama” of Celeste and Perry’s abusive relationship, a tragically ordinary version of the violence they’re determined to sniff out. Their willful misunderstanding of their fellow parents’ lives mirrors the position of the show’s audience; even when faced with glaring evidence, I had convinced myself that Amabella’s bully couldn’t be one of the twins, that the man who raped Jane and fathered Ziggy couldn’t be Perry, because that would be too obvious.
But as the finale suggests, when something is staring you straight in the face, you have a responsibility to return the gaze. It’s Bonnie who shoulders this duty, as Vallée shrewdly demonstrates: At the school fundraiser, he trains his camera on Bonnie’s face as she looks across the crowd and sees Perry arguing with Celeste, who storms away from him and heads down the dark, palm-tree-lined path where Renata, Jane, and Madeline are gathered. Bonnie follows, lingering above the staircase and watching as Perry approaches the women and tries to convince Celeste to go back to their car and talk.
She barely knows the couple, but it’s clear to Bonnie that something isn’t right between Celeste and Perry — which she intuits through their body language alone. It’s telling that Vallée portrays the show’s final reveal — the revelation that Perry is the man Jane has been searching for, the one who raped her all those years ago — in a wordless sequence of glances between Jane, Madeline, Celeste, and, finally, Perry, who lunges at his wife as soon as he understands what the women have realized. The situation is too obvious for words.
“I love that my theories about a show were actually right for once!” my roommate exclaimed when the episode ended. In the end, Big Little Lies plays to the expectations not of the most discerning, Easter-egg-hunting TV viewer or clever critic eager to unveil the season-ending twist that no one else has even considered; instead, the show rewards the instinctual feeling — I knew it — that many women know all too well.