Relating my trauma to Big Little Lies' honest portrayal

How the HBO show's portrayal of trauma normalizes tragedy

Sophia appreciates Big Little Lies' commitment to accurately portraying trauma.
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The widely popular HBO series Big Little Lies follows a narrative structure that’s striking, unsettling and unexpected. It offers a refreshing sense of realism amidst shows that often romanticize complex human issues.

Having been through a movie-like tragedy myself, I’ve often been disappointed by many filmmakers’ choices to capitalize on the idea of tragedy by romanticizing it for the sake of a plot. Big Little Lies, on the other hand, demonstrates the time, occupancy, and damage that a real tragedy engenders.

The mini-series sheds light on a small, socioeconomically privileged school community in Monterey, California where a murder—the victim is pushed down a flight of stairs—has mysteriously taken place at a school function. Detailing the events leading up to the incident, the show slowly unravels various deep-seated issues within the school parents’ lives. 

This is particularly apparent through the emotional, physical, and sexual abuse one of the main characters, Celeste (played by Nicole Kidman), faces at the hands of her husband, the eventual murder victim.

Due to the characters’ wealth and their beautiful neighbourhood in Monterey, the events offer an important message for the average viewer: trauma exists in every measure of societal class.

When I was 14 years old, my father passed away from a rare cancer. As a result, after losing him, in some ways I also lost the naivety and innocence of my youth.  And weirdly, one of the most difficult aspects of my life during this time was going to the movies with my friends.

Watching average rom-com films, I was bombarded with surface-level narratives about loss and suffering that I couldn’t help but compare to my own life experience. In doing so, I was completely unappeased by the portrayal of trauma on screen.

Losing a loved one on screen, whether to a rare cancer or a fluke car accident, has become a routinely packaged and unrealistic plotline. Some films go as far as to idealize trauma, having their main characters shed a few tears before everything falls back into painless place.

As sad as it sounds, watching different characters seek asylum in a therapist or break down uncontrollably regained my trust in the film-making experience to share a truth, not just to make money—and that truth was mine.

Big Little Lies’ first season allowed me both the escape of binge-watching and the chance to think about hardship as an inescapable part of the human experience, affecting even the rich and beautiful, not just me. 

Leading up to the culminating moment of season one—the murder—Celeste was seeking help from a therapist, arranging her escape from her abusive marriage. Before her husband’s murder, his violence had escalated to the point where he no longer maintained his facade as the perfect husband. In one scene, he beats both his wife and her group of female friends when he discovers Celeste’s plan to leave him. Eventually, he’s killed in self-defence by one of his wife’s friends, Bonnie. 

Before this violent moment, all of the women were in competition with one another, only focused on their own well-being. But by experiencing a moment of intense trauma together, all the social inhibitions they felt before were uprooted, demonstrating the importance of human experiences, good or bad, in creating closeness.

Season one ends with the investigation of his murder and all the women involved deciding to protect Bonnie, who saved them all from the abusive wrath of Celeste’s husband. For the invested viewer, this is the most satisfying ending—Celeste’s abusive husband is no longer a threat.

However, in season two, Big Little Lies yet again doesn’t blow past issues like death with a simple solution. Celeste’s husband’s death creates a complicated hole in her life and her sons’ lives, and all of the intricacies of the other parents’ lives begin to come unraveled. I look forward to seeing how this season—which premiered June 9—continues to handle trauma and folly as it comes to its close.

By showing a raw and truthful portrayal of events, the show creates the same complicated feelings within its own viewers. On the tail end of my relief at Celeste’s abusive husband’s death, I couldn’t help but re-live my own sad feelings after my dad passed, watching her sons recover this season from the same loss, even though their father was abusive.

Big Little Lies encourages empathy over sympathy, and portrays human complexities over overused plotlines. I encourage you to watch it.

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