Watch whiteness work in HBO’s new drama ‘Big Little Lies’

| Film Editor

DeRay Mckesson, activist and member of the Black Lives Matter movement, uses the phrase “watch whiteness work” on his Twitter page to call out white privilege in American society. It’s an effective semaphore to identify the ways in which being white gives individuals certain advantages that are normalized and therefore go unnoticed. It is also an appropriate phrase to describe HBO’s latest show, “Big Little Lies.”

Based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, this dark dramedy limited series centers around the lives of three mothers from the wealthy town of Monterey, Calif., whose common denominator is that their children are all attending first grade together. In the real world, this similarity would not likely create the level of drama that the show portrays. But because the world inhabited by Madeline, Jane and Celeste is overwhelmingly privileged, first grade becomes the excuse for them to invent their own problems and spice up their lives. Soon, we are consumed by fights between mothers, birthday party competitions, petty power plays and a lot of car-driving conversations (if “Sex and the City” gave us iconic walk and talk scenes, “Big Little Lies” is already doing the same with driving sequences), all against a luscious Californian landscape that magnificently intensifies this sense of privilege in very nuanced ways.

The first episode, however, lets us know that this isn’t a tame drama. The opening sequence of the series depicts the scene of a crime at a school fundraiser. Of course, our first instinct is to want to know who the victim is, but the show is not interested in solving this mystery. The series decides that all we must know is that the victim is one of the characters we are following. This sets up the structure of the show: A very intricate use of flashbacks, flash-forwards and imagined moments that elevate a seemingly white people’s show to sophisticated television.

There are many fascinating aspects of the series that we can single out, yet the most striking factor is its unbearable whiteness. Unlike many television shows that are strategically unaware of the role of white privilege in their narratives (See: “Girls,” “Gilmore Girls,” “Game of Thrones,” “Friends”), “Big Little Lies” does not shy away from how white this narrative is. In fascinating ways, the show otherizes the white subjects in a reversal of a trope normally applied to nonwhite characters in film and television. We become enthralled by their mere existence. At last, we have a show that refuses to normalize white characters and their behaviors as the norm or prototype for our society.

In a masterful scene in the third episode, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has plotted an impromptu Disney On Ice trip with her daughter’s classmates at the same time as Renata’s (Laura Dern) daughter’s birthday party. The two women hate each other, which is why Madeline wants to boycott the party. In an act of desperation, Renata begs Madeline to not go forward with the trip because her daughter is expecting all of her classmates to be at the party. To appease the situation, Renata even offers to arrange a “great sleepover trip to Disneyland—all-expenses paid, VIP passes, the works.” Madeline is not impressed by her offer, to which a frustrated Renata responds, “I’ll even get Snow White to sit on your husband’s face.”

This is an exemplary moment of the type of conflict that the show maximizes to its full use. It is a showdown of wealth, power and influence—arguably, the only things these characters are concerned about. This is because they can afford to only be concerned with those things. Why should they bother to face the realities that exist outside their Californian bubble? They have the money and the established social order to freely perform their whiteness without reproach. After all, there is only one nonwhite character who is part of said order, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), and even her character is, in some ways, devoid of cultural markers. In other words, it is her hippie personality, and not her blackness, that is at odds with the rest of the mom gang, mainly Madeline, who makes fun of Bonnie for her Zen lifestyle.

Even when the characters reference the outside world, it is all done in purely performative ways to pretend they have a (white) conscience. For instance, Madeline is in a legal battle with the city council to allow her production of “Avenue Q” to be performed at the city’s theater venue. Many residents signed a petition to prohibit the musical due to its racy themes. (The mayor is very fixated on the fact that two puppets have sex in the play.) Leading this group of residents is Renata, who is using this as revenge for what Madeline did to her. They both sit down with the mayor to sort out this issue. Madeline promptly argues that banning the play is against freedom of speech. She also alludes to the fact that “Avenue Q” deals with important social issues like racism and same-sex marriage, which are all “redeeming themes, conversations that this community should be having.”

But, as we have witnessed so far, this community is far from having, or even wanting to have, these conversations. To talk about these issues is to bring an undesired self-awareness of how vapid and hollow their lifestyles are, a characteristic that rings true to American society. Madeline doesn’t care about the themes of “Avenue Q.” Her main concern and goal is to spite Renata by performing the musical against her wishes. This is the way in which whiteness works in the show: a luxury to treat societal issues as trivialities while monopolizing on them to create a performance of caring.

At the same time, “Big Little Lies” refuses to treat its characters as caricatures of rich white ladies. Their personal conflicts are deeply concerning and complex. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is married to a physically abusive husband who hits her for not telling him about their children’s school orientation. Jane (Shailene Woodley) is suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder after being sexually assaulted and having a child as a result. Madeline is in the middle of an existential crisis that forces her to look at herself beyond her role as a mother. These issues are dealt with delicately and sensitively, largely due to mesmerizing, committed performances by the entire cast.

In subtler ways, the HBO series also brings the intersection of gender and whiteness to the mix. Jane’s backstory highlights the added thick layer of privilege that rich white men receive. Her unknown assaulter is a man who, so far, has not faced the consequences for his actions because his white male status allowed him to dismiss the aftermath of the events. Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) isn’t affected in the slightest by his abusive behavior toward his wife, Celeste. He is disingenuously apologetic while he continues to act the same. Because he’s rich, he can pay for therapy to pretend to get better, even as he holds tightly to his masculinity that is reaffirmed by the power he has over Celeste.

In almost every way, “Big Little Lies” is brutally aware that the only reason this narrative exists is due to the blinding whiteness of the characters. This is, in part, where the fun in watching the series comes from, in following the lives of these individuals who lack shame and awareness that the only reason they can afford to worry exclusively about themselves is due to their whiteness. For the rich residents of Monterey, their whiteness works as a lifestyle that, for the first time, we are not pushed to desire.

The final installment of “Big Little Lies” will air next Sunday, April 2 at 8 p.m. on HBO.