*Trigger warning for discussions of rape and marital violence.*
I initially didn’t want to watch this show, because I thought it was all about “rich white ladies having problems.” But it turns out that the problems which these characters have are actually universal problems, so there. Silly me.
The show is based in Monterrey, California, with the many of the main characters having a kind of wealth I could only imagine. They live in beautiful, clean, manicured homes with ocean views, designed by interior decorators who charge hundreds of dollars an hour. Like homes you would see in magazines. Like, not a toy or a piece of laundry on the floor or anything.
- Celeste, a lawyer-turned-stay at home mom, who is being beaten by her husband;
- Madeline, a stay-at-home mom who volunteers at the local theater (which is producing Avenue Q),
- Jane Chapman, who is a single mom,
- Bonnie, a hippie/peacenik yoga instructor who is the “new wife” of Madeline’s ex-husband played by Zoe Kravitz, and lastly,
- the hated Renata, who is played brilliantly by Laura Dern.
Celeste is played by Nicole Kidman; Madeline is played by Reese Witherspoon; and Jane Chapman is played by Shailene Woodley. So, no slouches here. It’s created by David E. Kelley, who is also no slouch.
Part of the intro to the series has a view of each women driving her kids to school. I’m afraid that this is a central part of being a mom: schlepping your kids all over the place.
This series has gotten underneath my skin. I started watching it because of the stellar cast – really. But this is a story about women, about women’s lives as they intertwine. It’s a story about how these women interact with each other in amazing and petty ways.
Renata goes after Madeline’s play, Avenue Q – saying it’s too explicit for the community. Madeline responds by organizing a trip to see (I think it’s) Disney on Ice the same day as Renata’s daughter’s birthday party. Renata begs Madeline to relent – even offers to pay her – Madeline simply refuses. All of this happens nicely – the characters being nice to each other on the phone, while viciously talking about each other behind each other’s backs.
Like they need full-time jobs or something, because they just don’t know how to stop hurting each other… it’s the kind of system of people who are sort of set in their ways – people who don’t easily apologize or admit they’ve done something wrong. Into this system comes Jane Chapman, single mom on her own.
Madeline and Celeste wrap themselves around Jane, taking very good care of her and inviting her into their circle. When Madeline finds out Jane was raped, Madeline wants to find the man who raped her.
Throughout all of this is a flash-forward to the aftermath of Trivia Night, when there is a murder, juxtaposed with people telling stories about the main characters, saying things like, “I knew she was unhinged, but I didn’t believe she’d actually kill anybody.”
The first day of school, where Renata’s daughter is being bullied and she points to Jane’s son, Ziggy, as the one who did it. (Hint: he didn’t do it but he knows who did.) I’m sure the violence amongst the adults is parallel to the violence amongst the children, and the tv series places these in opposition to each other very well. It’s hard to talk about kid-on-kid violence, and the bullying against Renata’s daughter intensifies.
Celeste’s husband, Perry, who is played by the ever-handsome Alexander Skarsgaard, is abusive. He is terrifying in this role. There’s no doubt around this. Celeste’s friends don’t know – she’s too ashamed to tell them. She wears long skirts and long sleeves and it’s all a part of her graciousness. When the violence against her intensifies, they go to couples therapy. Perry goes once, but Celeste keeps going. This sets up a kind of situational irony/deep discomfort between the audience and the characters. I wanted her to leave him – like yesterday. Yet she keeps making excuses for him with the therapist and saying things like, “He’s a good father. He wasn’t always like this.”
It’s hard to see Nicole Kidman go into the heart of being an abused woman, hold onto her integrity, and stay with the man who is hurting her. It’s hard to know that anyone would stay with their abuser, but people do.
Knowing that Jane was raped, and knowing that she chose to keep the baby, and knowing that she is a survivor wraps another layer around how this novel explores violence. Rape is so common in our culture – so many women endure sexual violence, and never press charges, because of the shame of being victimized. It is common and uncommon at the same time. The rape is shown in the third episode, told in a flashback as Jane tells Madeline what happened to her. “I thought he was going to kill me,” she says. It’s shown from a distance, but it is still shown.
I took a break watching the show after that. As a rape survivor, I needed one. There was a content warning at the beginning of the third episode, for rape. But not for the scenes in later episodes, where Perry is being absolutely violent with Celeste… I think this is part of a long-time bias against marital rape, but that’s just my opinion.
Some of the scenes that are particularly violent with Celeste and Perry, as well as the end where the reveal of who is murdered happens, are shown with what I can only describe as “strobe lighting.” There’s a scene from the violence, then crashing waves, in sequence, so you can’t watch the violence as it unfolds, you get snatches of it intertwined with waves crashing. It’s hard to describe.
I think this is done to sort of “save” the viewer from having it stuck in their head too much. It’s hard to show violence without glorifying it. It’s hard to show violence as a rip in the fabric of what holds us together without celebrating that violence. There are plenty of movies which glorify violence, but I am not interested in them… This show clearly wants to explore the consequences of these actions, but it’s like the director doesn’t want the viewer to become too traumatized vicariously by the violence.
Without revealing the end, I will say that this show creates a lot of tension around this culminating event, and then as though all of the tensions amongst these women were resolved with this one act, there’s a scene where they’re all playing together at the beach. A scene of such friendship and solidarity that it seems hard to imagine, given where the women are at the beginning of the show.
I’m very curious to read the book. This was a great show, much as we’ve come to expect from HBO lately. Really good acting, beautiful sets, great stories.
As women tell their stories, they will tell of violence and healing from that violence. Over and over in film, there is a trope that if you want to make a woman strong, a survivor, make her a survivor of sexual violence. It doesn’t have to be that writ large: women do survive horrific violence, and yet heal from it. There are strong women who are not survivors of sexual violence, but statistics show they are in the minority.