In the first episode of the first season of Big Little Lies, the blended Mackenzie-Carlson family sits down to dinner together. Roast chicken, green beans, salad on a side plate. A dinner being served in millions of homes across America tonight. Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) has changed out of the alpha-mom outfit she wore to first-grade orientation—spike heels, flowery fit-and-flare dress, mini trench—and into a periwinkle blue sweater that millions of moms are also wearing.
Big Little Lies, the HBO series that wrapped up its disappointing and disjointed second season on July 21, was ostensibly about—spoilers for both seasons of the show ahead—the circumstances behind the death of Celeste’s abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), and the lengths to which five attractive-in-different-ways Monterey mothers would go to cover it up. But I was there for the actresses, the clothes, and the houses.
The family sits not around the dining table but around the kitchen island. The island is, truly, one of the largest I have ever seen, and I have seen all the Nancy Meyers movies. The Mackenzie-Carlson house is a real house, located in Malibu rather than Monterey, and this black, shiny, alien-spaceship of an island is its real kitchen.
You can practically hear Madeline saying, I just want to have a nice family dinner. But then she starts in on the shenanigans from school, and her teenage daughter from her first marriage, Abigail (Kathryn Newton), starts in on Madeline, and before long only second husband Ed (Adam Scott) and first grader Chloe (Darby Camp, the apotheosis of a TV wise child) are still sitting there, forking up their balanced meals.
As a portrait of modern family life, it is more than a little bleak—just like the show. The kitchen island is the new hearth, as the kitchen long ago replaced the living room as the center of the home. And yet, what if the island is the problem?
Kitchen islands were once described as a tool of liberation in the midcentury kitchen. A 1956 issue of Life magazine on “The American Woman: Her Achievements and Troubles,” featured a prototype “Housewife’s House,” sponsored by GE and designed by Margaret King Hunter, “one of the country’s few successful women architects.” “To suit her own needs as mother, cook and laundress,” Hunter placed the kitchen at the center of the house, with a playroom on one side, dining area on another, and the living room on a third. Photos show what we would now call a breakfast bar, with three kids sitting on stools and being served. What they don’t show is the GE technology that provided motorized shades around the counter, so that the whole mess could be masked with the touch of a button.
Over the decades, as versions of this housewife’s setup have eliminated dining rooms, pass-throughs, and farmhouse tables, the open-concept kitchen, centered around an island visible from all sides, has become not a labor-saving device but a stage on which (mostly) women are forced to perform. Madeline doesn’t have the biggest house, but she has the biggest island, because she’s the Monterey mom momming the hardest. She says it herself, in her first oversharing conversation with Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), the new, young mom in town: It’s us against them, working moms against full-time moms. And yet, the big house, the exuberantly feminine wardrobe, the home-cooked dinner… it’s not quite enough for Madeline.
Even as it liberated the housewife from sequestration in the kitchen, the open kitchen evolution created new problems. Labor-saving appliances led to new gourmet expectations. And the motorized shades never materialized at scale. No door could ever slide shut on the mess: Cooking itself was a kind of performance, open for viewing for everyone in the house. Whipping up eggs like a short-order cook, with a lineup of hungry children before you, was an everyday show.
The “solution” to this manufactured problem, in the age of 5,000-square-foot houses, is two kitchens: a show kitchen in which domesticity is performed and a messy kitchen, with its own appliances and behind a closed door, in which the dirty work is performed. The messy kitchen looks a lot like the kitchens the island was supposed to liberate us from: compact, enclosed, with good ventilation and the tight work triangle that saves the cook steps. But in Madeline’s house, there’s no space of retreat: Everything happens in the show kitchen.
If we are being snobby about million-dollar properties, and who isn’t in the age of HGTV, Madeline’s house is really not that nice. The facade used on TV is blah, a collection of nonsensical gables fronting the road, and the back aims for a faux-Cape Cod look, all cedar shingles and white trim applied to a rambling collection of rooms. The New England styling appeals to Madeline’s idea of herself as a traditional mother, but the odd fit between the look and the Pacific location reflects her discomfort with where, and who, she really is. She’s the character we see the most in the kitchen, while the other rooms are architectural and plot afterthoughts.
Celeste’s house is, like her wardrobe, modern, expensive, and low-key. Floor-to-ceiling glass, a muted palette of blues and browns and grays, no clutter, designed for flow. Celeste seems to live on air, and she would never, as Madeline does, make a joke about chocolate and her ass. Wright family gatherings happen on the deck or on the sectional, always with a hint of (play) violence. Her husband, Perry, shoots their twin boys down with finger guns. He reads them Edward Gorey’s not-for-kids Gashlycrumb Tinies, about alphabetized dead children.
If Madeline initially is queen of the kitchen, Celeste is chatelaine of the bedroom—plus its luxurious soundstage-built bathroom and walk-in closet. These closed interior rooms are where the drama of her abusive marriage plays out.
Renata (Laura Dern) has a house that is made for a Women In Power photoshoot, an eventuality which does in fact come to pass, like a real estate version of The Secret. Renata is the working mom—she does something in tech, she wears amazing suits, she’s a self-aware cat among the chickens—against whom the stay-at-home moms whisper. The center of the house is its semicircular, double-height living room with a set of semicircular sweeping steps; a variety of enormous, hard-edged furniture; and an equally large semicircular deck upon which to brood, backlit, with a large glass of wine. Everything’s in public; everything’s a pose. When your cheating beta husband’s bankruptcy takes your uncomfortable furniture away, what do you do? Throw a disco party for an 8-year-old in the living room and smash some fucking model trains in his man cave.
The only house I would buy is Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) and Nathan’s (James Tupper), a real house located in the capital of reality TV, Calabasas, California. Her house has no view of crashing waves, because the producers wanted to insert a teeny-tiny dose of economic reality for the owners of a yoga studio. Their house is instead tucked in the woods, with a shed roof and lots of blankets, wind chimes, and plants.
You can almost imagine its original owner-architect, a wooly Kristofferson type, puttering around in an Irish cardigan, yelling to his ceramicist wife to bring a joint out to the yard. It’s a house with a point of view, not just made for show, which makes the slow unraveling of Bonnie’s facade over the second season somehow worse. The audience has seen her as grounded, earthy, and unpretentious. Nathan is Madeline’s ex-husband; Bonnie is his younger wife. When they invite Madeline and Ed over for dinner, putting on a show of step-familial unity, everyone sits outside… until Madeline throws up her meal.
We read the house as authentic, but Bonnie has been hiding everything—her lukewarm feelings for her husband, her hatred of her mother, her dreams of drowning—for longer than anyone else. She’s playing to type, and using her house as a false flag, just as much as the rest of them.
Of Jane’s house we need not speak. In Season 1, it’s a one-bedroom rental. She sleeps on the couch in order to give her son Ziggy his own room. In Season 2, now working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, she upgrades to an apartment near the beach. Her house, like her grayed-out black clothes, is just meant to read as inexpensive. She doesn’t cook, she surfs, underlining her youth.
In the second episode of Season 2, Madeline and Abigail have a conversation we’ve heard them have multiple times before across the island. (Young lady, go to college.) It can’t be an unconscious parallel. Ed and Chloe are edited out of the family, they are literally off the island, and it is just the two blondes, as they were when Abigail’s father left. Abigail snarks that while today her mother says education is life’s fundamental building block, she used to say it was family—before she screwed the community theater director. The harsh truth hangs in the air. We watch Madeline’s face crumple, and Abigail still: Ed has overheard.
When next we see the island, Madeline is putting on a show: a pumpkin-carving party worthy of Pinterest. Backed into a corner—will Ed ever forgive her?—she pivots to her supermom persona, inviting everyone over for a show of holiday-theme crafting. Her desires are not cooperating to create the family dinner of her dreams, and yet she keeps trying for the perfect Facebook picture. The island is almost too small to contain all the kids, all the moms, all the drama. But rather than demonstrating her knife skills, Madeline escapes outside for wine and a cigarette.
We don’t see Madeline cooking again. In one scene, Ed clumsily applies cheese to crackers, which break in his hands. Madeline is no longer papering over the cracks with roasted chicken. In another, Ed and the girls bring home takeout for their mother: Have they gone out to dinner without her? The atomized family orbits the island as if it is another planet, making camp on its moons.
What Madeline really needs is a job. The part-time community theater position wasn’t enough for her, hence the affair. The real estate job we saw her in at the beginning of the second season—one of many subplots dropped like a hot potato—seemed ideal until she got so distracted by meddling that she neglected her clients. She could tell you a killer story about the life you are going to live in your new house, because she’s been telling herself such a story for years.
For all its contemporary gloss, Big Little Lies is a retrograde show. Could this story about mothers and their houses really end with everyone uncoupled? Coming into the series’ final episode, I was supposed to be rooting for Madeline and Ed, but I wanted to root for just Madeline. I wanted progress, change, personal growth, as I would if these women were my friends. Disappointingly, the final episode concluded with the women at the police station, likely confessing their lie, undoing all the work of Season 2.
Imagine a different scenario. No confession. Divorces for couples that don’t love each other. Houses they can afford. Madeline’s first client, once Celeste’s life is back on track, is herself. With Ed or without, she needs to pick a house for her real, blended, prickly family rather than some ideal. Abigail being a brat? Put her in a garage apartment and charge her rent. But most of all, no open kitchen, no vast island. Just a regular old kitchen in which those who are hungry can rummage in the fridge for sustenance. Dinner doesn’t need to be a big production, because the stage is, thankfully, gone.