Brow Beat

Big Little Lies Is Drowning in Its Own Good Intentions About Race

The HBO hit has expanded its cast, but it’s struggling to diversify its stories.

Zoë Kravitz as Bonnie in her yoga studio.
Zoë Kravitz in Big Little Lies. Jennifer Clasen/HBO

One of the most arresting visual moments of Big Little Lies’ second season occurs at the conclusion of its fourth episode, “She Knows,” when Elizabeth (Crystal Fox) has a vision of her daughter, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), at the bottom of the ocean, her hands reaching up for help. Fans of the show have filled the internet with theories about whether it portends that Bonnie will actually drown, but the haunting image also functions as a symbol of a black woman reaching out to another for help, her inability to get justice in a society built on gender oppression and white privilege. Or at least it might work that way, were the series not drowning itself, facedown in the waters of its good but ambivalent intentions.

A central theme in Big Little Lies’ story is the danger of not speaking up, emphasized this season in Bonnie’s struggle to remain quiet after having pushed Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) abusive husband to his death. As the threat of the secret shared by the Monterey Five looms, the women’s continuing reserve, even with their partners, seems like one of those deceptive swells that rise to the surface of the ocean without actually breaking. But by overplaying and dragging out that secret, the series unwittingly highlights its failure to engage with race and ethnicity in meaningful ways.

As close-lipped as the Monterey Five have been about being accomplices to murder, Big Little Lies, a dark comedy of manners and satire of elitist parenting, is equally silent on the subject of both whiteness and nonwhiteness. Although the story has been shifted from the all-white Australian milieu of Liane Moriarty’s bestselling novel, the show approaches ethnicity in a post-racial, color-is-not-an-issue way. Minor characters of color—ranging from Celeste’s lawyer (Poorna Jagannathan) to the children’s teacher (Mo McRae)—are welcome additions, but their roles merely accentuate, rather than check, the mounting hysteria of the white characters whom they serve. A series that was truly interested in the intersection of gender-based oppression and race might have explored a host of other narrative possibilities, including exploring the circumstances behind Bonnie’s marriage to the older, white Nathan (James Tupper), or providing a proper backstory for the other significant black character on the show—Detective Adrienne Quinlan, played by Merrin Dungey—that might explain her relentless pursuit of the mothers. Such a series, equipped with A-list actresses and producers, might then have cleverly connected the mystery of Bonnie’s reactionary revenge against a white, uber-wealthy, casually cruel domestic abuser to rape culture writ large. A series that was both innovative and inclusive would not have catered to racist stereotypes about violent black mothers, as Big Little Lies did when it revealed that Elizabeth was physically rough and possibly abusive when Bonnie was growing up.

The missed opportunities are even more glaring when one considers that in Moriarty’s novel, Bonnie is a white woman, and Quinlan is a white man. Recasting those roles offered the show a worthy challenge: to be more inclusive, to think less white, and to tell new stories. Indeed, it appeared that Big Little Lies was moving in that direction at the end of Season 1. There was something so satisfying in its final moments: a young and little-known black woman spying domestic violence and swooping in to rescue a privileged white mother; women of all class backgrounds coming together to agree on a lie whose absolute necessity underscored the lingering failure of institutional justice for both women and people of color; and finally, those same women sharing joy at the beach, next to the crashing of waves that had until then seemed so ominous. Though dialoguing about white privilege wasn’t written into the script, it seemed that the show was, at least visually, saying something about the limits of 1970s and ’80s second-wave feminism, when black intellectuals had to keep urging powerful white leaders of the movement to expand their understanding of all women’s oppression.

Perhaps it was naïve to think so. The series’s resistance to dealing with race is on the surface now. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Crystal Fox reveals that the most provocative line of the second season so far—“I haven’t seen one other black person since I’ve been out here”—was the result of her ad-libbing and not in the script. (Kudos to both Fox and the editor who kept it in!) The music video for the show’s opening credits song, by black British indie songwriter Michael Kiwanuka, features a narrative about black men—father and son figures who undertake a journey on a road leading to nowhere—but on the series, it’s an anthem for the numbness of these mostly white women’s lives, as they remain locked in elegant suffering behind their sunglasses.

Inclusion by casting is not the same as telling more diverse stories. If David E. Kelley, the veteran showrunner who has written all of Big Little Lies’ episodes, or Moriarty, who shares story credit with him on the second season, are aware of the problems they have created by first exoticizing Bonnie and then attempting to round out her character by tracing her pain back to her black mother (instead of her white father), they seem to be hoping we don’t notice, prioritizing the broader social issue of abuse and scoring narrative points by flipping the gender script. The feeling of potential compromised by a resistance to creating more usefully critical stories is doubly disappointing in this age of highly literary television. The “Thanksgiving” episode of Netflix’s Master of None, written by Lena Waithe and Aziz Ansari and directed by Melina Matsoukas, is one of the best televisual treatments of multiethnic American identity, but the future of diversity on television should not be only the purview of writers who are themselves cultural minorities, or secured by actors bold enough to ad-lib reality into a script.

In Big Little Lies’ most recent episode, Reese Witherspoon’s Maddie assures her co-conspirators that “if we stick together, we’ll be fine.” Both underlining and complicating the series’s theme of female solidarity, the line captures a certain obliviousness about the wide-ranging factors that make it difficult for women and people of all backgrounds to stay united in the face of mounting pressure. But especially coming from one of the show’s executive producers, it also sounds like the words of people in power who promise marginalized groups concessions down the line instead of the immediate access they demand. Many Big Little Lies viewers are tired of waiting. It’s already time to go deeper. Exploring the show’s minority characters could have been a huge justification for the series’s second season (more even than just getting to see Meryl Streep on the small screen). But it seems now like the wave has passed, and Big Little Lies is dead in the water.