Note: This article contains some Big Little Lies spoilers.
In the first episode of HBO’s intoxicating limited series Big Little Lies, the young and scrappy single mom Jane (Shailene Woodley) stops her car in traffic and gets out to help a perfect stranger: Madeline (Reese Witherspoon, with shades of Elle Woods, had she left law and took up motherhood) has tripped in her strappy stilettos, twisted her ankle, and dropped like roadkill on the way to kindergarten orientation. As Madeline tells it later to Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, the third member of their eventual mom squad: “Jane rescued me like a wounded dog in the street.”
It’s a fitting moment for the beginning of the show, because even before the murder, the secrets, the soundtrack, and the glorious seaside real estate porn, Big Little Lies is a meditation on mom friends—namely, that they are not the pathetic, competitive losers they’re often made out to be both in pop culture and in real life. Mom friends—the friends you make exclusively through your children—are often painted as women you wouldn’t normally be friends with, but people you deign to befriend during the lonely days of maternity leave or as a matter of politeness at preschool pickup or the birthday party circuit. The implication is that a group of moms gathering around and talking about their children automatically means that they will be exchanging drivel; bragging; and/or shading one another about breastfeeding, potty training, or the lack thereof. Ugh, mom friends, I have heard real friends scoff. Lame.
“These women were not my friends,” comedian Ali Wong once told me, hilariously, “but when you’re on maternity leave, you’ve got to join a moms’ group because it’s like The Walking Dead: You just got to hook up with a crew and survive.” Big Little Lies’s Monterey both debunks and feeds the stereotype that the other moms at school aren’t worth befriending: Madeline’s arch-nemesis, Renata, played by the brilliant Laura Dern, treats her daughter’s supersweet 6th birthday party—replete with circus tents, bouncy castles, and hulking Frozen-themed gift baskets—with all the strategic planning of the G8. “They’re vicious,” one parent tells the police of the Monterey mom posse in the opening episode of BLL. “They’re like the Olympic athletes of grudges.”
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