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Big Little Lies, Trauma, and Shailene Woodley’s Chance To Shine

The HBO series understands the inescapable effects of trauma better than any other show on TV.
  • Shailene Woodley in Big Little Lies (HBO)
    Shailene Woodley in Big Little Lies (HBO)

    Trauma lives at the heart of Big Little Lies. The first season, a subversive “whodunnit” of sorts, looked at the lives of the Monterey Five and their respective roles in the reign of terror and eventual demise of abuser Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård). Trauma has always been an integral component of the story, but in the second season of Big Little Lies, it no longer plays second fiddle to a murder mystery. Trauma is now explored intimately. The aftershocks of violence, loss, and betrayal fuel the series and its characters -- perhaps none as guttingly as Jane (Shailene Woodley) this season.

    For much of the first season, Woodley was sidelined. Career-best performances from Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon largely stole the show, making it difficult for Woodley to shine; but this season, that's no longer the case. Jane’s secret is out -- her child’s father is rapist Perry Wright, Celeste’s monstrous husband -- and he’s also the father of her son, Ziggy. Jane is generally able to keep the pain this secret causes her under wraps, but when she begins dating one of her coworkers, and her son learns the identity of his father, it comes rushing back in harrowing flashes. The way Woodley wears these scars is nothing short of revelatory; it’s done subtly, honestly, in the fear she reveals as she backs away from a kiss, the quiet rage she buries when confronted by Perry’s mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), the unthinkable heartache that makes itself known as she reveals the truth about her young son’s parentage to him.

    Thanks to Mary Louise, Jane is forced to relive the worst moment of her life over and over again. As she sits across from her rapist’s mother, Jane is told the experience she knows to be true simply isn’t. She is asked if she did anything to deserve what happened to her. She is guilted into allowing a monster’s mother into her child’s life. She is told that the man who violated her was tender and kind, that he couldn’t possibly have been as evil she claims he is -- and when she disputes this, it’s implied that maybe she just doesn’t understand, maybe she doesn’t remember her own trauma correctly. Woodley does remarkable work during this sitdown, holding her own with Streep and hitting viewers in a place so uncomfortable that it’s difficult not to look away.

    This antagonistic aspect of post-traumatic stress isn’t the only way it’s depicted on the series, either. Trauma creeps in when you’re trying to move on and live your life, and it does just this when Jane tries to start dating again. Physical contact of any kind can be a trigger; Jane tells Corey she needs to “idle in neutral” for a while after he tries to kiss her, and quiet tears fall as she embraces him during an impromptu dance later. It hurts to watch her. She aches to be normal, to feel as though she can trust this man who only seems to want to show her kindness, but it’s seemingly impossible to do those things when you’ve been subjected to such brutality. Things seem okay when Jane and Corey giddily groove to disco tunes at Ammabella’s birthday party, but one touch on the wrong part of her waist suddenly brings her right back to that hotel room. Trauma’s aftershocks have no timetable, no reasonable expectation for when they might strike, whether you’re at home in bed or at an 8-year-old’s birthday party. When she tells Corey about what happened and why she’s like this, it’s in a wistful, matter-of-fact manner. The reason Woodley’s performance works so beautifully here is because it’s disarmingly human. She braces herself for any kind of the plethora of reactions one gets when they tell someone about their assault, and she just says it -- because she’s ready. It’s not some big, theatrical, weepy monologue. It’s real. She’s accepted what happened to her, maybe long ago, and she’s also accepted that it has fundamentally changed the way she lives her life. This is part of who she is, a part that will always exist, but won’t always be able to stop her from opening herself up to love and happiness. And try as trauma might to stop her, Jane isn’t ready to let it win just yet.

    While Jane’s is seemingly the most impactful at the moment, the trauma of these characters isn’t a contest; they all hit hard, just in different places. The third episode ends with a trauma montage of sorts, Celeste still reels from her physical and emotional abuse at the hands of Perry, and the conflicting feelings she’s experiencing in the wake of his loss. The scars of infidelity mark Madeline’s life, committed by her parents, her ex-husband, and now, herself. Renata’s childhood financial trauma ensures that she can’t possibly begin to process her current state of bankruptcy, and Bonnie is wracked with guilt over pushing Perry to his death, as well as her own (largely still unseen) childhood trauma. But perhaps the reason Jane’s story is particularly resonant this season is precisely because it was simply explored on the surface level in Season 1. We had to learn about what had happened before we could truly understand how it has changed her.

    "Am I ever gonna be over it?" Jane asks Celeste. In Big Little Lies’ Monterey, trauma is an epidemic. The series succeeds in its depiction because it explores all the loudest and softest parts of trauma, and what it does to you, mind, body, and soul. None of these women are fully able to share themselves because of the trauma that runs their lives. Perry’s death and the big lie that bonds them might be the most obvious wound, but the lie truly eating away at these women is that they might ever be able to escape the traumas that have come to define them without first accepting their truths.

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    TOPICS: Big Little Lies, HBO, Shailene Woodley