“I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”
This is Madeline Martha Mackenzie, full-time mother of two daughters, wife (in a passionless marriage), and the de-facto ‘Queen Bee’ of the seven-part HBO miniseries Big Little Lies. Played by Reese Witherspoon (in arguably her best ever performance), Madeline is a rich white woman who literally lives in a glass house in Monterey, California. She juggles a teenage daughter, another daughter in kindergarten, a caring but neglected husband who is about to snap (portrayed by Adam Scott), an ex-husband and his new wife who, in complete contrast to Madeline, is the type of woman who teaches yoga and grows organic food. And to top it all off, Madeline is producing the play Avenue Q at the local theatre and engaging in a passionate, push-and-pull affair with the play’s married director.
A person can’t possibly handle all these things at once, can she? Well, as her life begins to unravel bit by bit, we get the sense that Madeline herself is fully aware of this fact. She is letting things slip through her fingers – or letting things explode into smithereens – not because she wants them to, but rather because she can’t help it.
In many ways, Madeline is what Regina George (from Mean Girls) or Blair Waldorf (from Gossip Girl) could have been if HBO and Reese Witherspoon got their hands on her. If someone were to ask, “Raise your hand if you have ever been personally victimised by Madeline Mackenzie?”, more than half of the show’s characters would be thrusting their hands into the air. In the first episode alone, Madeline marches up to a car full of teenage girls and yells, “If I catch you driving and texting again I will find your mother and I will throw this at her.” She throws shade at her rival, Renata (Laura Dern), with this unforgettable line: “Renata, Jane is not a nanny. She’s just young … like you used to be.” At first glance, Madeline reminds you of that girl you knew in high-school. The blonde, popular one who gets all the guys. The one who knows everyone and gets in everyone’s business because she thinks she knows best. She is good at everything. Seemingly perfect at everything. Can deliver zingers like nobody’s business, à la Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie in Empire. You might dislike her from afar, but you still want to be her friend and want nothing more than for her to like you. She controls, plans, arranges – incessantly so. When she is on a roll, she is on a roll.
What is fascinating is that the character of Madeline should be unlikable. She cheats on her husband, won’t ever let sleeping dogs lie, barrels through everything while leaving chaos in her wake. However, the show goes out of its way to make Madeline not only entertaining to watch, but engrossing, relatable and deeply sympathetic. Sure, she is that white woman who hears Sade and thinks it’s Adele, but there are so many shades to Madeline that it is refreshing to see. It is a rarity that the ‘Queen Bee’ character is portrayed with so much nuance and complexity. One unique aspect to Madeline is her friendship with other women. Usually, the ‘It Girls’of the screen are surrounded by ‘minions’ rather than actual friends. But in Big Little Lies, Madeline has meaningful relationships with other female characters. There is Celeste (Nicole Kidman), her best friend, whom she shares one of the series most memorable moments with. Both women are in a car after Celeste has put her lawyer shoes on and got Madeline’s Avenue Q project green lit. Celeste admits that being a mum is not enough for her, that it is “not even close”. Then, they proceed to voice aloud that “they want more” from life while they hammer on the car horn in an act of cathartic release. It is a deeply brave and personal admission, and it is one of the many scenes which makes Big Little Lies such a captivating show.
Another one of Madeline’s friends is Jane (Shailene Woodley), a newcomer to Monterey whom Madeline takes under her wing. Jane is a young single mom, and Madeline’s fierce protectiveness of her is born out of Madeline’s own experience as a young single mom when she had her first daughter, Abigail (Kathryn Newton). She gains Jane’s trust, getting Jane to open up about her history with sexual assault, and although Madeline might be misguided in her attempt to track down Jane’s abuser, there is no mistaking the good intention behind her actions. There is a genuine kinship between these women. Many times throughout the show, they offer each other advice as well as companionship. Yes, Madeline is competitive when it comes to her rival, Renata. But with her friends and her children, she is far from your quintessential ‘mean girl’.
We see Madeline at her most vulnerable when she tries desperately to reach out to her teenage daughter, Abigail. As with most things in her life, Madeline digs her claws into what she cares about, until finally, Abigail can no longer handle the pressure and asks to go live with her father and his new family instead. There is a heartbreaking moment by the piano when Madeline quietly admits her fear of losing her “baby girl”. Then, in a later scene, she lingers in Abigail’s doorway as her daughter begins packing for the move. Madeline’s voice is tentative, sad, almost scared, when she asks Abigail if they can have a “girl’s day” sometime. It is to Abigail that she confesses her affair. It is to Abigail that she delivers her most self-aware line yet: “Sometimes I’m just holding onto this idea of perfection so tight, something has to give.” Madeline is made out of contradictions and we get the sense that she knows it too.
Big Little Lies starts every episode with its theme song, with the brilliant Michael Kiwanuka crooning, “Did you ever want it? Did you want it bad? Oh, my, it tears me apart.” You can’t help but feel that the “Cold Little Heart” mentioned in the song title is none other than Madeline’s. She, like the lyrics by Kiwanuka, is constantly torn apart. As a character, she is a rare breed on television – a ‘difficult’ high-strung woman who is the farthest thing from a caricature. She can even be considered an anti-hero of sorts – something which women, unlike men, aren’t usually given a chance to be on screen. She is the Regina George of the peak TV era, if you will. There is a deep yearning within Madeline, and that yearning is heartbreaking and dangerous in equal measures. As a female viewer, I am thrilled to see how Madeline is not only allowed to exist, but she is also allowed to shine, blaze and burn unapologetically. This is why all of us simply can’t look away from Big Little Lies.
Like Madeline herself says, “I want more. I want more of that”.