Originally published for The Atlantic on July 21st, 2019.
“You are out here surrounded by people who don’t get you. They don’t look like you. I haven’t even seen one other black person since I’ve been out here.”
This statement from the character Elizabeth Howard (Crystal Fox) to her daughter Bonnie Carlson, on Episode 2 of Big Little Lies’ second season, seemed to be the show’s tacit acknowledgment of its glaring, first-season blind spot. The series’ failure to introduce any story lines confronting Bonnie’s experience as a young black woman in a high-strung, predominantly white environment was as pronounced as the show’s commitment to a lush display of California seascapes. Zoë Kravitz, who plays Bonnie, shared her frustration, saying to Rolling Stone, “I tried to get a little more … [race] put into Big Little Lies … but people are scared to go there. If we’re making art and trying to dissect the human condition, let’s really do that.”
Big Little Lies introduces Bonnie as the second wife of Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) ex-husband. Bonnie’s youth and contemporary flair are an easy target for Madeline, and though Bonnie is a fellow mother at Otter Bay Elementary School, she is fairly distant from the banalities that consume the parenting community of Monterey. Her appearances during Season 1 mainly come into relevance via her profession as a yoga teacher, which serves to characterize her as a paragon of contemporary progressive ideals. As the Vulture critic Angelica Jade Bastién pointed out: Despite a strong performance from Kravitz, absent any real grounding to her story, Bonnie is relegated to the Carefree Black Girl archetype that merely serves as a foil to the other women.
Season 1’s choice to divorce Bonnie from any significant backstory was not just a disservice to Kravitz; it also ran afoul of the source material itself. The novel on which the series is based characterizes Bonnie as being motivated to kill the antagonist Perry (played by Alexander Skarsgård) because she’d experienced violence in her home growing up. But lacking this context, and considering that significant stretches of the season played out with Bonnie in the periphery, her actions on the night of Perry’s death felt rather abrupt. That culminating scene didn’t lend itself to the novel’s intended effect of showing the sisterhood that forms in the midst of trauma. (The director Jean-Marc Vallée defended this creative decision, saying, “To give [the killing] a reason and justify that because she was abused and had a thing against men, it’s not about that.”)
With the launch of Season 2, there seemed to be an active effort to course-correct: While Meryl Streep’s addition to the cast was the highly anticipated main draw, Bonnie’s character was also given a larger presence. The show’s creator, David E. Kelley, admitted, “There was so much more to tell with the characters, especially with Bonnie. We only hinted about who Bonnie was. We had not mined where she came from and what led to the big push at the end of year one.”
This season has unfolded unevenly, however, with slow plot development that has made it difficult to tell how much substantive change has truly taken place. The episodes start with a significant amount of hand-wringing over the women’s decision not to tell the truth about the incident—a decision that is hitting Bonnie the hardest, much to the rest of the group’s confusion. In a discussion with Madeline, Bonnie explains that despite the collectiveness of the secret, she is the only one who carries the burden of actually killing Perry.
It’s clear that Bonnie still feels removed from her peers, yet her reasoning for feeling this way is fairly unexamined. The show fumbles an opportunity to explore the implications of a black woman coming forward and admitting to killing an influential white businessman, the fact that black women may not be believed in these situations, and even the nuance of the detective who is doggedly pursuing the group being another black woman.Big Little Lies vaguely implies that Bonnie’s distance is self-inflicted, and it offers no real indictment of the other women’s lack of awareness. There might be no clearer reflection of that than in the penultimate episode of the season, in which Madeline brashly says to Bonnie in a moment of frustration, “I’m so tired of taking care of you and your fucking feelings.”
Part of the reason Bonnie still seems underdeveloped as a character may be due to the alleged significant revisions made in postproduction, after the Season 2 director Andrea Arnold’s creative control was said to be lessened to make more use of Vallée’s first-season style. The most complex dynamic for Bonnie this season is between her and Elizabeth, whom the show turned into the abusive parent, as opposed to Bonnie’s white father (a creative choice noted by some critics as playing into lazy tropes). At best, the change certainly waded into demystifying black maternal dynamics. But it did so frivolously, without actually delving into cyclical trauma and how Bonnie’s upbringing would affect her raising her own black daughter.
The revelation of Elizabeth’s abuse of Bonnie via flashbacks is detached from the other focal arcs of the season. Bonnie reconciling her trauma is an experience that she largely goes through alone, despite having a preexisting bond with Celeste (Nicole Kidman), who knows well the complexities of domestic violence and the guilt that comes with being victimized repeatedly. Bonnie’s moment of catharsis happens in solitude, away from the group, as she sits by Elizabeth’s side in a hospital room:
“I resent you. For the childhood that I had. I resent you for your impatience. For being scared of doing my homework without being yelled at. For all the kitchen cabinet doors you slammed. For slapping me. For all the bruises. I resent you for not feeling safe at home. I resent you for being ashamed of me. I resent you for all the sex I started to have when I was 13 to prove to myself that I could be loved. I resent you for my wanting to beat the shit out of everyone. I resent you for making me feel so fucking worthless that I settled for a man that I don’t … But mainly, I resent you for killing a man. I killed Celeste’s husband. He didn’t slip. I pushed him. I snapped—and when I lunged at him, I was pushing you. And that push was a long time coming. And I want to forgive you.”
It’s a peculiar narrative decision: Absent Bonnie’s true integration with the rest of the ensemble, the speech has less significance as a moment of emancipation and registers as a rushed, unearned exposition. For a show that does an otherwise thorough job of peeling apart the layers of various women’s dynamics—Madeline’s attempt to steady herself after feeling unmoored in her marriage is deftly examined—Big Little Lies disappoints with Kravitz’s character. While Bonnie certainly has more background this time around, she isn’t given the depth of interrogation necessary to answer some of the larger questions surrounding her presence in the show.
The culminating conflict of the season focused on Celeste and her mother-in-law (Streep). Echoing Season 1, the conclusion minimized Bonnie, who was such a fundamental part in the events that prompted this face-off. Her arc—including coming to terms with her abusive mother—played out largely in isolation, making the group’s final reunification feel, again, sudden. It seems that the “people who don’t get you” whom Elizabeth referred to doesn’t just apply to the other characters of Monterey, but to the Big Little Lies writer’s room as well.