written by Valerie Morales
The lone black character in a melodramatic limited series, a sad woman named Bonnie, was at first glance, riveting. But she could never rise above her own pain. She was paralyzed by situational grief. It texturized Big Little Lies as uneven despite Zöe Kravitz being given more screen time, dialogue and a character arc. What was delivered in Season 2 though was the death of a promise. It can be cruel enough to crush you and Bonnie was crushed. But for all of her passionate introversion and lipid eyes and dripping woe, her most salient contribution was black girl wounded.
Bonnie was alone. Grotesquely. As Big Little Lies told the story of wealth and sorority, it also told the story of loneliness and isolation, nuances that frame the lives of black women in white spaces.
At the end of season one, Bonnie Carlson- who had been nothing more than a waif like prop presence- killed a man. Despite the theatrical nature of pushing a white man down the stairs, the crime wasn’t transactional. The man she killed, a wife abuser and rapist, committed crimes irrelevant to Bonnie (and unknown to her) and yet she acted out of anguish. Sensibly, guilt and loathing were a significant part of her oeuvre in Season 2.
Bonnie was tragic in her aloneness. She was entrenched in a depressive sorrow, and, as the Oprah movie Beloved sermonized, Bonnie had to be her own best thing if she was to be redeemed.
It’s difficult to move through the trauma of life without a confidant, a best friend, a holder of your secrets. You need someone on your side. For Bonnie, not having confidants was one thing. But she didn’t even have observers, unless you count the Pacific Ocean. In the mesial, Bonnie tried to make sense out of everything that had happened, and to be real, she was in the midst of PTSD. But there was no one she confided in, not even the series therapist who for some reason just disappeared from the storyline. Bonnie didn’t have a priest. She didn’t trust her husband. She didn’t even have a dog to talk to. Her so called friends were indifferent to her troubles and trauma. Her coming out party in Season 2 was interrupted. Silence was her best friend.
Even as Big Little Lies was a cinematic trope, and a Jim Crow separate but equal mirror reflection, its thirst for real life rationality absent white privilege platitudes was commendable. And yet for all its flaws, it told the racialized truth. Bonnie got crumbs because black women get crumbs. David Kelly was being consistent.
There was a survey a while back that said black woman get less pain treatment at hospitals because doctors believe they are stronger than white women and need less. That kind of bullshit felt oddly sentient in Big Little Lies, Season 2. Kelly seemed to imply that not only was Bonnie sadder than everyone else, she was stronger than everyone else. She didn’t need anyone. She took those long insufferable walks with that morose expression, her braids wagging, and her conflict with her mother whittling her into nothing. She kept getting smaller and smaller and smaller until she was irrelevant in her whirlwind of grief and fear and worry and anxiety. Was there something so unbalanced about her that she couldn’t have one girlfriend to confide in? Not just one?
HBO has another limited series airing, a Sarah Jessica Parker production called Divorce. In Monday’s episode, Parker and her black boyfriend were dining with her ex (Thomas Haden Church) and his pregnant wife. During the dinner, Church asked Parker’s black boyfriend, a business owner named Henry played by James Lesure, if his ex-wife was a white woman too. (She was). The question produced a stunned gasp at the dinner table. As if there is a quota for black men no one dares talk about, one white woman per adulthood. The question was inappropriate, racially insensitive, but oddly suitable. These are the thoughts white people have that they keep silent. To speak it bestowed on the episode a racial authenticity that Big Little Lies has never owned.
No one behaved towards Bonnie as if she was a tourist, the token in a group, and that she should be grateful for their generosity and inclusiveness. White people can be both earnest and stupid around black people but in Big Little Lies it was the counterintuitive reverse. There were never any microaggressions from the privileged. Everyone was so liberal and racially tolerant to the point of shallowness. If the Monterey clique didn’t see Bonnie’s race then they didn’t really see Bonnie’s loveliness either. Both are intertwined.
The attempt to normalize Bonnie by bringing in her mother (played by Crystal R. Fox), and exploring their troubled relationship, was effective and conflictual, and often missed its intended mark. Bonnie experienced her mother as if her mother was a set of clones. One iteration was patient and kind, and the other was demeaning and malicious. She held Bonnie as a child when they walked the beach, Bonnie’s papery arms clinging to her mother’s neck, and then in her next memory of childhood, her mother was rigid and wounding. Bonnie’s anxiety flourished beneath her mother’s willfulness and her mother’s spiritual visions.
It was a decent attempt by Kelly to explore the complicated puzzle of black mother and daughter but it created this elephant in the room whereas Bonnie’s mother, a black woman, was divorced from being a black woman by nature of the script’s refusal to acknowledge race and dare to be understood. As it was, Kelly seemed to imply black mothering lacks poetry. It isn’t tender and sweet, and not particularly tolerant, unlike Nicole Kidman’s mothering or Reese Witherspoon’s mothering.
White spaces, even wealthy ones, can’t heal racial marginalization. The dogged refusal to see Bonnie for who she was, who the world makes black girls become, slighted the story. A nerve was disconnected from the body. Yes, it mattered that Nicole Kidman was fighting for her kids in a custody scrum with Meryl Streep and that accompanying the court case was child trauma and grief. It gifted the season a realism but it unintentionally exaggerated Bonnie’s racial dissonance. While Celeste was allowed her whiteness and trauma, Bonnie was denied her blackness and pain.
In the end, there was atonement. The Monterey women had something to rejoice, some kind of circle closed for them. It was all so romantic. Repeating vows. Winning custody. A new love. But Bonnie was the only character with metastatic sadness. Her mother died. Her marriage ended. She was commodified. Her intimacy was the kind where you stand in the closet and weep soft enough so the kids can’t hear. You just have to make the best of things. I guess, David Kelly did know some small thing about black women after all. While white women overcome all their burdens with a flourish. Black women’s suffering is secretive and continual.