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Is HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’ Really About Guns?

A deeper conversation about guns floats under the surface of HBO’s Monterey murder mystery

Five episodes into HBO’s limited series “Big Little Lies,” we know that this show is deeper than a glorified soap opera about after-school pick up politics.

The show (based off Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name), explores the violence of affluent malaise. We’ve seen Chekov’s gun — over and over again — and we’re waiting for it to go off. There is excitement in the way the show uses the looming threat and fantasy of gun violence to propel the plot forward, but there is also a denser, dark conversation lingering beneath the surface.

Perhaps the biggest conversation to come out of “Big Little Lies” is about the complicated relationship between Celeste and Perry Wright, played by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård. Their therapy sessions reveal an abuser who puts on an act of wanting to change, while Kidman’s character refuses to admit that she is truly a victim of domestic violence.

Viewers have also been exposed to the trauma of rape through Shailene Woodley’s character Jane Chapman. Jane exhibits all of the characteristics of a sexual assault victim experiencing post-traumatic stress disorder. Jane took years to admit she was raped, and tells Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) she is the first to whom she’s ever told the truth. She constantly daydreams about getting revenge on her assailant, and wakes up in the middle of the night clutching a hand gun in response to nightmares about a faceless intruder.

These are all symptoms of PTSD: repeated thoughts of the assault, difficulty sleeping and nightmares, according to ptsd.va.gov. Jane hasn’t been identified as a threat by a psychotherapist, so she is fully and legally allowed to own a gun, an issue more topical than ever in the world in which we live. Although most people with PTSD have never engaged in violence, the disorder is associated with an increased risk of it, and Jane is exhibiting worrisome behavior — specially in last night’s episode, when she wakes up next to Ziggy holding her gun.

Research has showed accidental homicide or suicide is more likely to occur in homes with guns, and that even when parents think their children don’t handle or know about the guns, the children do. With constant nagging by the first-grade teacher and principal to Jane about whether Ziggy has violent tendencies or a violent past, knowing that Jane keeps a gun so close to her son would certainly cause an great concern.

Ziggy is the outcome of Jane’s violent rape; by now, we know that. But the questions from the school administration about Ziggy’s potential violence paired with her trauma is a cocktail for tragedy. The upcoming Elvis/”Breakfast at Tiffany’s”-themed trivia night at school — the scene of many of the flash-forwards about the murder – has all the makings of a disaster waiting to happen.

Jane is constantly being interrupted from her runs by calls from the school, and even Madeline’s attempt to help by suggesting a “road trip” to search for her assailant are just additional triggers. Her gun possession is ostensibly for self-protection, but she displays increasingly reckless behavior, like when she drives solo to San Luis Obispo to see if a certain interior designer is the man who raped her… and her gun is at her side during the journey. It still hasn’t gone off, but more and more clues suggest something unfortunate is imminent.

But Jane isn’t the only one dealing with the threat of gun violence. In a solo session, Celeste’s marriage counselor asks her if weapons are present in the home and if she has ever feared for her life. Celeste scoffs at the question, but Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert) is right to ask, as one in three women living in shelters in California have been threatened or harmed with a gun by their abuser.

Though Celeste denies that there are weapons in their house — and also that the violence between her and Perry affects their children – she doesn’t let on that her twin sons play with toy guns and listen to violent bedtime stories from Perry. The boys also tore the leg off of the class stuffed animal, marking behavior that is a stark contrast to their docile classmate Ziggy.

While the murder mystery set in beautiful Monterey is an entertaining backdrop, there is more to the presence of gun violence in this story than a plot point. It speaks to the dangers of assuming guns are safe, even in the hands of people who seem to have no reason not to own one.