The other night I revisited the premiere episode of “Big Little Lies.” I’d first devoured that series on a pair of transatlantic flights in 2017. Three episodes on the way out, four on the way back; a perfect (albeit intense) way to pass the shadowy dreamtime in the darkened cabin of an A380 as it powered over the North Atlantic.
It’s a different experience, watching episode one again, knowing now who the “Somebody’s Dead” is, knowing which classmate is responsible for the marks on Amabella Klein’s neck. This time around, one scene late in the episode stayed with me the most: Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha Mackenzie, sitting alone and forlorn at her piano late at night, grieving the increasing distances in her relationships with her two daughters as they each grow up and inexorably away from her.
As the scene unfolds, Madeline’s usually-defiant teenage daughter, Abigail, slips into the room and unexpectedly joins her mother beside the piano, even begins to chat with her, ask questions, show concern. Hours after an unsettled dinnertime argument, the two now share moments of approach and flickers of tentative reconnection. Madeline tearfully and wryly acknowledges how sad she feels as she navigates these necessary changes in the lives of her family, and her daughter listens. Within the shadowy quiet, there’s a sense of relief and possibility.
Then younger half-sister Chloe bubbles into the room, awake past her bedtime. Six years old, curly-haired, assured of her place as the baby in the family, Chloe snuggles onto the piano bench beside her mother and begins to pick out a tune. “I love this song!” Madeline Martha Mackenzie says softly, her attention drawn back into this easy, close bond. “Do you want to play it together?” She is suddenly back in demand and unfortunately oblivious to the sibling sadness that washes over her eldest daughter, the outsider ache that pulls the teenager to slip away and back into hiding behind her closed bedroom door.
This piece that Madeline and her sunshine golden daughter play on the piano is “September Song,” by Agnes Obel, and its moody, arpeggiated ripples continue as the episode widens out of Madeline’s house and takes stock in its final minutes of the homes and lives of each of the main characters. Several of these women inhabit lives of great privilege in their oceanfront estates. But even as their luxurious back patios showcase dramatic views of rocky shorelines, we see hints of the uncertainties rippling through their families.
From the outset, “Big Little Lies” unfolds its stories by flickering between the present and the future. “Somebody’s Dead,” the episode’s title tells us, though we’re not yet sure who, even as we watch the local homicide detectives interview witnesses and investigate the crime that is chronologically still to come. By season’s end, somebody will be dead, but already, many somebodies are hurting and harboring secrets and terrors and mysterious traumas.
Ocean waves are a consistent motif in the blue gray world of the series, and the rise and fall and murmurs of “September Song” echo these visuals: waves crashing, waves sweeping the beach, waves washing away footprints, washing away clues and evidence and sometimes—temporarily—drowning out distressing memories.
The swells and the steady tolling of this music continued playing inside me after the episode ended. Sections of “September Song” remind me of the bubbling blue measures at the close of Claude Debussy’s “Clair de Lune.” It would be nice to play this song, I thought, to have it at hand and conjure up those murmurs at my own piano. Because “Big Little Lies” had been such a phenomenon, I felt hopeful that I’d find not just the recording of “September Song” but also the sheet music. And I did!
This piano solo arrangement is intermediate level, complex enough that it challenges my tendency toward being a lazy counter. So I’ve had to practice the piece slowly and patiently, but sometimes I have managed to slip into its groove, to ride along its rolling and murmuring waves.