There’s a moment in the new season of Big Little Lies where the tissue layers of friendship are cut back to a fragile nerve.
“I wish I had told you, I do,” Celeste tells Madeline, of her late husband Perry and his penchant for slamming her against walls. “You would have jumped into that pool and pulled me out.”
It’s a great metaphor, because that’s what women do. They lifeguard one another.
When I look back on the first three decades or so of my life, I see a long line of women that have laughed with me, drunk with me and mopped up my mascara-runny tears.
Men have been there, too, of course. But these female figures operate more in the shadows; their work – even their sheer presence – goes largely unsung.
These women are the background cast that move in when others have moved on; teasing, cajoling and dusting off the damage.
They’re the non-credited extras who are always ready with a reassuring WhatsApp at 12.30am, or an emergency delivery of flowers.
In front of them, you never feel self-conscious about your red wine smile or saying something stupid because, well – they’ll help you cover it up. But also they love you; just the way you are.
TV has a hard time capturing this kind of chemistry. On-screen, women are often found snarking at one another or literally getting the knives out (usually over some minor career slight, because hey –women). Or, naturally, they’re fighting over men: the altar at which a thousand female friendships are sacrificed.
On the other extreme, pop culture now endorses a vein of feminist friendship that is almost too bland to be believable.
Advert taglines and slogan tees pay lip service to a generic, off-the-shelf variety of female solidarity –with zero attempt to understand the grit and nuance that props that feeling up.
Real female friendship is not one-dimensional, nor is it indifferent to personality. We still bicker and fall out, or feel closer to some people than others.
But it also runs deep. When that anchor of friendship sets in, it engenders something resilient and quite unique.
Big Little Lies gets that. The ‘Monterey Five’ are bound together by turbulent themes of death, betrayal and domestic violence.
They have a ton of lesser issues to contend with, too: criminally in-debt partners, broken marriages, sinister mother-in-laws – the list goes on.
And their relationships are complicated. Madeline, Bonnie and Renata have a chequered history, and Celeste and Jane are both uncomfortably haunted by the same man.
All five are dealing with the fallout of living with their lie, too. As Renata tells Madeline in the latest episode, “everything feels like it’s unravelling”.
With a murky death to disguise and Detective Quinlan still lurking on the sidelines, the pressure of their cover-up continues to swell to the surface.
These women could turn on each other at any moment – yet you get the impression they won’t.
In the chaos of their fragmented lives, the Monterey Five are one another’s life buoys. Somewhere amid the pithy one-liners and brilliantly captured playground politics, they share a deep, immovable tie.
It’s a union cemented not by happy vibes, but in Perry’s violent death. An act that would tear most people apart sees this lot battening down the hatches. A random murder, and the retributive aspect of it that no-one else would understand, is their glue.
This seal of solidarity draws from a centuries-old story – the casual, insidious damage of (some) men’s behaviour towards women, and the rampant unfairness in being able to address that.
Liane Moriarty’s smash-hit novel and subsequent TV series is the stuff of fiction. But like all good fiction, it closely echoes real life.
It’s hard to imagine a point where I ever had to lie about the mysterious balcony death of my Class A-asshole lover. But if I did, I’d want this squad on my side.
Because when the chips are down, it’s your female friends who will plunge in and save you – every single time.