Big Little Lies and the End of Innocence

Annabella, a sensitive soul in Big Little Lies.
In the HBO series, Big Little Lies, Annabella Klein (Ivy George) passes out in her First Grade class as the teacher is discussing the environmental impact of pork and Charlotte’s Web. She doesn’t have the flu or a spike of anxiety over an impending spelling quiz. She’s worried about something more unexpected: climate change.

Turns out, the "eco-anxiety" that Annabella is feeling has a name, perhaps overly challenging for a typical First Grader to pronounce: solastalgia, defined as 
"the distress that is produced by environmental change impacting on people while they are directly connected to their home environment."

Back home, the cause of little Annabella’s panic attack is confirmed by a child psychologist (disguised as a creepy Bo Peep). Her parents are aghast, especially when they learn that Annabella’s teacher—who they clearly see as subservient to their parenting agenda—has been stoking these fears. This results in a meeting where the phalanx of angry Otter Bay helicopter parents assails the beleaguered Principal. “Don’t these kids have enough to worry about?!” they shout incredulously.

The parents of Otter Bay Elementary, ready to pounce.
At first, this subplot struck me as example of Big Little Lies' idyllic, California delusion in action. What kind of hubris drives these parents to think they can shelter their kids—probably the only hope for averting irreversible global disaster—from such a pervasive reality? But soon, I had to admit that Annabella was on to something. Sure, she’s been scarred by friction between her parents and bullied (and bitten) by classmate and toxic masculinity experiment, Max. But despite these more clear and present dangers, why shouldn’t she be stressed at the prospect that the planet could be uninhabitable before she gets the chance to be a helicopter mom herself?

Although easily overlooked in the midst of the show’s main narrative, Annabella’s epiphany is one of the more poignant moments in a series filled with harrowing drama. It’s an illustration of the end of innocence as powerful as any in the show. And that epiphany hinges on this: when it comes to climate change and its apocalyptic implications, there’s no “adult supervision.” We’re all the kids of the series’ Monterey and no beachside McMansion, trust fund, or yoga-and-frosé therapy can stave off the tidal wave that’s coming.

In terms of spirituality, grappling with personal responsibility for climate change and its apocalyptic potential can be framed as a crisis of faith. It’s the realization that God’s carbon-scrubbing angels probably aren’t going to show up and save the day. In the sense that God-the-Father represents patriarchal protection, we’re back to that ultimate lack of adult supervision. And in archetypal creation-myth mode, we haven’t just been banished from the Garden of Eden; we’re burning that shit to the ground.

Jay Inslee: We are the world.
Annabella—and the rest of us—can’t take much comfort in a political solution, either. The only candidate in the run up to the 202o Presidential election who’s laser-focused on the omnipresent threat of climate change is Jay Inslee who, unfortunately, doesn’t have a snowball’s chance in greenhouse-effect hell of getting the nomination. Scorched-earth pragmatists can look to Andrew Yang, who’s basically said “take your $1,000 and head for higher ground.”

Yang’s emergency plan may sound harsh, but he’s really just spotlighting the realization that caused Annabella to hit the floor of her classroom well before nap time: when it comes to the unavoidable reality of climate change, we’re all responsible. And if you pass out from the panic rather than taking action, you’re likely to drown.


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