Big Little Lies Season 2 (HBO)
Written by David E. Kelley & Liane Moriarty
Directed by Andrea Arnold
The stakes at the end of season one of Big Little Lies were cranked up so high it was hard to imagine how this second round would play out. When the season opens, everyone is in recovery mode from the death of Perry with Celeste naturally going through the toughest time. Perry rewired her way of thinking from years of abuse that she simultaneously misses him but is glad he’s gone. None of this is helped by the presence of Mary Louise, Perry’s mother, who has come to town to help Celeste with the boys. Mary Louise notices that Celeste is using sleep aids and making poor decisions around the house, but the breaking point comes when Celeste explains the extent of Perry’s abuse and that he raped Jane. Mary Louise cannot handle these facts about her son, and she quickly becomes the antagonist for this season.
Mary Louise, played by Meryl Streep, is without a doubt the high point of this second season. I have come to appreciate Streep’s craft as I’ve gotten older. Subtlety in acting is such an underrated skill and develops over time, which is why it’s easy to see the difference in acting styles between a Disney kid and a veteran actor. Streep has a deep understanding of Mary Louise beyond the pages of the script and has likely developed a lengthy backstory of her own, adding to what the showrunners reveal. In this way, she becomes a complicated villain. Mary Louise’s actions and explanations are not the truth and its the subtext that reveals her, something that comes out only in the season’s conclusion. I doubt we’ll see Mary Louise next season based on the last time we see her, driving out of town, but her absence will be the show’s significant loss.
Without Mary Louise, this season of Big Little Lies would have been incredibly lacking. With the stakes of Perry’s murder and the suspicions of the local police, the writers sort of dropped the ball and kept the characters in stasis for most of this season. Madeline’s arc is purely focused on resolving her infidelity and recovering her marriage with Ed. Jane meets someone and struggles to move past her trauma. Celeste deals with her mother-in-law. These three plots are stretched a little too thin, becoming repetitive and not really progressing until the final episode. There are two other characters whose storylines stood out to me: Renata and Bonnie.
Renata faces her worst nightmare, becoming poor or working-class again. Through dialogue, we learn that she hasn’t lived in extreme wealth and still has terrifying fears about returning to that previous life. It doesn’t help that her husband Gordon compounds their bankruptcy by revealing even worse transgressions. Of the core cast, Renata’s arc this season was my favorite because it felt like a significant shake-up in the character’s life. It reveals true things about Renata that further our understanding of her actions. Renata is so fiercely intent on instilling an aggressive type of confidence in her daughter because of Renata’s own background and need to claw her way up. Renata is also a character who exemplifies a lot of nouveau riche in America in that she has no sense of empathy for the service class or the poor. Her focus is on maintaining her position on the ladder more than anything else. She’s totally justified in lashing out at Gordon for all the things he’s done, but she also possesses deeply unsympathetic characteristics. This is what makes her such a compelling character to watch. Powerful and flawed will always be fascinating.
Bonnie was a character whose arc disappointed me. I was excited for Bonnie to get some real character development rather than being a face on the side for most of season one. Her role in Perry’s death elevated the stakes and made her someone who could have some conflicting emotions explored. They did explore her PTSD but in a manner that felt stilted and uninteresting. The inclusion of her mother Elizabeth made me think we might get that more in-depth character exploration, but instead, a stroke takes Elizabeth out of the story as an active participant. Instead, Elizabeth becomes a plot device to further sink Bonnie into depression without any development until the final episode. I think the women were returned to their isolated plots with moments of crossover, and this is what hindered Bonnie’s story. We needed to see more of Bonnie is opposition to someone like Madeline who does let it slip that she anxieties about Bonnie slipping up about Perry.
I appreciate the emphasis on not having clear cut villains in this series. Perry was a monster, but through Celeste’s eyes, he is complicated. Mary Louise is in denial about her failures as a parent and wants to lash out at Celeste. As Celeste says, she lost her sons and wants to take two more to replace them. Mary Louise is a broken woman, and even though we abhor her actions, we understand the suffering she is going through, she simply chooses not to deal with it healthily. Detective Quinlan is a background figure but a definite antagonist to the women. I had hoped she would have a more elevated role this season but maybe next season? Overall, season two didn’t quite have the spark of the first season, to an extent it felt like idling the engine so that the fallout from Perry’s death could be sustained into the third season. I’ll be back for the next installment, hoping that there are more progress and development of these characters.