Meryl Streep Makes Her Mark in ‘Big Little Lies’ Season 2 Premiere (RECAP)
[Warning: The below contains MAJOR spoilers for the Big Little Lies Season 2 Premiere, “What Have They Done?”]
The moms of Monterey are back for another round of competitive parenting and coffee shop gossiping in season two of Big Little Lies, and this time they’re bringing Meryl Streep with them.
There is always a worry when what was intended to be a limited series becomes a multiple-season show. It’s hard not to see it as a cynical scheme cooked up by network execs in an attempt to capitalize on the show’s success. There is no denying that Big Little Lies was a critical and commercial triumph when it debuted in early 2017; its star-studded cast and enthralling murder mystery made for must-watch weekly television. But having essentially covered all the source material from Liane Moriarty’s original novel, and delivered such a satisfying finale, the idea of coming back for more feels rather unnecessary.
We saw it recently with the sophomore season of Killing Eve; another hit show that could have quite easily bowed out as a perfect miniseries. While the second season was still fun, mostly due to its central performances, it lacked the direction and drive of season one, ending on a cheap cliffhanger which suggests the story is seriously running out of steam. That’s the concern I have going into this season of Big Little Lies, does the show still have enough story to tell, and if not, do we care enough about these characters that it doesn’t particularly matter if the plot is lacking?
“What Have They Done?”, written by series creator David E. Kelley (who has once again penned every episode of the season), picks up approximately nine months after the drunken school fundraiser which saw the physically abusive Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) pushed to his death. The episode steadily eases us back into the sunny, secret-filled city of Monterey, California, where the mom-squad of Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Renata (Lauren Dern), Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) are dealing with the fallout of their fatal act. The women — now dubbed the “Monterey 5” by gossiping townsfolk — are the subject of sideways glances and playground chatter.
The climax of season one promised a newfound camaraderie between the women in light of the Perry incident. It felt like all the cutthroat competitiveness and relationship turmoil had washed away as the group gathered on the beach with their children in that final shot of the first season. The five ladies might not have always seen eye-to-eye, but this dark shared secret now bonded them in a way that felt empowering. However, in the intervening months, they seem to have drifted further apart, each of them coping with the consequences of their actions in their own way.
For the outspoken Madeline, it’s business as usual. School is back in session and so she “has to earn her good mom badge” all over again. It’s all about putting her best image forward because perception is reality in Madeline’s world; she has to project the best version of herself always or risk falling victim to petty neighborhood gossip. God forbid somebody have a low opinion of her! When her teenage daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) reveals she intends to work for a homelessness startup instead of going to college, Madeline almost combusts, and it’s hard to tell if she’s more worried about her daughter’s future or how the decision will reflect poorly on her as a mother.
Renata, likewise, is jumping right back into the schoolyard politics, schmoozing the new teachers and talking up her daughter’s accomplishments. Where Madeline at least seems aware of how ridiculous this silly game of one-upmanship is, Renata is unabashedly ruthless in her desire to be the best-of-the-best. With Madeline, you can sense that her surface self is a form of protection, that she is pretending everything is okay for her own sake just as much as she’s putting on a front for her peers. For Renata, you can genuinely believe that she hasn’t given a second thought to Perry’s murder since it happened.
Jane, on the other hand, is experiencing a form of emotional catharsis. Not only does she now know the identity of the man who raped her, but that man is dead and buried. There is obviously still lingering trauma to work through, like the fact that her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) is a product of that sexual assault, but right now, it feels like a weight has been lifted. She dances and sings with her little boy. She is enjoying her job at the aquarium, teaching kids about sea life. For the first time in a long time, Jane is, dare I say, happy.
While Jane is feeling a sense of freedom, Bonnie, the one who actually pushed Perry down the stairs, is trapped in her own head. Having spent the summer in Tahoe with her husband Nathan (James Tupper) and daughter Skye (Chloe), Bonnie has become increasingly distant and closed-off. Nathan doesn’t know how to get through to her, and in an act of desperation, he approaches his ex-wife Madeline and her husband Ed (Adam Scott) for help, to little success. “You mean you’re not having sex?” Madeline quips when Nathan confides to her that Bonnie is withdrawn.
Bonnie has always been the most disconnected from the rest of the women, and it makes sense here that she would push them away. After all, they were never there for her before, so why would she suddenly jump at Madeline’s offer to talk, especially when she has the nerve to ask, “What’s wrong?” It’s either willful ignorance or a severe case of denial for Madeline not to comprehend why Bonnie might be feeling shaken-up. For her part, Bonnie admits that she regrets lying to the police about what happened and hates that she has to keep up the pretense to her family.
Speaking of putting up a pretense in front of family, Celeste is locked in a house of lies. The cover-up of her husband’s death as an accident means she has to grieve for the man who physically abused and tortured her all these years. Not only does she have her twin boys Max (Nicholas Crovetti) and Josh (Cameron Crovetti) to consider, but the arrival of Perry’s mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), means she has to politely smile and nod when listening to stories of what a kind and respectful man Perry was. There is a relief that her abuse is over, but the surrounding circumstances haven’t allowed her to fully exorcise her demons, hence the recurring nightmares.
Now, let’s talk about Meryl Streep. Mary Louise is an instantly compelling character played with a disquieting rage by Streep, who has fully immersed herself in the role with her mousey-brown hair and prosthetic teeth. Her grandma cardigans and soft-spoken demeanor betray what is actually a rather callous woman. The way she breezily rips into Madeline at the beachside cafe is both shocking and hugely entertaining. “I find little people to be untrustworthy,” she says after pointing out how short Madeline is. The brutal character assassination doesn’t stop there, as Mary Louise describes Madeline as a person who seems like a “nice, loving person” but is secretly a “wanter,” a fierce go-getter who will never be content.
As insensitive as Mary Louise can be, she’s precisely what this series needs to shake up the status quo. Her treatment of Madeline might be cruel, but her judge of character isn’t wholly inaccurate. Madeline is an enjoyable character because she’s witty and can nail a one-liner, but she’s also profoundly privileged and selfish. It’s almost laughable when she states that Abigail’s “life is basically over” if she doesn’t go to college, comparing it to her own regrets of not attending higher education. It’s hard to take her laments seriously when she’s yelling them from inside her big-ass luxury house in the upper-class city of Monterey. That’s not to say that rich people can’t have problems, but when you’re screaming “I don’t give a f**k about the homeless,” it’s hard to sympathize.
If season two of Big Little Lies is going to succeed, it will be because of the dynamic between Mary Louise and the Monterey 5 (the chemistry between Streep and Witherspoon is already scintillating). This grieving grandma isn’t merely in town to play housekeeper, she is there to get to the bottom of her son’s death, and if that means upending the social hierarchy and uncovering deep-seated secrets, then that’s exactly what she’s going to do.
-Interesting fact: Meryl Streep’s real name is Mary Louise.
-Ed bumps into a surgically-enhanced Tori (Sarah Sokolovic) while grocery shopping. If you don’t remember Tori, she’s the wife of Monterey theatre company owner Joseph (Santiago Cabrera), who was having an extramarital affair with Madeline. Based on this awkwardly flirty interaction, it appears that Tori has Ed in her sights and revenge on her mind.
-Celeste is back in therapy to discuss her recurring nightmares. She sees herself as a monster within these dreams as she lashes out against Perry, and talks about her regrets of not leaving the marriage earlier. The fact she awakes from these nightmares screaming words like “rape” and “kill” are likely to become clues for Mary Louise and her quest for the truth.
-For a character that is meant to be a planet-saving progressive, Abigail’s dismissive line about trans issues seemed weirdly out of place. “Do you know what kids do at college? They drink, they f**k, they mull over a sex change,” she says. I can’t tell if it just a slip in the writing or if we’re meant to view Abigail as a hypocrite, similar to her mother.
-Mary Louise talking to Madeline about a best friend that wronged her in the past: “She was just an itty-bitty little thing with a big bubbly personality, that was designed to hide that she was utterly vapid inside… you remind me so much of her.” Brilliant.
Big Little Lies, Sundays, 9/8c, HBO