The Secret of Big Little Lies

In its second season, the HBO drama is as entertaining as it is thoughtful about human damage and desire.

Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Renata (Laura Dern), and the rest of the "Monterey Five" are back in "Big Little Lies" Season 2.
In scene after scene, Big Little Lies contemplates the imprints and scars people leave on one another. (HBO)

Early in the new season of Big Little Lies, Celeste (played by Nicole Kidman) goes to see her therapist, Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert). Celeste has been having vivid, alarming dreams as she processes the death of her abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård); the role her friends played; and her own contradictory feelings about losing him. Kidman plays Celeste almost in miniature—her voice is hushed to a whisper and she hardly moves, but her hands are clenched as she toys with her wedding ring. At Dr. Reisman’s request, Celeste replays in her mind one of the times her husband beat her; she silently cries as she does so. Then, reluctantly, she imagines the scene again, only with her friend Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) in Celeste’s place. This time, the altered memory makes Celeste erupt: She shouts—a ferocious sound that comes from her core—and pounds her fists on the coffee table in pure rage.

When Big Little Lies debuted in 2017 as a miniseries, the scenes that belied its showy, Monterey-mommies-and-murder veneer were the moments when Celeste was in therapy, grappling with Perry’s violence and her seeming addiction to him. Painstakingly, over seven episodes, Dr. Reisman helped Celeste see the disconnect between the life she curated on Facebook (with her model-handsome husband and towheaded twins) and the reality: Perry’s abuse was escalating to the point where, if she didn’t leave him, he would likely kill her. Between Kidman’s tight, interior performance and Weigert’s gentle but ruthless portrayal of a woman shredding Celeste’s layers of denial, Big Little Lies gave a profound treatment to domestic abuse and its impact.

That’s not to say David E. Kelley and Jean-Marc Vallée’s HBO series (based on a novel by Liane Moriarty) wasn’t gratifying for other reasons, chief among them its architecture porn, its monstrous depictions of overprivileged parenting, and the lamentable travails of a first grader named Amabella. For these reasons, and for the fact that its primary characters were rich, beautiful mothers (and that Frozen gift bags and perimenopausal yoga classes were plot points), Big Little Lies was written off in some corners as a soapy potboiler or a guilty pleasure, analyses that tended to miss how forceful and perceptive its writing could be.

It’s harder now to ignore, watching the early episodes of Season 2, that Big Little Lies is offering up some of the best psychological storytelling on television. The filmmaker Andrea Arnold (American Honey) has taken over direction from Vallée, and Meryl Streep has joined the cast as Perry’s mother, Mary Louise, which allows Big Little Lies to consider a question: Where, exactly, does damage come from? What kinds of emotional wounds, if untreated, can fester into violence? In scene after scene, the show contemplates the imprints and, sometimes, the scars people leave on one another. Its central female characters, now enshrined locally as the “Monterey Five” after their proximity to Perry’s death, aren’t entirely sympathetic. (“I don’t give a fuck about homeless people,” Madeline screams in one scene, NorCal’s very own Marie Antoinette.) But the series does them the service of illuminating how they got this way.

Somehow, this kind of rigorous, thoughtful probing still manages to coexist in perfect harmony with the show’s barbed sense of humor, an incongruence that Streep, in particular, seems to relish. (The heavy lifting comes from Laura Dern’s Renata, a wiry bundle of couture and overreaction described by one teacher as “the Medusa of Monterey.”) In the final episode of the first season, Perry was pushed down a staircase by Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) after she saw him viciously beating Celeste outside a school fundraiser. Seconds before, Jane (Shailene Woodley), encountering Perry for the first time, had recognized him as the man who had raped her years ago, and who had fathered her son. To protect Bonnie, Celeste, and Jane, the five women colluded, telling the police that Perry had fallen accidentally. They weren’t charged, but Detective Quinlan (Merrin Dungey) seemed certain enough that they were lying—an ambiguous end to a miniseries that ended up coming back for more.

In the new episodes, Kravitz’s Bonnie is most jarred by the events of the previous season. An earth mother with an impenetrable aura of self-containment, she’s been deeply traumatized by her direct involvement in Perry’s death and her inability to share what happened with her husband and daughter. Madeline, by contrast, is breezily unaltered, though the waters of discontent in her personal life continue to churn. Renata faces two of her worst nightmares at the same time, one of which—naturally—concerns the well-being of Amabella. Celeste can’t reconcile her relief at Perry’s death with her sense that life is duller without him. Jane, liberated from her flashbacks about the man who assaulted her, makes some overtures into dating, although she’s still hesitant to let people get close.

The mystery last season swirled around who exactly had died at Otter Bay Elementary School’s fateful Elvis Presley–and–Audrey Hepburn–themed fundraiser, and who had killed them. This time around, the central question commanding the series is how its characters got to be the way they are—a less suspenseful conundrum maybe, but a more interesting one. In despair over Bonnie’s mute, hollowed-out semblance, her husband, Nathan (James Tupper), calls her mother (Crystal Fox), whose visit brings up allusions to past family trauma. Madeline, on hearing that her eldest daughter (played by Kathryn Newton) refuses to go to college, has to come to terms with her insecurities about her own lack of education. Celeste’s distance from her own family, exposed in one flashback, means that the twins are all she has left, and she’s terrified that they might end up taking after their father.

Which brings us to Streep’s Mary Louise, a folksy enigma in greige cardigans and ferrety prosthetic teeth, who potters around Monterey making all her rudest inner observations out loud. (“You’re very short,” she tells Madeline. “I don’t mean that in a negative way. Maybe I do. I find little people to be untrustworthy.”) Mary Louise is deeply suspicious about her son’s death, but she’s also a figure of suspicion for viewers, since she’s the woman who raised Perry, a sadist and sexual predator. It’s patently obvious to everyone around Celeste, though, that she’s withholding the truth. “A family is supposed to be open and honest with each other,” Celeste says in one scene. “I don’t think we’re that kind of family,” her son Max replies, intuitive to a fault.

The acting is so good across the board in Big Little Lies that supporting characters such as Tupper’s Nathan and Adam Scott’s Ed can go unnoticed, even though they’re valuable players in the strange, intermittently menacing theater of Monterey parenting. As spoiled as viewers are to have Oscar winners such as Witherspoon, Kidman, and Streep sparring on camera for our enjoyment, to have Dern too feels like sprinkles on a stagecraft sundae. She’s the most ludicrously extra character on premium cable, wearing full scarlet lace to a court hearing and responding to Otter Bay’s climate-change messaging by threatening to buy every kid a “fucking polar bear.” Arnold, if less obviously so than Vallée, employs the Pacific Ocean to underscore the roiling energy of the setting and the forces that are always threatening to break the town open. But the dazzle of Big Little Lies—the money and the stars and the searing comedy of modern manners—can’t override how incisive the show is about its characters, their damage, and their desires.