Why Meryl Streep’s Sly Matriarch Works So Well on Big Little Lies

The actor deploys fine-tuned passive aggression as Mary Louise Wright, bringing a wicked energy to a season wrapped in guilt and melancholy.

Jennifer Clasen / HBO

This article contains spoilers through Season 2, Episode 1 of Big Little Lies.

Guilt has always loomed over the women of Big Little Lies, even before they got away with murder. In its first season, HBO’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s best seller augmented the novel’s sharp observations about motherhood with an invented subplot following Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and her efforts to put on a community-theater production of the controversial musical Avenue Q. She enlists Celeste (Nicole Kidman), a former lawyer, to help her persuade the mayor to allow the play to happen. When they succeed, they’re elated: As stay-at-home moms living in the affluent seaside city of Monterey, California, they rarely venture outside of family life. They realize they want, simply, “more.”

“I feel so ashamed for saying this, but being a mother, it’s not enough for me, it’s just not. It’s not even close,” Celeste tearily confesses afterwards while sitting in Madeline’s car. “It’s evil, right? I’m evil.” No, she’s not, Madeline responds—she feels the same way. “That made me feel alive, too,” she says about persuading the mayor. “I want more!” And then she honks the horn and screams. The scene is electrifying: two women finally voicing how suffocated they feel as mothers who can’t embrace motherhood as their primary identity—even if they can only admit their desires to each other inside the safety of Madeline’s car, insulated from the judgment of everyone else.

In Season 2, Mary Louise Wright (Meryl Streep), the mother of the murdered, abusive Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), arrives in Monterey, ostensibly to help Celeste cope with life as a widow. But she also seems acutely aware of Celeste and Madeline’s longing—and she knows how to use it to her advantage. Which makes her a fascinating threat: The beloved smothering mother—the “smother”—is nothing new, but in Streep’s hands, and on a show populated now by tormented characters weighed down by guilt, Mary Louise brings a welcome, wicked energy to the proceedings.

Just look at the way Madeline wilts in her presence in the second-season premiere, when Mary Louise almost immediately picks up on her existential dissatisfaction. “I find little people to be untrustworthy,” Mary Louise begins, in a singsongy voice that only Meryl Streep, she of the subdued line readings and Oscar-winning intensity, can pull off. “You seem like a nice person. Loving. But you also strike me as a ‘wanter.’”

Madeline freezes, so Mary Louise takes her sweet time sinking her (prosthetic) teeth into Madeline’s wounded ego. “There are people in life who content themselves with what they have, and then there are others who just …” She trails off. “Want. Oh, you don’t have to take it personally. I’m a ‘wanter’ myself.”

Sure, but Mary Louise’s wants are nothing like Madeline’s. Mary Louise wants answers about her son, wants everyone to mourn him, wants him back. Unlike Madeline and Celeste, she embraces her role as the grieving mother and dutiful grandmother—and she uses it as a Trojan horse for her villainy. Because underneath that soft-spoken demeanor is a woman capable of exploiting the insecurities and underlying guilt of the women her son knew. It’s an insidious form of cruelty packaged inside a well-meaning, maternal facade.

But thank goodness she’s there. Mary Louise’s terrifying, slightly unhinged presence has so far already elevated and validated the off-book second season. She’s a uniquely, craftily vicious enemy—a mix of Sharp Objects’ Adora and Game of Thrones’ Olenna, but with fine-tuned passive aggression instead of poison as her weapon. In her verbal sparring matches with Madeline, she sits while Madeline stands above her, but Mary Louise walks away from both of their exchanges on top. It’s not clear just yet why Madeline irks her so much; maybe she intuits that Madeline had something to do with Perry’s death, or maybe it’s the fact that Madeline has leaned into her wants (by embarking on a new career).

With Celeste, she’s even more malicious, picking at her shame—Celeste admits to her therapist that she still feels “responsible” for Perry’s death—and toying with her gratitude. At dinner, Mary Louise delivers a speech—inflected with her understanding of masculinity—to her grandchildren about feeling angry that their father’s not alive when lesser men (in her opinion, anyway) have survived. She ends her monologue with a blood-curdling, meme-launching, thoroughly disturbing scream to demonstrate how much she misses her son. Seeing Celeste’s shock, Mary Louise weaponizes her daughter-in-law’s reaction. “My grief is too loud for you,” she says. “Don’t you feel angry?” The question she doesn’t verbalize nonetheless lingers at the dinner table: What else could you possibly want, Celeste, she seems to wonder, than your husband, the father of your children, back?

Mary Louise says she’s a “wanter” herself, but her wants are maternal, which in her mind makes them righteous ones. As the season continues, she’ll seek out other members of the “Monterey Five,” hoping not just to learn how Perry died, but also to change their minds about him. It’s ironic, really: The woman looking to expose the biggest secrets in Monterey appears unable to remove her own blinders.