In Defense of Big Little Lies’ Second Season

Could any show meet the expectations that the HBO series set?

There just aren’t that many shows out there, still, that give such substantial time to the subject of how women think and feel. (HBO)

This article contains spoilers through the second season of Big Little Lies.

Just to put this out there first: No, the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies wasn’t as good as the first. The plotting was minimal, leading up to an underwhelming showdown in the best-attended family courtroom in America. Even as the characterization of Zoë Kravitz’s Bonnie was beefed up, the show found other women of color to keep on the sidelines as window dressing, such as Merrin Dungey’s Detective Quinlan and Poorna Jagannathan’s ignored lawyer, Katie. Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise, an agent of chaos who seemed to threaten the fragile equilibrium of the Monterey Five, ended up … quietly slinking back to San Francisco. Renata (Laura Dern) became a caricature who existed purely to spawn GIF-able moments. And Andrea Arnold, a director who’s spent her career examining marginalized and disenfranchised women, was given the fascinating job of turning her distinct lens on the monstrously overprivileged, only to have her creative autonomy stripped and her scenes reedited.

Yet, despite everything, Season 2 of Big Little Lies gave me much pleasure. And not only for its superficial aesthetic qualities, such as the sharp glass angles of Renata and Gordon’s (Jeffrey Nordling) empty oceanside manse, or the pale-pink perfection of Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) suit in the finale—an outfit that felt like a statement all on its own about marrying the expectations of maternal caregiving with the charged fulfillment of a career. Mostly, it’s because I love the characters, who are messy, flawed, damaged, and still frequently sympathetic. I appreciate the show’s commitment to having Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) arc this season be simply about screwing up and trying to make amends. I was fascinated by the subversiveness of having Bonnie’s abusive parent be her mother, and by the series’ continued exploration of the frighteningly numerous ways to mess up your kids.

I’d argue, too, that part of what damned Season 2 of Big Little Lies was the expectations it met. When the first season debuted in miniseries form in 2017, it was soapy enough in concept that it surprised viewers with the psychological sharpness of its scenes. The murder at the center of the show provided a mystery to anchor everything around, together with the less compelling questions about Ziggy’s (Iain Armitage) parentage and the bullying of Amabella (Ivy George). But the real draw, for me at least, was the women. To misquote Oscar Wilde, having one actor of Kidman’s or Witherspoon’s caliber in your television series feels like good fortune. To have both is almost like casting carelessness. That Big Little Lies was able to balance the stories of its main characters while (mostly) doing justice to the actors who played them was what really made its first seven episodes sing.

Season 2, by contrast, had to measure up to the standard set by the first season, an award-sweeping bouquet of critical catnip. It had to justify the show’s continuation at all, given its satisfying structural self-containment. After casting Streep as Celeste’s mother-in-law, the show also had to make space for the most nominated actor in the history of the Academy Awards while giving Kravitz’s Bonnie more substantial scenes, given her surprise involvement in the death of Celeste’s abusive husband. If the first season had the luxury of being smarter than people assumed it was, the second was almost sunk from the beginning by the burden of its own prestige.

Without access to the HBO editing suites, it’s impossible to know what Arnold’s own version of Season 2 might have looked like, and what Jean-Marc Vallée, who directed Season 1, inserted. If I had to guess, I’d bet that the heavy-handed use of flashbacks to intro each episode and the awkward premonitions of death by water were his work. (It turns out, after everything, that Bonnie was drowning only metaphorically.) Story-wise, the second season fizzled out at the gate, getting mired in Detective Quinlan’s absurdly dedicated pursuit of the Monterey Five and Celeste’s face-off with Mary Louise to keep custody of her kids. There were no grand surprises. Even the revelations regarding the death of Perry’s brother felt disappointing after being teased for so long. (To recap: He died in a car crash after Mary Louise, who was driving, apparently lost her temper, for which she blamed Perry.)

But with so many extravagant characters littering the screen, it can be hard to appreciate the quieter ones. And so let’s take a moment to consider Streep’s Mary Louise, a woman whose arrival in Monterey sparked the emotional wreckage of a Category 5 hurricane. Yes, she had unnervingly jutting teeth and a wardrobe full of pastel-toned cardigans, and on occasion she balanced her necklace on her chin so that its tiny gold cross dangled like a star. More intriguing, though, was how Mary Louise was able to cause chaos everywhere she went simply by being unfiltered.

Here was a woman who said exactly what she thought, and whose thoughts tended to be completely at odds with polite social interactions. Like Killing Eve’s Villanelle, Mary Louise was a character defined almost entirely by id. Every observation her mind made was fed to the person she happened to be talking to, whether it was about short people being untrustworthy or the propriety of working mothers sacrificing time with their children to pay for things. In Streep’s hands, Mary Louise was the most subversive of female characters: an elderly woman with opinions. (The question of whether Streep based her performance on the critic Pauline Kael adds an extra dimension to Mary Louise’s candor.)

With both Mary Louise and Bonnie’s mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), Big Little Lies deepened its exploration of abuse. In the first season, the series presented Alexander Skarsgärd’s Perry as a textbook abuser: violent, duplicitous, and male. The sexualized dynamics of his treatment of Celeste, the show made clear, didn’t lessen how viciously he beat her, or how easily he convinced her that she was as culpable as he was. In Season 2, the abusers were women. Mary Louise, it turned out, had damaged Perry by losing her temper and consistently blaming him for his brother’s death. (The anticlimactic nature of this reveal felt like the finale’s biggest failing.) More intriguing was Bonnie’s relationship with Elizabeth, who, it turned out, had been physically and emotionally abusive for much of Bonnie’s life.

While the show’s insistent teases about Bonnie smothering her mother with a pillow felt cheap, Bonnie’s confession to her mother that she pushed Perry because she wanted to push Elizabeth instead was one of the most thoughtful soliloquies of the show so far. I’m in agreement with Shamira Ibrahim that the show hasn’t done Bonnie justice by merely gesturing in the direction of her race. The decision by the show’s creator, David E. Kelley, to make her mother the parent whose violence caused Bonnie to snap (rather than her father, as in the source material of Liane Moriarty’s book), though, feels like a fascinating one. Far more women I know were damaged by their mothers than by their fathers, and Big Little Lies’ steps in this direction broadened its exploration of the harm that children can suffer at the hands of parents who pass pain on like a bequest.

Twisted familial knots consumed the series more than ever in Season 2. As the parents suffered, so did the children. Bonnie’s daughter Skye (Chloe Coleman) was shown fretting over her mother’s depression after Perry’s death, and her fears that her parents were splitting apart. Jane (Shailene Woodley) confronted Mary Louise with her own fears that Ziggy would suffer lasting damage from being conceived during a rape. Celeste agonized over how to prevent her twins from inheriting their father’s violent tendencies. Chloe (Darby Camp) watched her fighting parents, Madeline and Ed (Adam Scott), while hidden in doorways. If there’s hope for Amabella in the wake of her parents’ bankruptcy and implied future split, it’s hard to see where it lies. (“Sweetie, everything isn’t about money,” Renata told her. “Well, it is. But it isn’t.”)

These moments of psychological clarity, coupled with the show’s sporadic bursts of comic relief—the dynamic between Nathan (James Tupper) and Ed, Tori’s (Sarah Sokolovic) masturbation diary, the Little Bo Peep therapist—for me justified Big Little Lies’ ongoing existence. There just aren’t that many shows out there, still, that give such substantial time to the subject of how women think and feel. (Season 2, like Season 1, was written in its entirety by Kelley, based on an outline by Moriarty.) Amazon’s Fleabag is one; Hulu’s Shrill is another. The Handmaid’s Tale, once a window into the interiority of a woman whose mind was her only release, has long since lost its potency. And yet there are more series than ever, which is why one so studded with extraordinary actors has the privilege of being that most unlikely thing of all for many people: a disappointment.