Big Little Lies Season Premiere Recap: Let Second Grade Begin

Big Little Lies

What Have They Done?
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Big Little Lies

What Have They Done?
Season 2 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: HBO

This entire second season of Big Little Lies is a blessing really. Liane Moriarty’s novel, which was adapted into the first season (and moved from the sunny Australian coast to foggy Central Cali), ends after Perry’s fall. Of course, things are a little different — namely, Bonnie turns herself in and serves 200 hours of community service for … murder. But the Monterey Five’s plot ends there. The fact that we have a whole new season of moms gone wild, Celeste’s tawny cashmere wardrobe, and thousand-mile stares into the ocean is courtesy of Reese Witherspoon, who saw the potential for more car-seat conversations, guttural female screams, and sandy footprints and gave the people what the people wanted. More, more, more.

What direction will things go for the mothers (and tykes) of the second-grade class of Otter Bay Elementary? Hopefully, we’ll get some backstory on Bonnie (who has had the least screentime, but potentially the most explosive baggage), and at some point Meryl Streep will launch into song. Other than that, what we need is TBD.

If season one was fundamentally driven by the questions of who was going to die and how, this second visit to dreamy Monterey is about whether or not Bonnie and the rest of the gang will be caught after pushing Perry down those treacherous school steps, and how each woman will handle the aftermath of his heat-of-the-moment murder. Of course, it’s also (thankfully) about much more: how women are branded in the aftermath of any tragedy, how the pinnacle and nadir of female empowerment can be the same place, how our children and their futures can subsume us.

Last season I worried about how the tacky bits of Moriarty’s often crude narrative skills could run this complicated and over-the-top gorgeous show into the ground. (There’s a hashtag employed by the Instagram cognoscenti to describe a photo of the Umbrian hills covered in dew, or the Swedish forest with trailing wisps of condensation — #mistymilkyfoggymoody, and every time I see it I think of Big Little Lies and its Big Sur pines and sprays of ocean salt.) A second season could have complicated things, inserting unnecessary drama where it wasn’t needed. Instead — at least in this first episode — Witherspoon, Kidman, writer David E. Kelley (and Moriarty herself, who wrote the season’s outline), and new director Andrea Arnold push a little deeper into already gaping wounds.

For this first episode, let’s check back in with our motley crew of heroines and hear about their summer vacations:

Renata is living life. She is L-I-V-I-N. She is Elton John at the Troubador in 1970 with a feminist march for intermission. She is dressed as close to a Marvel superhero as one possibly can in daily life and still looks like she single-handedly runs every last inch of the tech industry. (What exactly does Renata do? Like most techies, she is Professionally Important and chronically “hopping on a quick call with Tokyo” and on a lot of boards.) This Women in Power photoshoot, with legend Diana Ross’s “It’s My House” blaring in the background, is a peak for her. She’s not just a dynamo lady in biz, she’s got enough of an understanding of how we perceive female execs to bring the camera crew to her house and let the world see how she’s the master of all her domains.

While she has loosened up about as much as an anxious Yorkshire terrier could, safeguarding doll-eyed Amabella and shepherding her to her expected fate as a doppelgänger Woman in Power means implying that she’ll have something to give if her daughter’s (poor, brand-new) second-grade teacher does his fair share. After all, “She has an IQ of 152,” she says, and then with perfect enunciation: “Genius level.” Makes you wonder about Renata’s own mom …

Jane has a new place, a new job, a new ability to go to the beach without recalling her rape. In fact, she can damn well dance on the beach like a Sufjan-loving shroomhead at Coachella if she wants. Her job at the aquarium is admittedly perplexing — did Jane ever show any particular knowledge of or affinity for sea creatures before? (Also of note, in Celeste’s nightmare she and Perry are shown at an aquarium, which is intriguing.) Jane seems to know some rather, ahem, telling facts about octopi mating habits, but maybe they covered all that in the training.

Obviously, the past still dogs her (see: that very subtle and not at all worrisome sketch of Perry’s face surrounded by tentacles), and it’s potentially about to drip into her future, too, considering the notoriety that her new friend (?) Corey (Douglas Smith, who was Ben on Big Love, and who plays happy puppy so well I could pet him) has pointed out to her. The “Monterey Five” isn’t quite catchy — and it’s almost, almost offensive, considering the real hell the Central Park Five were put through — but it also makes sense that a few months later the community would still be chattering about the death of a chiseled, filthy rich dad, who fell to his death in an Elvis costume for crying out loud.

Madeline has taken a new career path, too. It’s unclear if she has entirely stepped away from theatre after last year’s drama (get it?!?) with Avenue Q and her little affair with her colleague. What we do know is that she is, no surprise, a genius realtor (who occasionally gossips on the phone instead of paying attention to her clients, but okay) who may finally feel like a more integral financial contributor to her household. The scars of her post-Nathan, pre-Ed life aren’t as fleshed out here as in Moriarty’s novel, where Madeline frequently reflects on the relative poverty she endured with baby Abigail, but we do know how painful Madeline has always found it to rely on the bank accounts of the men in her life.

She’s also priming the pump for more Otter Bay Elementary drama, although who can blame her when the school’s principal is as big a twit as Warren.

Yet again, the biggest stressor in Madeline’s life is Abigail, whose antics (last year’s virginity auction and this season’s housing-for-homeless start-up venture) are a little tiresome. We get it, Abigail has a huge heart and misguided instincts. But does she have friends? A hobby? Any interests besides giving a middle finger to the status quo and the absurdly cushy, Anthropologie-bedspread kind of life she has? It’s entirely understandable that Madeline, who didn’t go to college and regrets it, would blow up at her daughter after waiting until her college-advisor meeting to declare this intention. And with her scream of “You will have no life” it’s clear that all the financial success of real estate isn’t keeping Madeline happy. But sometimes this tension feels like filler for Madeline, arguably the central character of the show, but often the least developed.

Instead of Jane wandering the beach alone and brooding or running off her demons (sidenote: that does not work), now it’s Bonnie. Too many thrillers let people off the hook for guilt, and it’s wise that Big Little Lies didn’t. She’s terrified by a moment in time that she can’t explain to herself (and which, since we don’t have Bonnie’s backstory — yet — the audience can’t explain either). Of course, I’d still like it if there was more for Bonnie to do. Her scene with Madeline in which she explains that she alone has to carry the weight of pushing Perry off that edge is so exquisitely acted that all I want is a series that documents Bonnie’s time in therapy. Zoë Kravitz has a way of deadening her eyes that’s beguiling and scary.

Bonnie’s fears, however, are at odds with what’s troubling the rest of the Monterey Five (blech that nickname, but it’s so convenient to use) who are trying to convince themselves that the authorities are no longer pursuing Perry’s case. Has Detective Quinlan really just given up? (While we’re discussing it, there is something icky about the show assigning a black female detective to pursue this group of women in which the only woman of color also happens to be the killer, and for those women to make a strange coded judgment about this detective also being a lesbian, but I digress.) Jane is worried that all the chatter will keep the detective stirring the pot, although her expression, that “we all have scarlet letters on our backs” is, well, pretty inaccurate (Hester Prynn definitely didn’t don that thing like a marathon number) and most definitely a mixed metaphor. So will Bonnie turn herself in? Not yet, she won’t. We have lots more of this season to go.

As always, the episode belongs to Celeste (and Nicole Kidman, who can be tragic and beautiful in such an unrealistic but moving way that I want her to remake Rabbit Hole seven times after BLL is over). She’s having nightmares, her kids are oversleeping, that minimalist wonderscape of a home has clothes tossed on chairs, and she is — gird your loins — feeding her kids fast food and protein bars for breakfast. She’s also lying to her therapist, which is understandable but problematic for any real work to happen in that office. When Jane asks her point blank, “Are you glad that he’s dead?” and Celeste replies, “It’s complicated,” I desperately wanted to overhear the rest of that conversation, even though we already know how it’s complicated. She was about to leave him, she did love him, he deserved to be punished, but isn’t death a little much? Her boys are now fatherless, her life is now without its hub, and she has to wear grief all the time in public when relief is a good portion of what she actually feels.

And then, of course, there’s Mary Louise, such a Mary Louise if ever I did see one. (Did you think I wouldn’t get to Queen Meryl, people?) The complexity of the women on Big Little Lies has always set it head and shoulders above a lot of other television, but the addition of Perry’s mother, who seethes with dignity and commands a backseat like no other, steps everything up another notch. Meryl is, of course, flawless in the role, utterly absorbed into the veneers and crisply ironed blouses.

The wisest thing they’ve done with her character is put her in these bizarre parleys with Madeline. Yes, she’s grieving and her rudeness can be explained away by that, in part. But it’s also clear that Mary Louise (who I assume is one of those people who grows very indignant when people simply call her “Mary”) has some underlying issues, like that bubbly little roommate whom Madeline reminds her of.

As that singularly magnificent dinner table scene at Celeste’s house demonstrates, Mary Louise was wholly wrapped up in her total-package son. Good looking? Obvious check. Filthy rich and successful? Double-check for that beachfront property. “The most amazing man”? Well, Mary Louise thinks so, and the very suspicious fact that her daughter-in-law has maintained a porcelain doll’s complexion throughout this whole endeavor has her understandably puzzled. That scream, through. That scream. It’s so abdominal, so much more a wail than anything else. It scares viewers just as much as it does Max and Josh — my hand flew to my mouth just like Celeste’s did. It’s a moment of acting bravado, but it isn’t showy. Christ, we’re lucky to have Meryl on our screens for the next month and a half.

Is Mary Louise a villain? Casting her in the role of an investigator who keenly needs to know exactly what happened that night certainly puts her on the spectrum, but it is so magically delightful that she’s also a loving caretaker of her nephews, and full of praise for Celeste (“the sun shines upon her”!!!!). Of course Mary Louise would want to know what happened to her son. But then again, when she edges into Celeste’s bedroom and wonders out loud, “So, who are we planning to kill?” there’s an edge to her voice. That “we” isn’t the act of camaraderie she makes it out to be.

Big Little Lies Premiere Recap: Let Second Grade Begin