tv review

Big Little Lies Season Two Is Worth the Wait

Photo: HBO

The first season of Big Little Lies, originally intended to be the only season of Big Little Lies, was the most satisfying television experience of 2017. It offered the suspense of a murder mystery, the joy of seeing gifted actresses dig into a story that placed women at its epicenter, the dark comedy of watching oblivious, privileged people run amok, and sensitively rendered explorations of domestic violence and maternal dissatisfaction. It was seven episodes of nuanced drama mixed with wry comedy and real-estate-porn perfection that ended on a simultaneously hopeful and portentous note. With some notable divergences, it also covered all the plot territory laid out in the Liane Moriarty novel on which it is based.

Consequently, when HBO announced plans to make a second season, the hoorays were tempered with skepticism. What else was there to say about these women, or especially the mysteries that were resolved when the first season concluded? Why mess with such an appropriately contained, exquisite piece of television simply because you know people will watch?

Now that I’ve seen the first three episodes of the new season of Big Little Lies, I can say there is indeed more to say about these women and the fallout from the events of season one, as well as more exquisiteness to enjoy. Just as season one did, BLL season two offers tons of surface pleasures: more beautiful houses with oceanfront views; gorgeously dreamy cinematography; Laura Dern staring straight into the camera and mouthing the words to Diana Ross’s “This Is My House”; and some of the finest actresses in Hollywood, Dern included, showing off the most luminescent skin I’ve ever seen. Director Andrea Arnold (more than capably taking over for Jean-Marc Vallée, who’s still an executive producer) and her cinematographer Jim Frohna really know what they’re doing with the lighting on this show. I’m also willing to believe that all these California mothers have pores that radiate light because of their access to abundant sunshine and a lifetime supply of Drunk Elephant products.

As much fun as it is on a purely superficial level — there are plenty of hilarious scenes that delve into elementary-school politics — season two, which was written by David E. Kelley and based on a story by Moriarty, also tackles fundamental questions about honesty, grief, marriage, and how to raise children who are aware of the wider world without being crippled by anxiety because of that awareness. As was true the first time around, the subjects in the BLL mirror are always deeper than they initially appear.

The first episode, which debuts Sunday night on HBO, starts off with a touch of déjà vu. As the previous season did, it features quick flashbacks to the night that Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård), the abusive husband of Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) and the man who raped Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) years earlier, fell down the stairs at an elementary-school fundraiser to his death. The five women present at that moment — Celeste, Jane, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Renata (Dern), and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) — know that he didn’t fall. He was pushed by Bonnie in a reflexive response to the sight of Perry attacking Celeste. But they all decided to say he slipped. Months later, as evidenced by the pensive staring into the horizon each of them does during the season’s opening moments, the memories of that night and other sins from their past are weighing on them.

Also like season one, the action shifts quickly to the cattiness and chaos of the first day of school where the so-called Monterey Five, the nickname for the group that witnessed Perry’s death, reunite. Some of them — fine, mostly Madeline and Renata — slip right back into aggro-mom mode during drop-off. “She has an IQ of 152. Genius level,” Renata tells her daughter Amabella’s new teacher. “Life’s about give and take. I expect you to take care of my daughter.” (This poor guy is so screwed.)

The season premiere does so many of the things that Big Little Lies fans might expect it to do, it initially feels almost like a xeroxed copy of season one. But by the end of the episode, and certainly in the second and third, the narrative settles into a place that takes the story somewhere new while still maintaining the show’s ability to glide from moments of comedy to ones of true pain and back again.

You probably heard this from the internet, but just in case: Meryl Streep joins the cast this season! Not at all surprisingly, she’s superb as Mary Louise, the mother of Perry who visits Celeste and her boys regularly, ostensibly to help out but also to play detective. There’s something shifty about this woman, who’s mourning the death of her son but also determined to figure out what really happened to him on the night that he died. Armed with a set of false teeth that suggest Mary Louise is as inclined to smile as she is to bite, Streep plays her with a grandmotherly slipperiness. You’re never quite sure if she’ll hug someone or smack them with a cutting insult. When she’s in the presence of Madeline, whom she instantly dislikes, it’s usually the latter. “I find little people to be untrustworthy,” Mary Louise says, while Madeline’s jaw hits the ground. Watching Streep and Witherspoon come at each other with verbal daggers unsheathed is a gift I didn’t know to ask for, but that I feel blessed to have received. Also, there’s a thing that Streep does with a cross she wears around her neck in episode two that, on its own merit, closes the case that she deserves an Emmy for this.

But it’s not just Streep who is fascinating to watch. While all of the principal cast members were terrific in season one, each of them gives even richer performances this season. Witherspoon still dishes out gossipy observations like she’s hosting a clearance sale for shade-throwing — “Every catty comment must go!” — but as she struggles in her marriage with Ed (Adam Scott, also playing to his dry-wit strengths this season), she’s also much more vulnerable and untethered. Kidman is still a walking open wound as Celeste; if Big Little Lies season two had been nothing more than Kidman and Witherspoon having conversations in the front seats of cars — and sometimes it is that — it would still be well worth watching.

Woodley beautifully tackles complex emotional material, including a tough conversation with Jane’s son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), that’s a standout moment in episode two. As Renata, Dern operates in a mostly angry key, but man, can she hit a lot of fantastic notes in that key. If a GIF of her shouting, “I will not not be rich!” doesn’t immediately become a go-to meme on social media, the internet should be shut down for not serving its purpose. And then there’s Kravitz who, as Bonnie, is more purposefully removed from the other women. Bonnie’s withdrawn and removed, still haunted by what she did to Perry and, just as importantly, the lie that she and the others told to protect her. Kravitz portrays all that with a quiet bitterness and low-key confusion that comes across not as a mood or phase, but a psychological shift that’s not easy to shake.

Big Little Lies also more overtly acknowledges some issues it swept aside in its previous season, including race. The fact that Bonnie is the only woman of the five who is black, and that she feels so isolated among them, is discussed more explicitly, particularly when Bonnie’s mother (Crystal Fox) comes to town. “You are out here surrounded by people who don’t even look like you,” she tells Bonnie. It’s also obvious that Madeline, Renata, Celeste, and, perhaps to a lesser extent, Jane haven’t thought much about Bonnie’s race and how that might make her feel uneasier about the cops uncovering the truth. (I would bet all the money in my checking account that Renata has, at least once in her life, announced to several other white women that she “doesn’t see color.”)

While there’s no murder mystery looming over this season to give Big Little Lies a sense of suspense and urgency, an element of foreboding still lurks among the ocean waves and sunny days. Stream-of-conscious imagery that’s evocative of drowning, not to mention Celeste’s ongoing nightmares and Mary Louise’s unceasing curiosity, implies that not everyone will make it out of this season unscathed. While season one ended on a note of female empowerment, season two is already suggesting that real life doesn’t reach conclusions that way, not even in a series that’s so fixated on telling exaggerated but still truthful stories about women.

As Madeline says during a speech gone awry at an Otter Bay Elementary School meeting, “Most of us know that most endings to most stories fucking suck.” So brace yourselves for the next chapter in the story of Big Little Lies. And also, get ready to enjoy the hell out of the ride.

Big Little Lies Season Two Is Worth the Wait