Meryl Streep will probably win an Emmy for her work as Mary Louise Wright on season two of Big Little Lies, because she’s Meryl Streep, and everyone loves giving awards to Meryl Streep. On top of which, she’s Meryl Streep, which means she’s someone who deserves to keep winning awards, because she’s always impressive even when the material isn’t. But if there were such a thing as a Lazarus Award, given to performers who brought a seemingly defunct piece of material back from the dead, she should win that, too.
Season one of the HBO series was closely adapted from Liane Moriarty’s novel by executive producers David E. Kelley (who also wrote every script) and Jean-Marc Vallee (who directed); it was meant as a stand-alone, but was quickly refashioned as an ongoing series after it became an award-winning hit and established its central female cast (Reese Witherpoon, Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, and Zoe Kravitz) as an iconic ensemble, which helped blunt complaints that a show about the interior lives of women shouldn’t be written and directed exclusively by men.
Season two, which brought in Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank) as sole director and then allegedly redid her work to make it more consistent with Vallee’s in season one, couldn’t help but feel like an attempt to artificially extend a story that had reached a dramatically satisfying stopping point. The five Monterey, California, women had conspired to cover up the murder of a domestic abuser and rapist, Alexander Skarsgård’s Perry Wright, after Kravitz’s Bonnie Carlson pushed him down a flight of stairs to stop him from beating his wife, Kidman’s Celeste, at a school costume party. But the emotional temperature of the series changed after that, altering viewers’ relationship to the main characters in ways that didn’t favor the series. The women seemed not only less corrosively entertaining this time out, but more arrogant, and blind to the fact that they couldn’t keep running forever. Rather than just trying to muddle through life as best they could (with the help of lots of money), they were drawing out a criminal conspiracy and prolonging the inevitable. Only Bonnie seemed to truly understand this, and it’s a pity that the series didn’t give her character (and her mother Elizabeth, played by Crystal Fox, who spent the back half of the season in a coma) better scenes allowing her to grapple with the predicament; mostly we just got closeups of her looking anguished, and it was often hard to tell if she was upset by guilt over her (understandable) crime, lingering trauma from her mother’s abusive anger, or sadness at being trapped in a failing marriage to man she wasn’t in love with.
Thank goodness Streep was there to give us somebody to — well, “root for” isn’t quite the right phrase, because she exuded a peculiar kind of anti-charisma in all her scenes. She played Mary Louise as one of those people whose education, intelligence, and powers of observation are impossible to deny, and who mostly comports herself in a calm and accessible manner, yet somehow always seems vaguely hostile. Mary Louise was ostensibly in town to help her daughter-in-law and her two grandchildren through the grieving process, and go through it herself, but she soon turned into a combination vigilante and amateur sleuth, wandering through a small town asking impertinent questions and refusing to accept evasive or incomplete answers.
Mary Louise’s manner kept whoever she was talking to off-balance because they couldn’t always figure out if she was really out to get them or if it was just their imagination. Even her flustered apologies and preemptive admissions that she was intruding only seemed to certify that this was a bulldozer of a woman who was going to roll right over you unless you ran away quickly or found a way to gum up the treads. It was clear that Mary Louise was a grating presence who clearly thought of herself as a profoundly likable person, but that’s not the sort of thing that you can say to anyone in casual conversation, especially when you and your friends are personally responsible for killing her only remaining son and covering it up. A big part of the fun that could be extracted from this run of episodes came from the low-key spectacle of watching the other characters immediately start glancing around for the location of the nearest exit once Mary Louise launched into another one of her blandly relentless interrogations. There’s an alternate universe in which season two is the only season of Big Little Lies, Streep is the main character, and the rest of the central cast are just there to wither under her scornful gaze.
And yet Mary Louise never turned into a cartoon villain because we always understood where she was coming from. This was a woman who had already lost one son when she was much younger — in a car wreck that Celeste later intimated was her fault, and that had been retroactively explained in a way that let Mary Louise off the hook, oh the irony — and who had recently lost her only other son, and now found herself alone with her grief, and transferring that sense of loss into a doomed crusade to take her two grandchildren, both boys, as de facto replacements. Whether or not you believe Mary Louise’s bid for custody was legally, psychologically, or morally justified (I personally think she made good points, even though she went overboard and definitely pursued matters in a too-adversarial manner), you could never entirely hate her, because Streep made her pain so palpable, whether she was unleashing a supposedly hypothetical primal scream at a family dinner or just hunting down one of the Monterey five and hammering on their buttons, hoping to get them to break and say something incriminating.
The hair, the glasses, the prosthetic teeth, the Northern California “I know what’s good for you, dearie” intonations, the slightly pinched way of walking, the quietly penetrating gaze — it all combined to make Mary Louise a classic study in characterization by a master actress and scene-stealer. It probably sounds like a complaint to describe this misbegotten second season as The Meryl Streep Show, but that’s what it quickly turned into — and thank goodness, because without her, season two of Big Little Lies would have had even less reason to exist than it already did.