The lies in Big Little Lies were never little. In the HBO series’ first season, which premiered in February 2017, there was domestic violence, extramarital affairs, childhood bullying, and, of course, murder. What would be a big, big lie — war crimes?
And yet the show’s upper-middle-class, coastal Californian trappings lent it a patina of stereotypically chick lit-lite drama, a fate the show avoided, thanks to spectacular performances by Reese Witherspoon (Madeline), Nicole Kidman (Celeste), Laura Dern (Renata), Zoë Kravitz (Bonnie), and Shailene Woodley (Jane). Each actress seemed to be waging a low-key battle to out-act the other, a tactic that proved particularly effective in papering over the flimsy plot.
When it was announced that the second season would premiere this Sunday, June 9, there was some speculation that the narrative had nowhere to go. This unlikely group of women had banded together to defeat a common evil and won. What more was there to say? Wouldn’t adding to the storyline merely muck up a satisfyingly pat ending?
But I always thought that naysayers were missing the point. Big Little Lies wasn’t about the story, it was about putting five iconic actresses in a room together and letting them duke it out.
It seems the creators agreed, because their only tweak to the second season’s format was to add Meryl Streep. Her one job, at least in the three episodes made available for review, is to weaponise one-liners. (“You’re very short,” Streep tells a bewildered Madeline. “I find little people to be untrustworthy.”)
Streep, of course (of course!) plays Kidman’s grieving mother-in-law Mary Louise, who’s come into the women’s lives ostensibly to help take care of her grandchildren, but mostly to meddle.
As much as everyone wants the late Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) buried, Mary Louise can’t let go. “I felt so angry,” she says, “that [my friends’] mediocre, second-rate, middle-management sons were still alive and my Perry…” She digs around in Celeste’s medicine cabinet, insults Madeline at work, at a cafe, and at Celeste’s house (I’m keeping a running list), and generally grows increasingly convinced that her son’s death was not, as the women claim, an accident.
As the season progresses, the rest of the characters realise that they can’t move past the incident, either.
Celeste has not only lost a husband, she’s also lost a father to her twin sons. Kravitz’s Bonnie, who’s a riveting screen presence despite the fact that she appears in scenes almost exclusively related to running or hiking, is haunted by the fact that she killed a man. (Fair enough.) Jane, who discovered last season that Perry was the man who raped her and fathered her child, approaches Perry’s specter as a trauma to be managed, not excised.
Only Witherspoon and Dern’s characters are unfazed. Witherspoon, whose Madeline increasingly resembles a grown-up version of her Tracy Flick character from Election, has become a successful real estate broker with an increasingly unstable home life.
Dern, whose Renata is a self-made tech executive, is back with a vengeance. When her husband loses their money in a financial scheme gone wrong, she both winds up and unravels. “I will be rich again,” she screams at a speechless school principal. “I will rise up... and then I will squish you like the bug that you are.”
The show still has its flaws. The excellent acting can’t quite cover up a lot of terrible writing (“As dead as he is, sometimes I think maybe I’m deader,” says Celeste), and the plot, even though it’s an improvement over last season, still feels strained and fragmented.
Again though, if you’re looking for a rigorous, credible storyline, maybe Big Little Lies isn’t for you. If, however, you are interested in watching six of the greatest actresses alive swing for the fences, get ready for a very enjoyable seven episodes.