The second season of Big Little Lies is even more of an embarrassment of acting riches than the first, with heavyweights like Meryl Streep and Crystal Fox joining the already strong, predominantly female cast of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Zoë Kravitz, and Shailene Woodley. But now that we’ve reached the halfway point in season two, Laura Dern’s unbridled Renata Klein is the clear standout, surpassing even Streep’s masterpiece of passive-aggression, Mary Louise.
For the majority of last season, overprotective mother/workaholic tech mogul Renata functioned as the adversary to ostensibly nicer moms Madeline (Witherspoon), Celeste (Kidman), and Jane (Woodley), mistakenly believing that Jane’s son Ziggy had harmed her precious daughter, Amabella. Season one Renata contained multitudes, able to turn her syrupy sweet voice into a Godzilla-like roar in a nanosecond. She’d invite you to her fancy dinner party to aid veterans in one breath, and warn you not to fuck with her kid’s birthday party the next. As Amabella came home from school bullied with bite marks, even a helicopter parent like Renata felt powerless to stop it, likely her most-hated feeling in the world.
Once crossed, you were off her list forever—until you weren’t. In season one’s final episode, all five women are involved in abusive Perry’s death, and Renata becomes part of the inner circle, bonded by helping to defend Celeste and her friends from Perry, and the secret that Bonnie pushed him to his death. The season (and at the time, series) ended perfectly with the women on the beach with their kids—as if to say, past all the birthday party invites and political playground playdates, isn’t this what it’s all about, anyway?
Suddenly tasked with creating a second season for Big Little Lies, after the series became a huge hit for HBO and won a slew of awards (including one for Dern as Best Supporting Actress in a Limited Series), the creators—especially author Liane Moriarty, who wrote the original novel, and legendary TV scribe David E. Kelley—did not have a ton to work with. While season one had an intriguing murder mystery to wrap itself around, this season is primarily limited to that one secret about Perry’s death. To flesh out that thin premise into seven episodes, the individual character’s roles have been expanded: Bonnie and her depression, Celeste and her complicated grief, Jane and her new relationship, and Madeline and her rapidly dissolving marriage. The writers also wisely chose to give Dern, and Renata, more to do, in about the most abrupt fashion imaginable. Since she no longer is in a mom-on-mom rivalry with Madeline or Jane (and her once-devoted minions appear to have disappeared), Renata now seems to be at war with anyone who is unlucky enough to cross her path.
In the second episode of this season, Renata goes from the top of the world to the bottom in a matter of moments. We’ve already seen her in a glamorous photo shoot, rightfully crowing about her success, including her magnificent home. She’s about to be on the cover of the “number one women’s magazine in the U.S. of fucking A.” when her husband, Gordon, gets arrested for securities fraud. He’s lost all their money, and the family is headed for bankruptcy.
Clearly, this change-of-fortune storyline was intended to be as dramatic as possible, and Dern is likely having a ball chewing the scenery with absolute abandon. Again, despite how hard she’s worked, the towering Renata appears powerless. Renata growling at an imprisoned Gordon, “I will not not be rich” was pretty much all anyone talked about the morning after episode two—but as fun as that line is, it’s only significant when we take into account where she came from.
We had only the vaguest of hints about Renata’s background in season one, when Renata tries to school Amabella on how to deal with bullies: “You have to be a big girl and use your voice in this world,” referring to herself as a bulldog. It’s Renata’s saving grace, this unwavering belief in herself, that makes her a natural leader as well as a professional powerhouse. This season, she explains to her now-friend Madeline why the bankruptcy freaks her out so much, as she came from a humble home—not being rich is her worst nightmare, because she’ll go back to where she came from. It also explains Renata’s unhinged rage toward Gordon, the guy who fucked it all up, and why she would kick him out of the car on the way back from jail. The chinks in Renata’s impressive armor make her much more intriguing.
But once Renata went from zero to 60 in the wake of this crisis, for a while she appeared to be stuck there. Last week in episode three, Amabella had a panic attack, and instead of calming down enough to be there for her daughter, Renata lashes out at her teacher, the school principal, even the ER doctor who’s treating her in the hospital, mimicking him in a way that even Amabella’s second-grade friends are too old for. (Another one of the show’s mysteries is why Amabella is not an absolute monster, given that she’s the primary target of her mother’s laser-focused attention and is awash in over-the-top Frozen and disco parties. Madeline’s Chloe has picked up some of her mom’s diva tendencies, but Amabella is unscathed so far.) Renata loves Amabella more than anything in the world; can’t she see that bickering with her husband at her daughter’s hospital bedside would only contribute to her anxiety? Wouldn’t someone with the drive and control to reach the top of her vaguely tech-related field contain the capability to calm down in such a high-charged moment for her daughter’s sake? If she’s as likely to lash out at a near-stranger as she is at her own criminal husband, it diminishes the effectiveness of her potentially breathtaking rants.
It’s why one of Dern’s finest scenes so far this season is the one at the bankruptcy hearing in last night’s episode: If Renata goes off in her usual fashion, she and Gordon will be in an even worse position. It’s like quicksand: The more she flails, the more she’ll sink. So her gritted-teeth silence speaks volumes. With Renata, more is always more—consequently, her quiet moments are the most surprising, and ultimately revealing. Even though it’s about the worst move she can make right now, she latches on to Amabella’s party immediately after the hearing as a flimsy source of joy. The looming bankruptcy also now seems to have had the consequence of humbling her, as this week Renata was remarkably calmer, charming as the disco party host, and even offering some glimpses of rare self-deprecation (“Tell me to stop talking, please. Like all the time.”)
Yes, it’s enjoyable to watch Dern’s Renata predict that she’ll buy a polar bear for every kid in the school once she’s back on top, and squish the principal like the bug he is. But those fantastical one-liners are in danger of painting Renata as a caricature rather than a real person. The more we find out about Renata, the more valuable the character becomes: Her devastation last week when Gordon suggested that Amabella can sense her disconnect since the tragic Trivia Night, or this week when she calmly tells him how all of her dreams were for her daughter, and he’s blown them all to bits. Those moments go a long way toward building an actual three-dimensional persona, even if they don’t make for pithy Twitter posts on Monday morning.
With little to work with, the Big Little Lies creators have done an admirable job of drafting a second season where, frankly, none was really necessary. And Dern’s over-the-top Renata has filled that plot vacuum, drawing a lot of the show’s attention as a result. But the character is much more effective when she’s expanded into actual reasonings and conversations past one-liners and memes. We know that Laura Dern—and Renata—are more than up for the challenge.