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The strength of Big Little Lies season 2 lies in performances over plot

Photo: Jennifer Clasen (HBO)
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I was definitely among the camp of people against the idea of a second season of Big Little Lies. The first season was so wonderfully crafted around the murder mystery at its center, once that was all revealed, and resolved, and concluded with the five women watching their children on the beach, I thought it was a perfect ending to an exemplary production.

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But then the show won eight Emmys and four Golden Globes, and speculation about the possibility of a Big Little Lies second season began to take hold. Without the mystery at its core, BLL season two seems to be focusing on performance over plot (based on a novella by BLL author Liane Moriarty), with the Monterey 5 all dealing with the fallout from that fateful night. Obviously Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), who gave Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) that fatal push, is going to be the most affected, followed by celeste, who now inhabits an entirely different world than she did before. Bonnie’s anguish is only compounded by the fact that maybe the women made the wrong decision that night, as she complains to Madeline (Reese Witherspoon); if they (rightly) claimed self-defense, and then this whole issue wouldn’t even exist. Granted, it must have been difficult to think clearly that highly charged, traumatic night. But the sharing of the secret draws the women in even closer than they were before, especially with Renata (Laura Dern), who Madeline had such a feud with last season.

With five leads now instead of three, the series is frankly spread a little thin. We have Madeline’s problematic daughter refusing to go to college, Jane (Shailene Woodley) working at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Celeste’s sons still aggressive like their father was, and Renata’s husband getting drunk in the basement, apparently unable to deal with his wife’s rising success. It’s a lot. It may be too much, as this first episode had a lot of place-setting to deal with. For the most part, it succeeds admirably, and Andrea Arnold’s direction seamlessly picks up where Jean-Marc Vallée left off: the jarring flashbacks, the dreamlike beach scenes. Best of all, though, for all of my skepticism, is the chance to see these characters, and performers together again. They’re all at the top of their game, so that seeing Renata awkwardly tear into her daughter’s new teacher is still a straight-up delight.

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That said, some characters are having a more difficult shift into the second season than others. Nicole Kidman’s wordless portrayals of Celeste’s complicated grief process are breathtaking (not for nothing did she win all those awards last year). But I don’t remember Madeline being straight-up awful, as she is a few times in this episode: screaming (and punching) at her ex-husband over her daughter’s refusal to go to college (and offering a half-assed apology), screaming at that same daughter that she doesn’t care about homeless people. Maybe it’s the added stress of the secret that’s bringing out Madeline’s worst tendencies, like driving aggressively.

Adam Scott’s Ed was also a slippery character to get a handle on last season: Was he actually ogling his step-daughter? Or Bonnie after that sweaty yoga class? So that awkward run-in in the grocery store was just straight-up odd, doing little to help iron that character out; since Madeline is fantasizing about the man she had the affair with, are she and Ed headed for an extramarital-fueled split?

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If you’re wondering what Meryl Streep could possibly bring to this potentially crowded table, let me assure you that her role as Mary Louise reminds us all why Meryl Streep is Meryl Streep. Mary Louise is perfectly politely menacing, so enamored of her dead son that she definitely has the capability to blow this secret wide open. The barbs she swaps with Madeline are downright delicious: She is also terrible at apologies (“I don’t mean it in a negative way… maybe I do”), offering gasp-worthy insults framed in this benevolent, cardigan-wearing grandma background. And yet, Mary Louise clearly contains mountains of unresolved rage, as indicated by her primary, guttural scream of grief; the best thing this episode does is set her up immediately as someone all of the five should be very, very scared of. I think the most fascinating thing about Mary Louise is if she knew the truth about Perry, would she still be as loyal? How far can a mother’s love be pushed to the limit?

The worst things in this episode? There are some inconsistencies from last season, which pointedly started on orientation day. Perry got mad at Celeste that the first day of school was just a dropoff event, so where did this big annual assembly come from? Madeline seems to have fallen into a real-estate career rather quickly, although you can get a license in a matter of months. And for all the talk of the kids, we barely saw them, except for Abigail—Chloe and Iggy got only a few moments onscreen, none for Skye and little Amabella. With so many adult characters, it will likely be difficult to fit everyone in. Especially if these episodes continue to hover around the 40-minute mark instead of the hour mark.

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Worst of all, some of the dialogue is downright hurtful. A savvy young woman like Abigail would never diminish the trans population to people that just “mull over a sex change” in college. And Madeline’s “shove it” comment to Warren was too awkwardly acrobatic to make much of an impact.

Despite its flaws, this premiere still holds a lot of promise for the second season. While it seems unlikely that a young child would ask Jane “Why is it the prettier something is, the more dangerous?” at the aquarium, the show took that seemingly obvious nod a different way. Bonnie killed Perry, but it was handsome Perry, who we now clearly see in Jane’s flashbacks, who was the deadly one. Jane’s octopus picture shows that, like Celeste, she’s not completely over his damage either, probably impacted by the fact that he was married to her now-friend.

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The beauty of Big Little Lies lies in the secrets and danger inherent in the most picturesque setting imaginable: the idyllic beach town of Monterey, and the gorgeous moms who inhabit it. Season two seems to be focusing on this one main (giant) secret so far, but knowing what we know about these women, it seems inevitable that further ones will emerge as well.

Stray observations

  • Best mom outfit: There could never be anything more fabulous than Renata in that shiny magenta dress standing akimbo, lording it over her photo shoot and reveling in her well-deserved success.
  • Nice to know that even rich people give the kids protein bar breakfast when they’re running late (mine are usually Trader Joe’s granola bars).
  • I bet it absolutely smelled like weed over there.
  • Celeste’s walk-in closet is bigger than my kitchen.
  • Seems weird that Madeline’s ex-husband Nathan would call her “honey” in that meeting with the academic advisor?
  • Welcome to Big Little Lies season two! Abut two years ago, I wrote at the end of season one, “As much as I loved it, I’m kind of glad it’s its own limited package, so we can just enjoy it for the seven-episode perfection that it was.” Don’t know if we’re headed for seven more episodes of perfection exactly, but it’s definitely bound to be engrossing, so I’m excited. And don’t dare take your eyes off of Mary Louise for a second (like you even could).
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About the author

Gwen Ihnat

Gwen Ihnat is the Editorial Coordinator for The A.V. Club.