The truth about the second season of Big Little Lies is that it wasn’t entirely necessary—season one of David E. Kelley’s adaptation, based on Liane Moriarty’s steamy thriller, was an addictive blend of soapiness and pathos, and featured one of the best ensembles in recent history. Director Jean-Marc Vallée, who helmed the first seven episodes, made the lives of these Monterey families look both enviable and perilous, all pristine surfaces, infinity pools, and craggy cliffs. The finale answered just about every big question posed throughout the season while also offering some measure of peace for the five women we’d watched struggle and strive for seven episodes.
What’s equally true is that the new season is still very engrossing, if not quite as cohesive as the first. The chemistry of the main cast—Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern and Zoë Kravitz (the latter two of whom get expanded roles this go-round)—remains as electric as on that fateful first day of school (fine, Perry, it was actually orientation day). The new season also, and this cannot be stressed enough, features Meryl Streep stalking prey at the dinner table and oceanside café while dressed as a combination of Columbo and Jessica Fletcher.
As always, Streep brings greater weight to the proceedings, eliciting sympathy and apprehension in equal measure as Mary Louise, the grieving mother of Perry (Alexander Skarsgård, who haunts the season in flashbacks), Celeste’s (Kidman) abusive husband who tried to take on all of the Monterey Five, as they’re known in the town following Perry’s mysterious death. We saw how that worked out for Perry, but the first three episodes of season two suggest that Mary Louise could be a much more formidable foe for Celeste, Madeline (Witherspoon), Jane (Woodley), Bonnie (Kravitz), and even the imperious Renata (Dern). With her prosthetic teeth and granny-sweater wardrobe, Mary Louise comes across as a genteel Mags Bennett, someone who prides themselves on family and isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty because they know just what will get that stain out.
Mary Louise may be the biggest wild card in season two, as she refuses to accept the Monterey Five’s version of what happened to Perry—that he fell down those stairs by accident instead of being shoved by Bonnie, who harbors her own traumatic past. Just as up in the air is the bond between the women, who, despite that beach romp at the end of the season-one finale, are gradually being nudged apart by new developments. Celeste and Bonnie remain more shaken by Perry’s death than anyone else; the former seems to be unraveling while the latter, who once preached openness, closes herself off from virtually everyone.
Their responses are disparate but equally valid, which the new season uses to explore post-traumatic stress, toxic relationships, and intergenerational trauma. For all its real-estate porn and giddiness, Big Little Lies continues to plumb the depths of its characters. But the series loses some of its vitality in splitting up the core group so often; as thrilling as it is to watch Mary Louise pick apart her quarry one by one, the most captivating scenes are ensemble pieces, whether it’s Madeline setting aside her hypercompetent persona (which is her own coping mechanism) to tell her best friend Celeste that she feels she failed her by not picking up on the abuse, or Jane and Bonnie, the two youngest of the group, helping each other see that they deserve to move on with their lives.
But though its focus is more scattered this time around, Big Little Lies recaptures much of the magic of the first season, especially in the performances. Kidman remains a gorgeous font of sadness and anger as Celeste, while Witherspoon’s whirling dervish of a character continues to confront (or soothe) everyone that comes into her path. Along with Woodley’s Jane, who makes good on her promise of opening up, they were the leads of season one. The new episodes benefit from bigger spotlights for Dern and Kravitz, whose characters couldn’t be more different, which is exactly why their responses to a crumbling home life are so compelling to watch.
Kelley is once again writing every episode, it seems, so the barbs are just as acidic, often more so when they’re delivered by Streep, who deftly adjusts Mary Louise’s sparring strategy with each new combatant. There are also several clunkers in the dialogue, including some uncharacteristic vitriol for her peers from Abigail (Kathryn Newton). But the transition between directors is seamless: Arnold is just as adept as Vallée in presenting immaculate surfaces only to scratch at them to find the grit underneath. The American Honey director makes the palatial homes of these affluent Californians feel claustrophobic, like self-made prisons.
The biggest change Big Little Lies makes is to trade the unfolding mystery of season one for a more contained game of cat and mouse, a decision that the new season needs to justify along with its own existence. The first three episodes mostly make the case for both, but even if they didn’t, are you really going to miss out on a chance to watch Meryl Streep try to take down this murderers’ row of talent?
Reviews by Gwen Ihnat will run weekly.