Last Sunday, Big Little Lies concluded its second, and potentially final season. It was a season that should not have happened – they had completed the book in the first miniseries, the A-list actresses all had new projects lined up, and there wasn’t really anywhere for the story to go. However, not willing to pass up a chance at free money, HBO leaped at a chance for a second season, lining up its all star cast, including Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, and Laura Dern, for one more go-round, and added an extra kicker to the pot: this season, the heroines would be plagued by a mysterious Meryl Streep, creating an all-star cast of Hollywood’s favorite actresses. And while this is a controversial statement, given the weaker last two episodes, Big Little Lies Season 2 is even better than Season 1.
The upper echelons of television criticism would have you believe that Lies is much deeper than the camp, and that the best scenes involve the more dramatic moments, like Kidman’s abuse, or Witherspoon’s affairs. But keen eyes would realize that these dramatic moments often fell flat – Kidman’s arc was the weakest of the show, and that most of these moments served as fast forward fodder for the juicy moments when Laura Dern would scream “I said THANK YOOOOOOOOUUUUUUUUU!!!!!” for a full ten seconds. No, the reason we watch Big Little Lies is because it is pure camp. It is watching a generation of top actresses turning it up to 11, pairing off against each other, and letting the sparks fly. Only toxic masculinity plays an important theme in the camp – it gives the women a reason not only to battle, but to come together to murder (ok, manslaughter) their shared oppressor. The best way I can describe this show is this: imagine if, in the 80s, there was a film in which Cher, Madonna, and Liza Minnelli killed a man, and then Bette Davis showed up to avenge his murder. It is that level of gay iconography. This is the type of show you watch with a group of women and gay men, casually sipping wine and cheering for the cattiness and passive aggression – it is a dramatic version of Mamma Mia!
But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is the show about? Well, that’s the beauty of it: it is insane in all the right ways. The initial premise is that three moms in a small, über-rich California town obsessed with faux-liberalism bond on the first day their children enter first grade. Madeline, portrayed by Reese Witherspoon, is a grown-up Tracy Flick, obsessed with gossip and overly controlling, yet inherently lovable. Celeste, portrayed by an award-winning Nicole Kidman, is a town legend – a former high-powered lawyer, she gave it all up to marry Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård) and become a town power couple with the perfect family. And then there’s Jane, played by Shailene Woodley, a single mom who has just moved to town with her young son, and is adopted into Madeline and Celeste’s social circle. However, things go awry that very first day, when Jane’s son, Ziggy, is accused of assaulting a classmate, the daughter of the most powerful woman in town, Renata Klein (perhaps the greatest performance of Laura Dern’s career). Over the course of the seven-episode series, we witness a hilarious back-and-forth as Renata tries to f*ck over Jane, and Madeline retaliates by f*cking over Renata. And while this battle is going on, the women investigate their personal lives and battle their own demons. Madeline is insecure after her divorce from first husband Nathan, who has remarried a much younger woman, Bonnie (Kravitz), and has begun an affair to deal with the stress. In the series’ most famous arc, Celeste’s perfect life is not all it’s cracked up to be – Perry is abusive, and Celeste finds herself trapped between the powerful love and lust she feels for a man the town sees as perfect, while she herself is brutally beaten to the point of hospitalization constantly. And Jane slowly finds herself becoming paranoid over her son Ziggy – Jane was brutally raped several years ago by the only man she’d ever been with, and she is afraid that Ziggy is, in fact, an abuser of a classmate. In a stunning twist, Celeste finds out that it was actually her son who attacked Renata’s daughter, having learned by watching his own dad, and Celeste realizes she needs to leave him once and for all. The four women meet at a school event to apologize and support each other, when Perry shows up to confront his soon-to-be ex-wife. Jane recognizes Perry as the man who raped her and, realizing the jig is up, Perry attacks the women. Bonnie comes over to check on the conflict, pushes Perry down a staircase in a state of panic, and kills him. In the show’s final moments, we learn that the “Big Little Lie” the women are hiding is, in fact, the covering-up of Perry’s death, claiming he fell by accident.
Now, where can a show like this go from there? It shouldn’t; the Liane Moriarty novel this show is based on ends at this point. However, that’s not how TV works, and so David E. Kelley, Jean-Marc Vallée, and Season 2 helmer Andrea Arnold (controversially fired and recut during production without honest crediting) teamed up for a new story and new continuation. This time around, while the women struggle with their guilt and the repercussions of their actions (Madeline’s second husband Ed, played by Adam Scott, leaves her over the affair, Renata has the SEC called on her husband over her connection to the case, and Bonnie begins mentally breaking down over the weight of it all), they face a new threat to their freedom and families: Mary Louise, Perry’s mother and Celeste’s mother-in-law, a haggard older woman who does not believe the police account of her son’s death, and will stop at nothing to solve her son’s murder. Portrayed by Meryl Streep, Mary Louise lurks around Monterey making passive-aggressive comments to trip the women up, Columbo-style. Now, this plot was immediately written off by critics and fans of the first season. “Ugh, this is just a soap opera now,” they’ve whined. To which I say, “Yeah. No sh*t, Sherlock.” Did these so-called fans just not watch the first season? Did they not notice the similarities in acting styles, plotlines, and editing to Days of Our Lives or As The World Turns? This show has wholeheartedly embraced its soapiness, and that’s precisely the reason it works. Season 2 is just honest enough to admit it – and embracing your destiny is always a stronger storytelling technique than hiding your intentions and themes.
Perhaps the thing that helps Season 2 ring truest, and most excitingly, is the central motivation of the season. Season 1 featured a lie told by the women out of fear they wouldn’t be believed. Season 2 is about realizing that the fear was justified. Part of Streep’s indelible performance is the refusal to believe that her son was guilty of such crimes. When Celeste confesses that Perry was both a rapist and an abuser, Mary Louise states, in no uncertain terms, and with no sense of malice, “I don’t believe you.” This instantly is a more interesting conflict than Season 1’s overwrought, melodramatic abuse angle. Season 1 is Alexander Skarsgård and Nicole Kidman trapped in an abusive relationship written similarly to an 80s PSA. Season 2 deals with honesty and repercussions in a way that television often doesn’t – and it frames it in a battle of two of the greatest actresses of our time. And that’s what makes this show work best: the performances. By cutting out the excess emotional acting, and focusing on women recovering, while still overacting as a show for the public, we get all of the fun camp, the right balance of emotional weight, and none of the unbalanced melodrama that comes with the abuse and cheating storylines. It’s just the women, each trying to outact the other, and forcing each other into the best performances of their career. Nicole Kidman is finally given something to do other than scream, cry, and feign happiness. Here, she has an arc worthy of her talents, balancing her passion for her boys and the freedom that comes with the death of her abuser with the love she inexplicably felt for the man who beat her and whom she believes deeply loved her. Witherspoon, meanwhile, finds herself trapped like an animal in a cage. While outwardly cocky, tough, and energetic – especially when verbally sparring with Mary Louise (although sadly not throwing an ice cream cone), Madeline also finds herself trying to strengthen her own home life, having driven away the only man who gave her stability and happiness. Woodley grows from the original cast’s weakest link through her personal arc involving trying to have an intimate relationship with someone in spite of the violent memories of her rape that consistently hold her back. And while Kravitz is still wildly underused in the role of Bonnie, she brings empathy and emotion to her character’s downward spiral following her killing of another human being. And of course, there’s always Laura Dern, the show’s secret weapon. Laura Dern’s Renata is barely a character: she is a ball of emotion who exists only to shout meme-worthy and GIF-able catchphrases (highlights include “I will not NOT be rich!” and “Will somebody just give a woman a moment!” while flipping two birds driving down the highway). And yet Dern gives so much to the role, and plays her so lovingly, that it is a work of art whenever she is onscreen. I don’t watch Big Little Lies for the melodrama. I watch it to see what insane sh*t Renata Klein does next.
However, I want to give Meryl Streep her own paragraph, because I do not exaggerate when I say this is Streep’s best work in 13 years. I’m not saying that she was bad in the interim – I loved her in Julie and Julia, Into the Woods, The Post, and more. But answer me this: when was the last time you saw Meryl Streep wholeheartedly throw herself into a role, the way she did in Sophie’s Choice, or A Cry In The Dark, or The Devil Wears Prada? It’s been a long time. Whenever Streep is onscreen, watch carefully at the way she makes choices. You can see the way Mary Louise truly believes she is the hero of this tale, using her passive aggression and condescension as a weapon towards what she believes is justice. She is a flawed woman, but in her mind a good woman – someone you can see in your everyday life. I already mentioned the “I don’t believe you” scene, but it goes beyond that. There’s her unexplained hatred of Witherspoon’s Madeline, based solely on height. There’s her loitering around Ziggy at the playground in an effort to see her grandson. And of course, there’s the now-famous “scream,” which is both the perfect balance of camp (it’s incredibly over-the-top) and honesty (you can feel the rage and grief she feels over the loss of not one, but two sons in her life). It’s been a long time since we got a Streep performance on this level, and it might be a long time before we see it again.
And that is why I unabashedly love Big Little Lies Season 2. Now, did it nail everything perfectly in the home stretch? Not even close. The final episodes focused on an overwrought courtroom battle, and Zoë Kravitz’s Bonnie was shamefully pushed off to the side in some sort of weird guilt-inspired magical realism plotline. However, that doesn’t matter. This season remembered that no matter how many serious subjects they tackled, no matter how great the performances are, and so on, this show is ultimately a campy soap opera. We don’t watch to have catharsis, we watch to see Laura Dern bash her husband’s train set with a baseball bat. And even those courtroom scenes allow us to witness Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep verbally spar – one of the television highlights of the year. Season 1 may have been a complete vision, but it is Season 2 that should be remembered, for all of eternity.