Sam Brooks reviews the second season of Big Little Lies, which generated as much social media conversation as its first season did critical acclaim, for better and worse.
Light spoilers for the second season of Big Little Lies.
Big Little Lies felt like the TV phenomenon of 2017. It united three of the most acclaimed actresses of our time – Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern – with the one-time King of TV David E. Kelley (Boston Legal, Ally McBeal) for an adaptation of a novel that populates every Airbnb bookshelf. Critical hype, rave reviews and countless awards followed. It looked like the legacy of Big Little Lies would go the way of Angels in America – the rare limited series that escaped the movie-of-the-week curse (remember Temple Grandin?).
And then it got renewed for a second season. Even though the first season had a self-contained arc. Even though the acclaimed director of the first season, Jean-Marc Vallee, was busy shooting Sharp Objects. Even though nobody asked for it.
Despite initial trepidation, it seemed promising. The show added Meryl Streep as Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) mother-in-law, transparently declaring a villain of the season – for has there ever been a kindly or supportive mother-in-law in prestige fiction? Visionary arthouse director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) was brought on as Vallee’s replacement, and everybody involved promised that she would bring her own touch to the series. For any other show, these would be enough to make it appointment viewing, even if the triumphant, highly distressing first season didn’t indicate that it might be, you know, actually necessary.
When I call the season messy, understand that I’m grading on a curve. This isn’t Riverdale on a Tuesday messy, and this isn’t second season of True Detective messy. However, while the first season of the show walked a tightrope between hyper-realistic and melodramatic, the second season spun out into more expressionistic film-making, and more nakedly soapy twists and turns. Plot and performances alike seemed bigger and took more risks, while also seeming to move along at a glacial pace. About halfway through the season, reports of the show being taken out of Arnold’s hands by Marc-Vallee emerged, and people started to take note of the near-dozen editors credited on each episode. I’d argue that the problems with this season are less about the style of the show than Kelley’s writing, but that’s an uphill battle and largely irrelevant. This is the season we got.
What worked last season still worked in this one – namely, the performances. Laura Dern does authentic caps-lock acting better than anybody, and manages to pull the monstrous ego of Renata into a soulful place, even when she’s saying things as ridiculous as “I will not not be rich”. Reese Witherspoon once more taps into her true strengths; she’s always best deployed making unlikable characters more humane, rather than vice-versa, and Madeline is arguably her best performance yet. Both Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz dug deeper into their characters; Jane finding an unexpected home after trauma, Bonnie holding the guilt of all five women at the same time.
But the season belonged to Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep, two titans of the screen. At times, the entire season seemed engineered to put them in scenes together, and the courtroom scenes in the last two episodes might as well have been pay-per-view boxing matches. Fans of actors, should those people exist, have DeNiro and Pacino in Heat. Fans of actresses now have Kidman and Streep in the final episode of season two, doing emotional piledrivers for a solid ten minutes of screen time.
The season gave us Kidman at her most raw and open; the backbone of the entire season was Celeste finding her way back to her own humanity after her husband’s death, and finally accepting the damage done to her. She did what the writing, frankly, didn’t do – where Kelley constantly re-victimised Celeste, Kidman showed the character’s refusal to become a victim, to play into the victim’s narrative. The writing gave us a broken woman; Kidman took that and gave us a woman more than capable of putting herself back together.
Meanwhile, Streep leaned into Mary-Louise’s role as the villain. Half the pleasure of this season came not just from seeing what Mary-Louise would do in a scene, but what Streep would do with Mary-Louise. That scream at the dinner table in the first episode – as primal, uncomfortable and frankly ridiculous an expression of grief as you could get on a screen – locked her into that meta-narrative. Mary-Louise became a gif machine, every gesture and every clucking of the (obviously fake) teeth to be cooed over by a waiting audience. It’s still a brilliant performance, a masterclass in externalising a person’s willful denial and ignorance for their own preservation, but it suffers from being caught up in the way we consume a show like Big Little Lies now.
It can be really hard to see the conversation for the takes, to bastardise an idiom. We consume the reactions to the show – the cacophony of gifs, takes, and tweets – more than we consume the actual show. Everything is amplified and there’s little room for nuance, especially when a critically hyped show is released week-by-week rather than dumped on us all at once. Suddenly, what is merely a slight step down in quality becomes perceived a total flop. No piece of art, no matter how flawless, can escape from that unscathed.
Once we get out of that cacophony, we’ll actually be able to see this season of Big Little Lies for what it is. A lesser piece of work, sure, but still a television show that managed to marry a genuinely visionary style, no matter how embattled in the editing room, with an ensemble of actresses doing some of the finest work of their career. Most importantly, it allowed them to do that work with each other. There are still scant few shows that put actresses of this calibre, and this stature, together in the same frame. The show isn’t necessarily saying anything new about trauma or guilt – those two unhappily and oft-married emotions – but the fact we got women saying it, and saying it together, is reason enough for Big Little Lies and yes, even its second season, to exist.
You can watch both seasons of Big Little Lies on NEON and SoHo.