Streep comes looking for answers in the aftermath of her son’s death and finds the “Monterey Five” at a crossroads over how to move on.
"Big Little Lies" was a mini-series based on a self-contained book. Furthermore, it was a murder-mystery the revealed all by the end of its run. So what are we doing here?
What we’re doing is watching the most powerful cast of women ever assembled on television get even stronger with the addition of the incomparable Meryl Streep.
Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz and Shailene Woodley brought their characters to living, breathing life and that’s why we can continue their story. Because we believe in them as real, flawed, compelling and utterly watchable personalities. They are beautifully flawed and flawlessly portrayed.
On top of that, the de facto first season was such a singular vision from start to finish — with each episode penned by David E. Kelley and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee — that the finished product stands as a true work of art. There’s a reason the first season dominated the mini-series category.
And while it will have stiffer competition in the series category, we have a feeling these women will still be seen and heard come awards season, and that’s after just a single episode.
And Now for Something Completely Different
The first season brilliantly used the framing sequence of the police investigation into the events of Trivia Night to slowly reveal the murder mystery at the heart of the story throughout the first season. Now that the mystery is solved, "Big Little Lies" had to morph into something new, but no less compelling.
It turns out that finding out what happens after the murder is just as compelling as whodunnit and how it happened. To make matters even more interesting, the dead is the bad guy and the so-called good guys are the ones who committed the crime. And even worse, they proceeded to try and lie to cover it up when the truth would have probably served much better.
But that’s what this show is about. People who find themselves succumbing to their baser impulses despite their best efforts to be above that. So now, the murder mystery may be over, but the "can-they-get-away-with-it" mystery begins.
On top of that, the show explores the grieving process as it hits different characters in different capacities, and even brings in a new angle on that grief in the form of the towering presence of Meryl Streep.
Mary Louise’s Rage
It’s so cliche to say, but Meryl Streep really is a tour de force every time she hits the screen. So far, she has shared some seriously meaty scenes with both Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon. Kidman’s Celeste has been very quiet and withdrawn, so we haven’t had a good back-and-forth yet but basically every scene between Streep’s Mary Louise and Witherspoon’s Madeline has been screen gold.
Mary Louise is a woman of composure and etiquette, and yet she is also a woman consumed with the loss of her son, Perry. And she’s clearly stalled out at the anger stage of processing that grief, but she presents it in incredibly direct, yet passive-aggressive, attacks at both Madeline and Celeste.
This woman is a bulldog in search of answers, refusing to believe the "company line" that her son fell to his death. And yet, she seems to get the sense that she’s not going to crack Madeline. Celeste, on the other hand, is another story.
It’s a testament to the cast of this show that they are standing toe to toe with Streep in scene after scene and they are not giving the performances to her. Kidman is masterful in conveying the mix of grief, fear, guilt and relief that Celeste is going through in the aftermath of her husband’s death.
On top of that, she’s got the pressure of Mary Louise, coming at her with a tenacious kind of love and support that is picking at every strand and kernel she can to try and suss a different truth about her beloved son. It’s a powerful angle to add to the show.
Had we just had the Montery Five to deal with, there would be no one really sympathetic to Perry’s side in this season, which almost makes the aftermath of his death far too simplified emotionally. Mary Louise loves her son, thinking him a wonderful man in every sense of the world, and that puts her at direct odds with Celeste’s complex image of the man she loved and who beat her and terrorized her for year … and ultimately cheated on her and raped one of her friends.
And yet, as broken and fragile and conflicted as Celeste appears to be, it’s nothing compared to where we pick up Bonnie’s story.
It’s perhaps understandable that Bonnie would be struggling with everything that happened, considering it was her hands that actually pushed Perry to his death. Her actions were perfectly justifiable, but thanks to Madeline’s mouth, she finds herself buried under this lie that is apparently shaking her to her core.
Zoe Kravitz really shows up in this first episode in a way she’s not had the opportunity to, becoming a fully-rounded member of this cast and someone deserving of finally getting some legitimate screen time. She is no longer just Madeline’s ex’s new wife, she is Bonnie. She is her own character and has her own agency.
She also has a lot of resentment toward Madeline and a lot of guilt over the path they ultimately chose to take. We’ve yet to see what will happen when she resolves herself to some course of action, but we got a glimpse of one that she’s considering when she made her way to the police station to consider turning herself in, or at least telling the truth of the situation.
Season 1 was mostly about three women who have since become five. Shailene Woodley’s Jane was our entry into Monterey as the new girl with a secret of her own. She was raped and her son is the product of that rape. Her story would unfold along with the murder mystery, culminating in the big reveal that it was Perry who raped her and fathered Ziggy (Iain Armitage).
Madeline is just the busybody of town, but she also happened to be best friends with Celeste, and the recipient of Jane’s kindness on the first day of school last year. Now, that tight threesome that navigated a hellish first season has been expanded by the addition of two more women.
What’s compelling about that is that while they’re associated in the public and through their shared secret, they don’t have the same bond with Bonnie or Laura Dern’s Renata. Madeline has always been awful to Bonnie, so their relationship is strained to say the least.
And Renata was always one of the "mean moms," exemplified by her targeting of Jane’s son as the bully of her daughter. There is not a strong bond of friendship between the core three and these additional women, so there is not that same loyalty. And fear can only keep them together so long.
Life Goes On
Perhaps most importantly, and why this story needs to be told on television rather than in a movie theater, life goes on for everyone evena s Perry’s murder remains unsolved and the lie begins to boil beneath the surface of the Moneterey Five.
We picked up this season as we did the last one, with the first day of school. Renata is helicopter parenting — more like torpedo parenting — already, Madeline is over-worrying and lashing out at her oldest daugther while Celeste struggles with the reveal that one of her twins was the bully and how much of their father is in them.
The first season worked because these characters felt lived in and they felt real. Their stories didn’t all serve the plot, the plot seemed to invade their already busy lives. That’s something we can relate to. And so it’s important we see those lives continuing underneath this new arcing plot.
Right now, the entire town of Monterey is on a low boil, just barely simmering. The principal publicly and directly attacking Madeline at and after the assembly is indicative of just how close everything is to boiling over. Mary Louise is surely going to turn up the heat as she continues to pull every loose strand she can find.
This season is going to be about what happens when this pot boils over. Who’s going to get hurt, and what will be left of the community when the truth is exposed — or measures are taken to ensure it isn’t.
David E. Kelley continues to pen every episode, keeping a perfect consistency in the voices of the character and the tone of this town. Andrea Arnold picks up the directorial reins and manages to strike the perfect tone for this new chapter, while paying homage to the first season. That she directs every episode as Vallee did Season 1 is a very good sign that this team has a clear vision for this second chapter.
We don’t know yet whether there is a plan beyond this second season or if it will be as closed-ended as the first. They’ve already accomplished more than some other shows that moved beyond their source material with a season premiere every bit as powerfully acted and beautifully shot as the first.
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