There has perhaps never been a more spectacular piece of prestige camp than HBO’s 2017 breakout sensation Big Little Lies, which nailed a pinpoint middle ground between delicious soapy drama and inspired character drama. Boasting an addictive pulpy mystery pulled from Liane Moriarty‘s novel, beachside real estate porn that would make Nancy Meyers blush, and the best ensemble of leading ladies on TV — led by Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz — Big Little Lies countered addictive murder mystery and the savage theatrics of the upper class with searing insight into abuse, trauma, and the scars of violence.
Returning for Season 2, Big Little Lies holds on to all those elements but the mystery. In the first series, director Jean-Marc Valée and writer David E. Kelley spun their web of drama around the mystery of who died at the Trivia Night and how it the “Monterey Five” together. With those questions answered — it was Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), Celeste’s (Kidman) abusive husband and Jane’s (Woodley) rapist, killed in an altercation with the women who rallied to protect Celeste during one of his violent outbursts — Kelley and Season 2 director Andrea Arnold (American Honey) turn their attention to the aftermath of violence and the tension of shared secrets. It’s a killer creative choice that settles into spectacular psychological drama, making for a moodier, more somber season that never loses sight of the snappy style, barbed dialogue, and firecracker performances that made the first season so special. Then they throw Meryl Streep in the mix.
Streep essentially takes over Perry’s role as the antagonist this season, playing his mother, Mary Louise Wright, a woman bitterly grieving the loss of her son who also happens to be utterly unconvinced by the claims his death was an accident. Sporting a vaguely sinister pair of false teeth and a whispery, slyly insolent voice, Streep is sublime as Mary Louise. Lurking around the Monterey Five, looking for cracks in their stories and prodding at their weaknesses, she peppers her words with such malice that her dialogue-heavy tête-à-têtes with Celeste, Jane, and Madeline (Witherspoon) feel like a form of violence all their own, doled out with the same stealth hand that allowed Perry to keep his monstrous side hidden for so long.
But that’s not to say she’s unsympathetic. She may be subject to immediate audience suspicion as the woman who raised such an abusive, manipulative man, but Mary Louise is still a woman mourning her child, and her grief is painfully raw. In one scene, she lets out a shocking, guttural howl of agony at the dinner table and the impact lands in your bones. But ultimately, Mary Louise is an agent of brutal truth, poking holes in all those little lies hiding in the Real Housewives drama and murder coverups alike. “You’re very short,” she tells Madeline with a breathy unsteadiness that belies the punch in her words. “I don’t mean that in a negative way. Maybe I do. I find little people to be untrustworthy.” That’s only the first of her many gasp-worthy moments, and Streep savors her character’s savage touch.
Mary Louise has a knack for finding the cracks in their veneers and applying pressure, but it doesn’t help that the ladies are already near their breaking point. Season 2 seeps in the aftermath of trauma and each character copes with the shock of Perry’s death differently, a dazzling spectrum of grief and guilt.
Having identified and confronted her rapist moments before watching him die, Jane seems to be taking things the best, embracing the challenges of telling her son about his father and the circumstances of his conception with healthy candor and understandable heartbreak. She dips a toe in the dating pool, inching back towards her capacity for romantic intimacy, and that journey is handled with lovely sensitivity. On the flip side, ever the pistol, Madeline seems all but unaffected by the Trivia Night tragedy, flourishing at her new passion as a real estate agent, until the fallout from her indiscretions and a few triggered insecurities bring the facade crumbling down.
Renata (Dern) too seems relatively unphased, still the gloriously, shamelessly theatrical “Medusa of Monterey,” as one teacher calls her. Until her dream life comes crashing down around her, firing up old economic anxieties she thought she was long past. “I will not not be rich!” she screams in spectacular indignation, and Dern continues to revel in her character’s excesses, turning it up to ten at all times, but never more so than when her precious Amabella is concerned. By contrast, Bonnie (Kravitz) is utterly undone as the one who actually pushed Perry to his death. Haunted by the lie as much as her actions, Bonnie retreats into relentless hikes and runs, isolating herself from her husband, daughter, and friends. The show tangles with her PTSD and Bonnie finally gets more to do, especially when her mother (Crystal Fox) shows up in the second episode. “I haven’t seen one other black person since I’ve been out here,” she tells her daughter. “Is that why you’re here? Because we all know how fond you are of your walls.” In Season 2, Bonnie’s walls are thicker than ever, but they’re so transparent they only highlight her fractured psyche.
Kidman, once again, steals the show as a flawlessly composed woman with a hornet’s nest of internal suffering raging below the surface. Celeste’s journey from a battered housewife hooked on her marriage’s tempestuous, erotic dance between sex and violence to her hard-won empowerment as a woman who realized her husband would eventually kill her if she didn’t leave lit up the first series. Season 2 sees her reunite with her therapist (Robin Weigert) while she contends with the unexpected reality that life without her husband and abuser just isn’t as exciting. She misses him, and she hates herself for it, terrified that her sons will inherit their father’s worst traits, all the while utterly lost without him. Kidman thrives in the dissonance, and her charged, fraught exchanges with Mary Louise are the highlight of the decadent drama.
When HBO gave their intended mini-series a surprise Season 2 renewal, there was much hand-wringing about whether the world needed more of the story and can’t anyone ever just let a good thing be, etc. etc. In the three episodes provided to the press, Big Little Lies’ second season proves its worth. By bringing back Moriarty and Kelley, HBO produced a follow-up that honors the essential themes that resonated with audiences, enriches the characters, and digs even deeper into the unruly wilds of their psychology. As the new director, Arnold seamlessly carries on the aesthetic and tone of the first season, bringing all the sumptuousness, tenderness, and patience for quiet moments that make her films such emotional powerhouses.
Big Little Lies thrives in its unexpected sequel because it decides that the first season’s empowered ending is too clean. Cycles of violence don’t end in dramatic victory, they beget more violence, carving psychological scars that are equally as compelling as the mystery of what caused them in the first place. Electric with snappy dialogue, visual splendor, and genuinely remarkable performances, Big Little Lies Season 2 is still the sensual, gripping high-camp that we all fell in love with, but a bit older and wiser. It’s slower and quieter, which means it might not capture the water cooler conversationalist and online theorists with the obsessive fervor surrounding the first season, but it also rewards patience with a doubled-down commitment to character drama, complex portraits of female friendship, and often profound meditations on what it means to survive trauma.