There’s a scene in the season two premiere of Big Little Lies that will permanently imprint on the retinas of every single viewer. Renata (Laura Dern), Monterey power mom and protector of Amabella, is holding a power stance at the edge of her property, singing, “It’s my house and I live here.” We pan out to see that this is not the beginning of an in-episode musical sequence—Renata is posing for a photoshoot, mouthing along to the pumped-up playlist. And what does one wear for a “women in power” photoshoot? A shimmering red blazer-gown, of course, paired with thigh-high boots, a thick gold belt, and a chic little hand weight. Wonder Woman wishes she could afford this ensemble (or that $12.4 million compound). Renata’s husband, Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) briefly appears to ask his wife why she’s being extensively photographed by their pool, then retreats to some sort of man cave, where he drinks, fondles a baseball bat, and watches his elaborate model train set run by.
Big Little Lies has always reveled in the distance between glamorous exteriors and dark, furtive basements. Its first season excavated a group of enviable female protagonists, revealing the deep-seated trauma just below the surface. When the women teamed up to defend themselves and kill Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) abuser, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) at the school fundraiser, these private histories manifested in a very public way. In the season two premiere, the lines between past and present, interior lives and public facades, continue to blur.
For Celeste, nightmares about her abusive, dead husband are both intensely disturbing and potentially incriminating. Her mother-in-law, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), has more or less moved in following her son’s mysterious demise. Throughout the premiere, it’s made clear that Mary Louise doesn’t buy the story that “The Monterey Five” told the police about Perry’s death being a tragic accident. Mary Louise is barely holding it together herself, but somehow finds the emotional bandwidth to interrogate Celeste and Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) about her son’s death.
Mary Louise’s masterful, manipulative burns make her a truly terrific villain. As The Daily Beast’s Kevin Fallon explained, “There are some line readings Streep delivers in the first episode that are so sinister and shocking, the howl of a wolf in sheep’s clothing, that I shrieked with glee. In fact, I’m not entirely comfortable admitting how many times I shrieked at various line readings from Streep, Witherspoon, and, especially, Dern while watching these screeners.”
Fittingly, the premiere begins on the first day of school. On top of worrying about the crime they committed, the murderous moms of Otter Bay Elementary School have to “get judged all over again”—on their parenting, but also on any weight they may have put on or wrinkles that might have accumulated during the off-season. Some of our protagonists, like Madeline and Renata, seem to be right back in the swing of things. Madeline holds court with two cupcakes in her hand, shoring up alliances and bragging about her new gig selling real estate. Renata corners her daughter Amabella’s new teacher to inform him of her “genius-level” IQ and demand “special attention,” then makes a dramatic exit through a pubescent marching band. Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), on the other hand, is totally out of it; according to Madeline, “she was off even before she went to Tahoe.” Now she’s barely talking to her husband, Nathan (James Tupper), and seems uninterested in making mommy small talk or sharing meaningful glances with her co-conspirators.
Madeline has her first confrontation with Mary Louise at a magical elfin twig café on the water. Seemingly out of nowhere, Mary Louise decides that it is appropriate to mock her daughter-in-law’s best friend’s height, saying that she finds “little people to be untrustworthy.” Elsewhere, Madeline’s husband Ed (Adam Scott) is having a similarly unbelievable conversation with a woman he runs into at the supermarket, who explains that she recently had her breasts done to distract from her nose, with the added benefit of really pissing off her husband. This is an episode of lingering shots on stunned expressions, as characters are left to mull over insane, utterly unexpected interactions.
Celeste is back in therapy and Bonnie is running away from her trauma, mirroring Jane’s coping mechanism from season one. Nathan is at a total loss, and even asks Ed, his ex’s new husband, to take his current wife out to lunch, insisting that he’s better at talking to women. This bad idea quickly devolves into a hostile conversation, with Nathan repeatedly calling Ed a “snide fuck.” Meanwhile Jane, newly employed at the aquarium and newly banged, gives a slightly heavy-handed talk to a tour group, sharing that female octopuses sometimes kill males after they mate with them. One alarmingly prescient child asks, “Why is it the prettier something is, the more dangerous?”
Naturally, Madeline’s new job mostly consists of her loudly taking calls on her AirPods while her clients get increasingly annoyed. But her status as Monterey’s rudest real estate agent is the least of Madeline’s worries. At a college-advising meeting, her daughter announces that she’s not going to college (“The planet is dying, mom, and God forbid I don’t study Lysistrata?”) and storms off. Madeline responds to this deeply-unwelcome news by physically lashing out at her ex, and engaging in even more spirited AirPod-aided rants about her daughter’s future in retail.
The Monterey Five have their own rude awakening when they learn that they have been nicknamed “The Monterey Five”—and that the whole murder situation might not be as settled as they thought it was. During an emergency meeting in a parked car, Renata reassures the women that her friend at IBM is sleeping with a cop who’s close to the case, and that they apparently have nothing to worry about. Madeline goes to check in on Bonnie, who didn’t show up to the SUV summit. Bonnie is, in fact, freaking out; she’s pissed at the others because she wanted to tell the truth about how Perry died, but Madeline and her crew insisted on lying. “I killed someone,” Bonnie whisper-screams. Next, Madeline has to have a word with her daughter, who reveals her plan to work for “a startup that builds for-profit housing for the homeless.” “I don’t give a fuck! I don’t care about homeless people!” Madeline screams, eventually retreating to her car to breathe heavily.
In yet another parked car, Celeste is remembering some romantic moments with her husband; there’s mental home footage of Perry playing with their kids, and a lot of romantic slow dancing. Back at the house, Mary Louise has prepared dinner and a number of guilt trips. After chastising Celeste for serving her sons fast food, she works up to the pronouncement that Perry’s death is not something to be “recovered from like a cold,” adding that, “it’s very unfair and wrong that he died.” Mary Louise is so pissed that her friends’ “middle-management” sons are still alive—and her hot, rich son is dead—that she proceeds to scream at the dinner table. She later apologizes, but is clearly suspicious that Celeste isn’t as bereft and angry as she is.
The episode closes on another nightmare about Perry’s murder. Celeste wakes up in bed screaming “no,” and Mary Louise’s presence is a welcome comfort—until she reveals what she overheard. “So, who are we planning to kill?”