‘Big Little Lies’ Season 2: Meryl Streep Is Deliciously Evil as Nicole Kidman’s Nemesis
We shrieked with delight too many times to count watching the premiere of the new ‘Big Little Lies’—Meryl Streep!—though we’re still not convinced a second season was a great idea.
Big Little Lies season two is an almost aggressive exercise in fan service. Whether or not that amounts to creative excellence and worthwhile storytelling is one matter. That it’s so goddamn fun is the other.
The new season arrives Sunday night on HBO three weeks after a Game of Thrones finale that hurtled characters toward endings so baffling that ungratified fans launched a petition to have the conclusion rewritten and reshot. Big Little Lies is the blessed opposite—to the point that it nearly missteps toward pandering—all the while confirming what most of us have known all along: In the end, it is Amabella who should have been sitting on the Iron Throne.
TV’s most hysterically-obsessed-over young daughter returns along with the rest of the cast for this sequel to 2017’s delicious limited series, which also brings back the novel’s author, Liane Moriarty; season one writer, David E. Kelley; and Jean-Marc Vallée, moving from director to executive producer this season, all working on a fresh story. Also the lies! The lies are back. And you know what? They’re still not true!
Season one of Big Little Lies paired the deliriousness of a soap opera with the pulp of a thriller, like a crisp Chardonnay slicing through the breeze of a perfect Monterey night. Two genres typically dismissed and gendered were elevated by a sharp storyline and the dignity, not to mention giddiness, with which its core cast of five exceptional actresses—Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz—inhabited their characters, exploding the TV trope of “messy women” to smithereens.
From beginning to end, the series was perfectly told, a murder mystery with a wicked sense of humor and white-knuckle grip on its implicated characters’ humanity. Most significantly, it had a conclusion, one that found these five women bound together by their lies, yet also at peace.
So the announcement of a second season was both a cause for celebration—more of Witherspoon’s iconic Madeline Martha Mackenzie in our lives, praise be—and also trepidation: Why do this again?
Having seen the first three episodes of this second season, the answer that seems to have been arrived at is: Well, why not?
These characters are still a riot, and so richly drawn that there is certainly material to excavate after the events of season one. The (very spoilery!) Cliff’s Notes of those events: Jane (Woodley) arrives at a Monterey school with a son who was conceived when she was raped. It is revealed that the person who raped her is Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), who happens to be the abusive husband of Celeste (Kidman).
When a group of moms at the school—some friends, some frenemies— confront Perry after the secret is revealed at a charity gala, he becomes violent. He is pushed down the stairs and killed by Bonnie (Kravitz) while Jane, Celeste, Madeline, and Renata (Dern) watch. They are all dressed like Audrey Hepburn. Also, Amabella was bullied.
There’s no murder mystery in season two. Just lies. Everyone is dealing with the fact that they lied—telling investigators that Perry slipped—and also that they kept other secrets. Madeline had an affair. Celeste was going to leave Perry. Renata doesn’t have the control that she projects. Still, without the murder-mystery focus, the plot meanders.
Whether they will get caught in their lies is the driving question here. That, it turns out, is not entirely interesting. Luckily, these women and these performances are so much so that it doesn’t really matter.
The first episode of Big Little Lies season two, with Andrea Arnold stepping in to direct the new season, opens with the most signature elements of the show: these women gazing off into the distance from their fabulous Monterey beach houses, contemplating their sins and struggles while unsettling memories quickly flash on screen. It’s the same serene, yet haunting tone poem we were introduced to in season one, though you’re jolted out of it this time by Meryl Streep scaring the shit out of you.
Oh yes, on that topic of fan service, the splashiest news about Big Little Lies season two is that Meryl Streep joined the cast. She is introduced here waking Kidman’s Celeste from a nightmare, though it’s soon revealed that she’ll become a version of a nightmare herself. She plays Mary Louise, Perry’s mother who moves in with Celeste after her son’s death. She doesn’t believe that her husband slipped, and, as she learns more of Celeste’s secrets, starts hunting for the truth.
She is this season’s villain. She wears false teeth. She is fantastic.
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.
Big Little Lies season two, then, in some ways delivers beyond just fan service. It is debuting at the start of Pride Month, the television embodiment of the popular “give the gays everything they want” meme. Meryl Streep telling Reese Witherspoon “I find little people to be untrustworthy” is the equivalent of Christine Baranski in a Twitter video shouting “gay rights!”
There are so many moments like this that it can even veer close to parody.
Dern gazes directly into the camera while dancing during a photo shoot.
There is a plot line involving Witherspoon’s Maddie and her high school-aged daughter’s ambivalence about going to college that eerily echoes the Lori Loughlin/Olivia Jade saga, culminating in Maddie shrieking, “I don’t give a fuck! I don’t care about homeless people!”
There is a flashback in which Skarsgard dances in his underwear. At one point, the Sufjan Stevens song from Call Me By Your Name plays. Laura Dern shouts, “Pussfuck!” Amabella has an anxiety attack over climate change.
It is all exhilarating and entertaining, even if the story is thinner and the stakes markedly lower.
For all the ways in which the new season seizes on the moments fans loved from the original run—the wild dialogue, the unfiltered performances, the Nicole Kidman therapy scenes, the Monterey real-estate porn—and dials them up, it also feels like an entirely different show. It seems to be stretching its legs and gearing up for something bigger whereas, to borrow imagery from the show, the first season broke out in a dramatic sprint from the start.
There’s no denying the brilliance of these performances. Witherspoon, as much a revelation as a star of her stature could be in season one, is even better here. Kidman and her wandering accent continue to be transfixing. And good luck singling out a Best Supporting Actress winner from the exceptional work done by Streep, Dern, Woodley, and, in an expanded role, Kravitz.
The broader, broodier questions that were asked in season one about the pressures put on these women and the armor they wear in public to conceal their private battle wounds are still asked, though pondered at more of a whisper here. When everything else—the dialogue, the performances, the LIES!!!—is so loud, something was bound to be drowned out.
If the show isn’t the singular masterpiece of the first season, that’s because that season was truly meant to be singular. But coming close to meeting a bar set that high is still worth toasting with a glass of champagne over a gorgeous fire pit.