Recap: ‘Big Little Lies’ Returns for an Off-Book Season 2 That Plunges Us Right Back Into the Sexual Trauma and Class Warfare of Monterey
I was doubtful that HBO’s Big Little Lies needed a second season that would go off-book past Liane Moriarty’s 2014 source novel. The book ends so perfectly, and the first season of the adaptation featured such dynamic, amazing performances from Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Shailene Woodley, Zoë Kravitz, and Laura Dern, and not every story needs to continue on! Some stories can just end!
I was wrong, very, very wrong, because man, does the second season of Big Little Lies prove its worth. We’re going to do weekly recaps during this seven-episode season, and we’re kicking things off now with “What Have They Done?”, which premieres tonight.
Months have passed since the first season finale, “You Get What You Need,” in which Madeline (Witherspoon), Renata (Dern), Bonnie (Kravitz), and Jane (Woodley) came to the defense of Celeste (Kidman) as she was beaten by her abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). What actually happened—Bonnie pushing Perry down a set of stairs to his death—has been obfuscated by Madeline’s lie that Perry slipped and fell.
Since then, everyone has been dealing with the fallout in their own way. Bonnie is a ghost: She spent the summer in Tahoe with husband Nathan (James Tupper) and their children, but they barely speak, and she spends more and more time running, hiking, and disengaging. Celeste is struggling to maintain a calm front, but her sons are increasingly violent with each other, and her mother-in-law Mary Louise (Meryl Streep, working for that Emmy) is simultaneously a helpful and harmful grandmother, full of little barbs and digs against her daughter-in-law while worshiping Perry’s memory. Madeline has started a new career as a real-estate agent for Sotheby’s, but her perkiness is countered by a temper that is even more mercurial than last season. Jane is trying to move on, with a new home and a new job at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. And Renata, in contrast to everyone else, seems to be thoroughly thriving, planning photoshoots for herself and relishing her professional success.
But the shadow of Perry’s death remains. On the first day of second grade, when all the women and their children return to the school where Perry died. In the presence of Detective Adrienne Quinlan (Merrin Dungey), who continues tailing them. In every conversation Mary Louise has with any of the women—when she lectures Madeline about want (“I find little people to be untrustworthy”), or when she screams out loud at the dinner table in a moment of grief for Perry (“You were so lucky to have him and it’s very unfair and wrong that he died,” she says to her grandsons).
And Perry, of course, lingers over every contentious conversation between Madeline—who is insistent that life move on past Perry’s death—and Bonnie—who cannot get over her role in the man’s death. Their contrasting energy is prickly and delightful:
Bonnie: “I killed someone. Remember? … I can’t talk to my husband. Or my kid. And I have to just swallow it all.”
Madeline: “You can talk to us!”
Bonnie: “It hasn’t really felt like that.”
Madeline: “It’s not like you can put that shit up on Gmail!”
But what’s next for these women—not just in terms of their collective trauma, but their individual ways of moving on? Can they escape Perry, in any way, or are they destined to his haunting? The premiere does a good job setting up various paths forward: Renata is flying so high that she’ll have to crash down eventually. Madeline’s spars with Mary Louise are the early signs of an ongoing confrontation between the older woman and the group now nicknamed the Monterey Five. Celeste’s therapy sessions (hello, Robin Weigert, welcome back from Deadwood!) continue to raise questions about who she is now without Perry—is she a survivor, or something else? Will Bonnie crack under the pressure, or will she begin to see Perry’s death in a different way? And Jane’s seemingly cozy bubble with Ziggy can’t last forever, although the scene of her dancing in the surf to Sufjan Stevens’s “Mystery of Love” is one of those magical musical moments that this show does so well.
“So who are we planning to kill?” Mary Louise asks Celeste when she wakes her up from her second screaming nightmare of the episode. What Mary Louise doesn’t know, but what she will certainly begin to find out, is that the death of her son wasn’t an accident, it wasn’t just a fall from the top of a set of stairs, it wasn’t something women stood by and watched. It was something they did. And sometimes the dead don’t die.
ODDS AND ENDS
Something I’ll be doing each episode is a round-up of best dialogue and memorable music moments, and here were my favorites of David E. Kelley’s zingers and Susan Jacobs’s music choices from “What Have They Done?”
+ Jane listening to Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation” is very on-brand. It’s that dyed black hair!
+ Madeline’s misandrist resentment always gives me life. I enjoyed her beautifully sarcastic “Wow, there’s a dad here, he’s involved” during drop-off.
+ Also great was her interaction with Nathan about his distance from Bonnie: “Shut down, withdrawn,” he described of his wife; “Oh, you mean you’re not having sex?” was a perfect response.
+ Mary Louise is the most flawlessly awful Boomer mom I have ever seen, and I disliked her immediately, and Streep is already doing the most. Her read of Madeline was exceptional, as was this: “Their mediocre, second-rate, pudgy, balding, middle-management sons are still alive, and my Perry, my Perry.”
+ Tori Bachman’s breast enhancement surgery moment at the grocery store, thank you very much, I will be laughing about that interaction with Adam Scott’s Ed for a long time.
+ I still don’t care about Abigail, I’m sorry.
+ Jane sketching Perry as a man being dragged down by an onslaught of tentacles made me think of the Greek myth of Medusa and yes, The Little Mermaid’s Ursula, and the idea that the only way to defeat a monstrous man is to become a monstrous woman.
What are your theories and expectations for season 2 of Big Little Lies? Meet me in the comments!
Image sources (in order of posting): HBO Media Relations, HBO Media Relations, HBO Media Relations
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