To clean the air, let’s first discuss the Streep of it all. We’re only an episode into season two and yes, it looks like they’re setting the story up so that Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise, mother-in-law to Nicole Kidman’s Celeste will be playing a substantial, antagonistic role moving forward – but if she’s going to be steering so much of the story in her direction, maybe it’s fair to hope that she’ll dial it back a touch? There’s no denying that Streep is an indomitable performer, labeled as one of the, if not the, all time best for a reason but as has been the case in the last decade or so, when given a chance to go big she latches onto it with all of the subtlety of blunt force trauma. She turns meals out of morsels and makes sure we can all hear her gobbling the crumbs up. In some cases this works, but in a role such as Mary Louise, one in a crowd of characters whose larger than life personality traits work because of the obvious strain they’re under to hold that facade up, it would benefit her greatly to dial back her infatuation with theatrics.
Where Big Little Lies has, at some points, against the odds succeeded with the pulpy melodrama that is its source material is because of character based intricacies, with everything that we see built on bruised foundations and crumbling willfulness, married with actresses who bring startling vulnerability to characters such as Reese Witherspoon’s viperish Madeline so that we can laugh at her sickly sweet smiles and root for her in acts of agency that too many would see as abrasive or bullish. These women exist in a world drowning in hyperbole, facing down abuse, murder, adultery and bullying with a steely exterior while they scramble to keep the lives they’ve built for themselves held together by threads. Everything is a show – it was a genius stroke to have all of the women dressed as Audrey Hepburn in the climactic moments of season one – many donning the garb of one Holly Golightly – as she too was a character who surrounded herself in excess and escapism in order to push back at residual pain of loss and current apathy. As Laura Dern’s Renata calls bullshit on in the season two premiere, women in powerful positions are still asked to behave demurely – delicately – as to not be too intimidating (to men, of course) when they should be exuding all of the power they possess and more so, possessing the same level of confidence as any man who’s ever taken up three seats on a crowded train because he couldn’t be bothered to close his legs.
These women, along with Shailene Woodley’s Jane and Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie are warriors in their own sense of the word, privileged in many aspects of life and certainly used to be afforded comforts many are denied, but they’ve faced down the rotten sexism that plagues us all. It’s their fierce nature that makes season two all the more alluring, especially after it was cast with doubt upon announcement, as it seemed poised to follow in the footsteps of other series that simply added on story for the sake of keeping popularity, rather than ending it when the narrative had run its course. However, with the path that they’re currently taking along with new showrunner Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) there’s enough to play with and explore that leaves us immediately enamored to the show once again, even after nearly two years of it being on air. There’s a compulsive, addictive quality to the show and it’s in group gossiping that makes it impossible to tear your eyes away, even as people like Celeste and Bonnie are reliving past trauma or, those like Madeline and Renata, are desperately trying to get their lives back on track.
We start, fittingly enough, with the first day of third grade for the characters children, echoing both season one’s premiere and the theme of Madeline and co. entering a new chapter of their lives that won’t be defined by what they did (or didn’t, in the eyes of the police) do. This hope is short lived as even the principal is hostile towards Madeline and Bonnie has become a recluse, unable to shake the weight of what she did or her anger at Madeline for lying on her behalf as the others followed suit.
It’s best that in some ways the status quo has been reset since so much of their inner lives are in shambles. It makes for more engaging material from the start, asking that we look not only to the larger – more obviously gloomy – picture of the women trying to hide their crime (act of vengeful protection) and banding together to do so, but also how microscopically the deed, all that came before and every step after effects them and their tethered relationships with those in their lives. Even Celeste can’t neatly form into words what she feels for her late, abusive husband; there’s a mixture of dread and anger as his toxic ghost looms overhead, some guilt that lingers not for the monster he became but the man she fell in love with and relief over his presence no longer there to inflict his rage induced trauma. For all of the shows soapy moments, it’s one grounded thoroughly in humanism, finding empathy for all of its heroes, even as they test our patience. If anything is to be gleaned from the premiere, Kravitz and Witherspoon should hopefully be given more to do. Both are battling demons in starkly different ways, making their connection to one another all the more potent as they couldn’t be further from similar as far as appearances would allow us to believe.
When it first aired, Big Little Lies was something of a surprise hit and now that it’s back it’s undeniable the allure. Beyond the staggering strength of the actresses on screen and talent behind the camera (and we are being all too frugal in our praise for Arnold who is masterful) there’s a story of friendship, found comraderies in the spirits of women and general intrigue and drama that keeps us looking forward to what is going to happen next. The stakes are high and the tension seems comfortable staying put for now. If it’s anything like season one, things are going to need to implode first before they get better, and I for one can’t wait to see what kind of mess Madeline and co., leave in their wake for round two.