The last time we were on the beautiful shores of Monterey Bay, there was a moment of calm and laughter amidst the waves of trauma that were intent on drowning our characters. Agnes Obel’s “September Song” swelled as Big Little Lies briefly embraced a moment of levity. The camera then slowly panned upwards to reveal an unseen person peering through a pair of binoculars, signalling that the story was not yet over. Billed originally as a star-studded miniseries, Big Little Lies returns for a second season and the question then is this: is it as good as season one? Or, like many extensions of miniseries that have come before it, does it fall prey to its own success?
Thankfully, Big Little Lies is just as good in the premiere episode of its second season as it was in its first. The performances remain stellar, the visual language of the direction is stunning as always, and the writing is organic. The key to the growth of a series is that characters have to respond to cataclysmic events and do so in ways that are innate to who they are. The murder that bound our characters together through tragedy at the end of season one is unraveling them at the beginning of season two and it is fantastic to behold.
The strength of Big Little Lies lies in its emotional complexity. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Renata (Laura Dern), and Celeste (Nicole Kidman) are all reeling from the murder of Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). They are trying to return to their lives in their own ways and though some of them are doing better at that endeavour than others, the tumult of the history that ties them together is with them always.
Celeste is haunted by nightmares and ghosts at every turn. She is panicking under the weight of all of the lies, the guilt, and her constant pressures of needing to be everything for everyone else. She has, in some ways, substituted Perry with his mother Mary Louise, brought to life by a formidable and excellent Meryl Streep. Perhaps a part of her wants to yell just as loudly as Mary Louise does so memorably at the dinner table, but she’s afraid of what it would mean and say if she did. She still finds herself stuck between all the people she has to be, struggling to reach out through the barriers and grasp the woman she knows she is.
Bonnie has arguably undergone the most radical change in the group. A woman who found the brightness and optimism where so much of the world around her was drowning in a sea of cynicism, she has withdrawn from that world. The guilt of her hands being the ones that pushed Perry down those stairs is weighing deeply on her, as is the reality that she feels unable to truly speak to anyone about what she is feeling. That she can’t even speak to her spouse about it and is closing herself off from everyone else is just the extra twist of the knife – no wonder that Bonnie feels like no one can even see the handle.
Jane seems to be finding some well-deserved happiness in some small form, even though a part of her wondered if Celeste perhaps hated her. Madeline is still struggling with her relationships, even though she finds a renewed sense of professional purpose in real estate. The reality that she never went to college and that’s why she’s so adamant to send Abigail (Kathryn Newton) off to an educational future finally breaks through here, but it’s remains unclear how this will play out. Renata is in a flux of her own as she struggles yet again to find a place of her own, as if she were stuck in the same cycle as the year before.
As many of our characters are jogging along the beach towards the night, the following morning, and whatever comes after that, there’s a sense that they’re being weighed down. There is a fatigue, an urgency, and an anguished cry for relief amidst the turbulently calm demeanours. There’s an understanding that the past cannot simply be left behind and never looked at again. That’s what seems to be driving the show this season and it’s riveting because we all know that the past is screaming in and of itself and sooner or later, someone will hear it.
Big Little Moments
- The way the other parents look at our core five characters was a perfect little detail.
- Renata using a “French accent” when she says “Juliette” is such a great character note.
- Reese Witherspoon and Meryl Streep’s scenes are Emmy gold.
- Sufjan Steven’s “The Mystery of Love,” made famous by Call Me By Your Name, is featured prominently here and to great effect.
- “Who are we planning to kill?” Ooh, gurl!