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Two magic words capable of dispelling any concerns that a closed-ended miniseries based on a closed-ended book did not necessarily require a second installment: “Meryl” and “Streep.”
Through its first three episodes, the new season of HBO’s Big Little Lies may not be as cleanly structured as the first season or have its carefully varied shifts in tone — both possibly positives for some viewers — but TV this summer will offer few pleasures as pure as watching Meryl Streep conduct a passive-aggressive symphony opposite the likes of Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern. Big Little Lies, sans Streep, was already perhaps TV’s best ensemble — an embarrassment of riches. With Streep, it’s like adding an infinity pool onto the balcony of your mansion that’s already overlooking the bay.
AIR DATE Jun 09, 2019
When we left the wealthy women of Monterey, Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) had just pushed Alexander Skarsgard’s Perry to his death, a reveal that hung in flux because the women who might have wanted Perry’s blood on their hands included both his abused wife, Celeste (Kidman), and Jane (Shailene Woodley), who realized over the course of the season that Perry was the man who raped her years earlier. Even if they weren’t entirely logical suspects, both Madeline (Witherspoon) and Renata (Dern) seemed like they were wholly capable of murder too.
A few months have passed since the events of last season — enough time for the show to do away with its somewhat maligned Greek Chorus narrating conceit — and although the women have become locally notorious as the Monterey Five, their carefully composed lie about what happened to Perry is holding up. As another first day of school arrives, some psychological fraying has begun, especially with Bonnie, finding no solace in her usual New Age-y pursuits, and Celeste, freed from a Stockholm Syndrome life of abuse yet still unable to curate the flow of idealized and nightmarish memories of her marriage.
Enough cracks are forming to let Mary Louise Wright (Streep) slip through. Perry’s mother and self-appointed protector of the image of the boy she nurtured into a man, Mary Louise is ostensibly in town to help Celeste with her sons, before sensing that something is fishy. Whether she’s a meek-and-mild gumshoe looking for answers or an unassuming avenging angel looking to wreak havoc is very much up in the air. Or maybe she’s just there as another data point in the ongoing anxiety of mothers dealing with the power and responsibility of shaping kids.
As the show’s lies have gotten bigger, the “little” side of the series has slipped away. It’s a difference in scale and not tone, mind you. David E. Kelley still wrote the entirety of the season and novelist Liane Moriarty joins him in each episode’s “story by” credit. The transfer of directorial duties from Jean-Marc Vallée to Andrea Arnold (American Honey, Fish Tank) is also smooth, to the point where intercut scenes from last season and new flashbacks and new scenes often blur entirely. I honestly might argue that the transition is too smooth and that a third season might get more of a charge from a director whose aesthetic signature is more jarring and discordant.
Visually, the show remains at the dreamy intersection of externalized real estate porn and internalized trauma. In broader thematic terms, the season is about the gap between what we want and what we need, from the material to more gaping appetites for fulfillment.
In the first season, a slight involving invitations to a child’s birthday party was treated with parallel melodramatic heft to a murder or history of domestic violence, putting humor and horror side-by-side. In the second season, our heroines are covering up a murder while dealing with at least one disintegrating marriage and one financial ruin, as even the men (played with chip-on-their-shoulder excellence by Adam Scott, James Tupper and Jeffrey Nordling, as if they’re constantly aware that they’re secondary in both the show and their families’ lives) are facing cataclysmic change. Jane’s budding romance with a peculiar co-worker (Douglas Smith’s Corey) offers a rare low-stakes release valve, except that Jane’s backstory is a minefield preventing any intimacy. The kids are all freaking out about climate change bringing about the end of the world because that’s the only thing that’s bigger than what’s actually happening around them. If Big Little Lies continues to escalate the level of pathos, Robin Weigert’s expanding role as basically everybody’s therapist might as well be the focus of a third season.
Turning Bonnie into a guilty mope gives Kravitz more opportunity for depth than when she was the epitome of the flighty second wife, but also makes the character feel more one-note than she did in the first season. Otherwise, these opening episodes illustrate a writer recognizing the cast’s strengths and expanding on them. Celeste is more immediately on the edge of perpetual emotional collapse, always at risk of drowning in sadness or delusion. Renata is more immediately on the edge of eruptions of anger, as Dern — more than any other member of the cast — has gone from secondary figure to frequent provider of jolts of pent-up entitlement and rage. And I continue to think that Witherspoon somehow became the cast’s most underrated element, as awards attention focused on Kidman; Madeline is the juncture of Celeste’s emotion and Renata’s rage and she’s consistently hilarious and scary.
For all these titans, though, Streep walks onscreen and instantly the show’s gravity changes. With her granny glasses, wig and periodically distracting teeth, Mary Louise is meant to be unassumingly mousy, and when she isn’t talking, Streep lets her disappear into the background. The treat is watching how she approaches each of the Monterey Five, always thinking and always picking her words to inflict maximum pain and imply maximum potential innocence. Streep and her character have a different energy with each of the other actresses and characters — it’s like she’s ready to smother Kidman, fence with Witherspoon and I expect her to eventually strap on gloves to box with Dern.
After launching its first season in February (of 2017), Big Little Lies is returning in the summer blockbuster season, and with Streep in control the series may be shifting from dark comedy, mystery and commentary on gender politics to full-on actorly action. I might miss the murder mystery a little, but this is more than a good substitute.
Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Meryl Streep, Adam Scott, James Tupper, Jeffrey Nordling, Kathryn Newton, P.J. Byrne
Written by: David E. Kelley
Directed by: Andrea Arnold
Airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on HBO, premiering June 9.
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