DVD Review: Big Little Lies: The Complete Second Season
(Warning: Significant spoilers for the first and second seasons will be featured here, though I will try to do so as obliquely as possible.)
The second season of Big Little Lies isn’t a murder mystery like the first season was, but instead is an examination of the fallout of the first season’s violent climax. The first season took a non-standard approach to storytelling, keeping not just the identity of the killer a secret, but the identity of the victim hidden as well. This allowed the alert viewer to observe numerous killer/victim combinations over the course of the series, and while the end result produced a certain level of emotional catharsis and even a sense of rough justice, the final seconds and a closer examination of the character arcs illustrated that the supposed happy ending was in fact a fool’s paradise.
Other reviewers who I will not name (due to the fact that I have enough blood feuds going on already) have asked “Is this season really necessary?” Certainly the timing of the second season’s announcement was carefully planned so as to allow the show to collect a bunch of Emmys in the less competitive Movie/Miniseries categories. I’ve heard some viewers claim that the story was satisfactorily wrapped up at the end of season one, but I don’t agree. The narrative was character-based, and as we saw the messes behind seemingly perfect facades. Just because we knew who died and how, we didn’t fully know why. Even after the end of the second season, it’s clear that we still don’t know everything about what made these people who they are. Furthermore, the last two seconds of season one made it clear that a happy ending wasn’t going to come from a lie.
Ultimately, that becomes one of the central themes of the series: that lies, be they covering up for affairs, hiding crimes, and even telling oneself that everything’s O.K. when it’s clearly not, can’t lead to lasting bliss, and the fallout of avoiding the truth can lead to major negative repercussions for yourself and others. “The truth will out” lies at the heart of the series, as every character learns.
Nearly all of the original cast returns, along with their emotional baggage, and even the deceased character appears in dream sequences and recordings. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) faces the fallout of the revelation of her extramarital affair and two daughters who are beyond her command. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is dealing with the sudden change in her relationship status, and precariously balancing on a self-destructive emotional razor’s edge. Jane (Shailene Woodley) identified her rapist, but her PTSD is affecting her connection with a new boyfriend. Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) is dealing with trauma of her own, as she wrestles with internal turmoil. Finally, Renata’s (Laura Dern) financial status has taken a massive hit due to her husband’s mismanagement, and she has to deal with new economic realities and public humiliations.
Notably, all of these struggles are intertwined to varying extents to the men in their lives. Of the five narratives, Renata’s is in many ways the most compelling, as her entire sense of self is tied into her professional success and wealth. Renata prefers to come at challenges from an offensive position, and being caught in the extended agony of the criminal and bankruptcy courts, she’s stuck in the inenviable position of being caught in forces beyond her control. Not only that, but her legal battles have left her tied to a man who’s steadily revealed as utterly reprehensible, so she’s largely stripped of much of her power.
Though well-acted, Bonnie’s storyline is much less interesting because the solution to her problems is obvious: honesty. There’s only one cure for an anguished conscience, and it’s clear that there’s only one way her pain can be resolved, though of course the resolution has to wait until the end of this series. In a different manner, this same solution applies to Celeste.
Celeste seems to have regressed a lot since the first season’s end. By the last episode, she seemed to have realized the truth about the nature of her husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) but now she’s reluctant to face it, preferring to whitewash his nature and focus intently on the good times, even though the memories of the dark events are impossible to ignore. Midway through the season, Celeste’s therapist observes that Celeste was addicted to her spouse. At the end of this series, Celeste acts as if she’s ready to move on, but addiction doesn’t end simply by deciding not to be an addict anymore. The ending is supposed to be a turning point for Celeste, but while she’s managed to face the truth, the past two seasons indicate that she’s likely to relapse in the future. Indeed, the second season takes great pains to illustrate Celeste’s self-destructive behavior, but it doesn’t provide the viewer with much confidence that she has the will to overcome her past habits.
Jane’s new relationship is helped by the earnest amiability of her new boyfriend, and her reasons for being hesitant to proceed with it are understandable and realistic. It’s a watchable storyline, though it lacks the dramatic tension of some of the others.
It’s notable that Madeline got herself into her problems, but unlike all of the other women, aside from suggesting a retreat that offers therapy through group groping, Madeline hardly does anything to get herself out of her troubles. It’s up to her husband Ed (Adam Scott) to decide whether he’s going to destroy their marriage by seeking revenge or take the harder path by choosing forgiveness. Interestingly, in this case, Ed holds nearly all the power in the relationship, and out of all the couples, he’s the male with the deepest and most complicated character arc in this season.
The most impactful new addition to the cast is Mary Louise Wright (Meryl Streep), Perry’s mother, who is helping Celeste to raise their twin boys in the wake of the marriage’s end. Mary Louise is both a compelling addition to the cast and a missed opportunity. Her actions over the course of the series can be judged as justified, misguided, or outright villainous, depending on where your sympathies lie and how harshly you judge some of Celeste’s behavior. Mary Louise is at times a personification of Nemesis, as she makes it clear that she’s certain that all five of the central women in the cast are lying and obfuscating, but I can’t help but think that Mary Louise’s story could have been more interesting if instead of just dropping the occasional question and innuendo, she’d launched her own full-out investigation, determining the factual truth of what happened but misjudging the motives and emotions involved, forcing the women to reveal the full truth to ears that didn’t totally believe them, as there was an equally convincing alternative. The problem with lying is that when people think you’re fibbing, they form their own ideas about what the truth really is. Mary Louise seems to have her suspicions about the truth behind the killing, but midway through the season, she abandons detective work to focus on a custody battle. That plotline allows David E. Kelley to indulge in some of his beloved courtroom scenes, but it muddles Mary Louise’s motivations, and it forces the show to justify Celeste’s behavior when it should be advocating constructive solutions.
Big Little Lies has always focused on the women’s perspective, but as the series has progressed, I can’t help but think that I’m far more interested in the children’s perspective. Virtually every child in the series has at least one adult in their lives who has seriously failed them, and as we see children suffering from crippling stress, bullying, and unstable home situations brought about by their parents’ choices and personal problems, it’s the kids, who have no power or agency, who capture my sympathies the most.
The ending of the second season was never in doubt for me, but the biggest question dangling over the end credits was “will there be a third season?” While I’m no fan of blatant cash grabs, I genuinely believe that the series could have more to say if given a stronger driving narrative. While season one’s murder mystery made it compelling, season’s two’s character studies are interesting but far less suspenseful. Personally, I’ve long been suspicious of the various hints throughout season one that Jane’s rapist was actually a serial offender, and that the never-boxed jewelry he constantly presented to his significant other was actually a collection of twisted trophies. If a third season were to focus on the revelations of additional victims, determining whether certain crimes were his doing or another violent offender’s, and the fallout on all of the characters, it would definitely justify a return to Monterey.
Big Little Lies: The Complete Second Season