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Big Little Lies Gets Tough

The HBO show’s second season feels bleaker and is harder on its characters.

Jennifer Clasen/HBO

In the third episode of the second season of Big Little Lies, an eight-year-old girl named Amabella goes into a “coma” in her school classroom. It’s not really a coma—it’s more like a panic attack—but it is enough to send her mother, Renata Klein (Laura Dern) into a fit. Amabella was physically bullied throughout the first season, and Renata—the Sheryl Sandberg–esque CEO of a Silicon Valley company and the only mother among her cohort with a powerful day job—spent a lot of time screaming her head off at anyone she thought might be responsible. She fingered the wrong child as the bully, and proceeded to verbally torture that child’s mother (Jane, played by a soft-spoken Shailene Woodley) for months. When the true bully emerged—one of a pair of twins whose mother, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), received regular brutal beatings at home from her husband Perry and so began to mimic his father’s violent behaviors—Renata had to recant.

But in Big Little Lies, no one ever stays calm for too long. When Amabella passes out, Renata has another excuse to go ballistic in public. A children’s therapist dressed as Little Bo Peep—likely the sort of thousand-dollar-an-hour specialists that roam the moneyed enclaves of the California coast—has a session with Amabella and determines that she is not being bullied again; she is simply overwhelmed by the concept of climate change. “She is worried about the end of the world,” the therapist tells Renata and her husband, Gordon, who are already enmeshed into their own serious crisis. In the pilot, Renata learns that Gordon made some bad (read: deeply illegal) investments, and now the FBI is seizing everything they own, much of which came from Renata’s corporate hustling.

So it doesn’t take much to set Renata off. She stomps into Otter Bay Elementary school in a shiny snakeskin blazer with fury in her eyes and confronts her daughter’s teacher and the principal about teaching climate change in the classroom. “What possesses two idiots like yourselves to teach eight-year-olds that the planet is doomed?” she barks. She calls the principal “a smoker who hasn’t been laid in 15 fucking years.” She howls over their protestations. And then, in her final chilling blow as a human monsoon, she yells, “I will be rich again! I will rise up. I will buy a fucking polar bear for every kid in this school.”

Later, in the same episode, Reese Witherspoon’s character, the pert perfectionist Madeline Martha Mackenzie, gives a mostly incoherent speech at a parent assembly, arguing against teaching young children about what may happen to the planet. “That the whole world might go kapooey?” she says into the microphone, on the verge of tears. “They need to know that? I think part of the problem is, we lie to our kids. We fill their head with Santa Claus and happy endings when most of us know most endings to most stories fucking suck. There aren’t a lot of happy endings for a lot of people, you know? Be it climate change, be it guns in schools.”

When Big Little Lies finished its stunning first season, which ended with the murder of Perry at a school fundraiser, I wrote that it was the best show that we have about the blue ache at the edge of California, how it was really a western about loneliness and isolation disguised as soapy housewife noir. That BLL is about what happens when people push all the way to the foamy frontiers searching for fulfillment, and how when they still don’t find it there, they have to manufacture it elsewhere: in infidelity, in codependent, twisted, violent relationships, hubris, gossip, corruption, lies. The show was a perfect jewel box of wealth and secrets, gleaming with the lawlessness that comes with living in mansions up against big waves and thinking that consequences can’t apply to you.

At the end of the first season, the women closed ranks, telling themselves a story about Perry’s death that enabled them to grasp order in their lives. Sure, there was a victim but the dead man was a bad man; he was the outlaw, the abuser. None of the women told the police the true story—that Perry had been kicking Celeste’s head in on the pavement while the women tried to wrestle him off of her, and Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz, the lone woman of color in the group) rushed ahead and shoved him from behind out of pure protective instinct. He cracked his head open on the pavement, but no one would have locked Bonnie up as a murderess, had the women come clean. But they chose instead to tell a truth that sounded smoother, that kept the gang together. You do these things out on the frontier.

Now, having seen four episodes of the second season, I am starting to see Big Little Lies as a different show about California. This is no longer a show about the ocean as a body of water that can gobble up your secrets, but as a natural force that will inevitably spit them back up at you with a vengeance when the tide rises. Whereas season one’s director Jean-Marc Vallée shot the Pacific waves buffeting craggy rocks with epic grandeur, the director of season two, Andrea Arnold, is less infatuated with the scenery. Arnold’s films, particularly Fish Tank and American Honey, are primarily about teenagers living on the edges of poverty. She has an active distaste for opulence that comes through in her work; even her recent remake of Wuthering Heights was less about the romance of the English moors and more about the terror running underneath Bronte’s text. She was the ideal choice to helm a season that slowly dismantles everything the first season built.

Season two is about California as a site of destruction, or at least as a place where future destruction is always looming. The climate change discussion that permeates the third episode is part of this running theme. If season one of Big Little Lies was a modern-day noir, then the second season is The Day After Tomorrow transposed onto the Pacific Coast Highway. What happens, out there on the San Andreas fault, after the world is blown apart? How do you reconstitute yourself when everything you believe to be solid starts to shatter and evaporate? The second season of BLL is a reckoning. It sets out to explore what happens when the lies we tell about happy endings start to curdle. As Madeline says at the assembly, most endings fucking suck. There was no way, if Big Little Lies kept going, that it could remain wrapped in a bow.

There is a growing camp of television critics who believe that most prestige shows do not deserve a second season. They argue that most shows, especially those made in haste to feed the churning maw of streaming platforms, have just enough juice in them for one great run (if that). And yet, when a network has a bonafide hit, it doesn’t know when to press pause; it will keep milking a storyline until it becomes ridiculous if viewers continue to watch.

I was nervous about the second season of Big Little Lies. It is HBO’s shiniest, starriest program after Game of Thrones, and I feared that the network would swerve into aggressive fan service rather than into nuanced, complex narrative terrain. And in certain ways, that has happened. Laura Dern’s character is more of a meme than a mom this season—the moment when she yells “I will not not be rich!” at her husband inside a jail has become an inescapable GIF on social media. Witherspoon’s character, also, has veered towards the parodic; her husband discovers she cheated on him and she melts into a campy, Valley of the Dolls–style puddle.

But the producers also made two crucial hires that has saved it from the dreaded sophomore slump: Arnold, who has shifted the show into a darker, more believable gear, and Meryl Streep, who brings nuance to everything she does, be it a primal scream or a quick flash of her incisors. She plays Mary Louise, Perry’s mother and Celeste’s mother-in-law, who moves down to Monterey in the wake of her son’s death to help care for her grandsons and to try to discover what really happened that night on the school steps. She is suspicious of the women, namely Celeste (she does not believe that Perry was abusive) and Jane, who discovers moments before Perry’s death that he was the man who raped her several years before and fathered her child, Ziggy. Mary Louise demands a paternity test, and then, rebuffed by both Jane and Celeste, tries a different tactic, burrowing herself into both of their lives like a prairie dog.

Mary Louise brings a lot of pain to the surface. Suddenly, the manicured appearance of all the women’s lives starts to break down: Renata loses her fortune, Bonnie goes nearly mute with guilt, Madeline sabotages her marriage, Celeste turns to Ambien and nearly dies in a car accident, and Jane finds that she cannot be intimate with a new love interest because she is still processing trauma from her rape eight years earlier.

California can be a refuge, but it can also be a dead end. There’s nowhere further to go with your delusions; at some point they start to bubble up. What I appreciate about this season of Big Little Lies is its messiness; it feels undone somehow, and ragged. It’s harder on its characters; it doesn’t coddle them in cashmere but shoves them right into the deep end. Madeline might not reconcile with her husband. Renata may never be able to buy a polar bear for every child. Bonnie, who arguably is going through the worst time of all, stares longingly at the ocean like Edna Pontellier in The Awakening, as if she might walk in and never emerge because she cannot live with what she has done. It’s all mixed up and nothing makes sense. Tectonic plates have shifted. This may be too heavy for eight-year-olds to take in, but it feels right for us to have to watch it all burn.