Big Little Lies S2E1: What Have They Done?

Courtesy of HBO

After what feels like a lifetime of waiting, Big Little Lies returned to our screens this week for its second season. The first season ended brilliantly with just enough teasing to make you want more, but at the same time it could be accepted as a final ending. I always wanted more, though. This show was too special for it to be a one-off kind of thing. Everything about it was just exceptional viewing—the story, the locations, and that utterly perfect ensemble cast. Now, as Season 2 begins, they’ve thrown something incredible into the mix: Meryl Streep.

The big plot point of Season 1 was the mystery, with each episode teasing more and more of it till all was revealed in the finale. Who had died at the Gala evening? Who had raped Jane? With those big questions being answered, where do you go from there? Season 2 has dropped the mystery element from the show and instead focuses on the aftermath of the violence, the murder, the abuse, and more importantly the struggle of a shared secret. It now feels more like a psychological drama with the viewer getting a glimpse into each of the women’s minds and how differently they’re each coping with what happened. On first viewing, it probably feels like some of them have moved on from the trauma or are coping a lot better than the others, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that they’re all struggling in their own way.

Jeffrey Nordling, Laura Dern, Reese Witherspoon, and Adam Scott as Gordon, Renata, Madeline, and Ed in the season two premiere of Big Little Lies
Courtesy of HBO

Picking up some time after the death of Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), it’s a new school year at Otter Bay Elementary School and the episode begins just as Season 1 did, with the children being dropped off at school for their first day. This time it’s different. There aren’t any cross words, no jealous glances, no alpha-mom rivalry; instead, they all greet each other with a hug—Renata (Laura Dern) included. The dynamic of the show, the friendships, and the rivalries have all been completely turned on their heads as the women are now bound by a newfound respect for each other (and, of course, by the secret they all carry).

Madeline seems completely unaffected by everything that’s happened (despite the fact that she was the one who started the lie that Perry slipped) and we see her very much the same as she always was. The main difference is that she’s become a real estate agent and seems to be focusing all of her energy into that—when she isn’t arguing with Principle Warren (P.J. Byrne), that is. Something small that I noticed was Madeline’s eating throughout the episode. She takes two cakes at the school, she has a plate with another cake immediately after at the café—is eating her feelings her way of dealing with things? I may be totally wrong but it could be an interesting route for her character.

Her oldest daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton) has decided she isn’t going to college. Instead of learning from her mistakes with the virginity auction fallout in Season 1, Madeline instead tries to lay down the law with her. She’s scared that Abigail will end up working a minimum wage job with no real future or life. Instead of listening to Abigail’s reasons and talking with her about what she really wants to do, she simply plays the Mom card and tells her, “you’re going to college because I said so.”

She does mean well, though. During some of her rants in Season 1, Madeline often referred to the judgments and expectations of working moms versus stay-at-home moms. Obviously finding a new passion in real estate has made her realize that perhaps she made the wrong choice by being a stay-at-home mom for 20 years. She doesn’t want that for Abigail; she wants her to have what she didn’t. Even when Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) tries to reach out to her, she doesn’t handle it like she really should.

Bonnie was one of the only women to encourage others to talk in Season 1, and she seemed the most emotionally balanced of the group. Haunted by the fact that it was she who delivered the fatal push to Perry, Bonnie has now emotionally isolated herself, not just from the women but from her husband Nathan (James Tupper). I think it’s interesting that, despite now having a huge emotional connection to the group, she still sees herself as and acts like an outsider. In Season 1 she wasn’t particularly close to any of the others and now it’s as if she’s even further away from them. Even when the gang meets up to discuss Jane’s discovery that they’re now referred to as “The Monterey Five,” Bonnie chooses not to be a part of the meeting.

Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Reese Witherspoon as Celeste, Jane, Renata, and Madeline in the Season 2 premiere of Big Little Lies
Courtesy of HBO

Bonnie is understandably angry and it’s clear that all she ever wanted was to tell the truth about what happened. She’s angry over the fact that the group chose to lie and it seems like she didn’t get a choice in it. She might have escaped going to prison by going along with the story, but by doing so she’s placed herself in an emotional prison instead. It’s like she’s living alone: just her and the lie. Even when Madeline tells her that she can talk to them and that they are there for her, Bonnie responds with, “it doesn’t feel like it.” Her not feeling like she has someone in her corner leads her to the police station, desperate to talk and desperate to be free of the lie. It’s going to be interesting to see where Bonnie’s guilt leads her this season, especially as her mother will be arriving in the next episode.

Renata is still very much the “Medusa of Monterey” in this season, and you can just tell how much Laura Dern revels in the character. She’s cranked her lifestyle up to 10 and seems to be throwing herself into absolutely everything. Like Madeline, Renata seems relatively unfazed by what’s happened to them all. In a way, the lie has given her a new circle of friends, which is probably all Renata ever wanted. She was somebody else who always seemed lonely.

In the most glorious moment from the episode, Renata models for a photo shoot all about powerful women. During the shoot, she states that she’s “so tired of those shots of women. I mean, they’re in power right? They own banks, and they’re all, like, demure. Bullshit.” Oh, and this is all while singing along to the Diana Ross classic “It’s My House.” This, for me, seems like Renata’s coping mechanism: getting a message out there about strong and powerful women. She’s seen what it’s like for abused, oppressed, and controlled women and she wants to do something about it. By throwing herself into this, she gets to feel empowered again. But what’s going on beneath the surface of this image she’s created?

While the shoot takes place, we see her husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) playing with a model train set, drinking heavily, and looking depressed. Is he in on the lie? Is it a mid-life crisis? Has Renata’s quest to look empowered made her neglect him? I’d never questioned what the lie and the struggle would do to the men in these women’s lives before now. They don’t know what happened that night, but the women’s behavior is obviously going to affect them too.

Laura Dern as Renata Klein in the Season 2 premiere of Big Little Lies
Courtesy of HBO

Throughout the course of Season 1, we witnessed Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) journey to discover who raped her, with the big reveal being that it was Perry. He was killed before she had time to process this information, come to terms with it, or question why he did it to her. She never got to tell him she had had a son, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), as a result of that rape. Perry’s estate is sending her checks to provide for Ziggy, but she hasn’t been cashing them due to her feelings about the assault. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) wants her to cash them, but she can’t.

She has a job now working at the local Aquarium and appears to be in a much better place. Then we see her dancing down the beach. Jane’s beach-themed daydreams always had a dark connotation to them, usually resulting in her jumping off a cliff or pulling a gun on her (then unknown) attacker. Now, it feels like she wants to reclaim that beach space as her own as she’s finally had a release from the darkness that had surrounded her life for so long. She finally knows who raped her and she knows he’s paid the ultimate price for what he did to her. She’s free of him and is doing what she can to live her best life. Her struggle now lies in how she tells her son Ziggy who and what his father was. Obviously, she’ll feel compelled to tell him, but how do you go about that with a child so young? It wouldn’t just change her family dynamic, which is now on track and happy; it would also change Celeste’s. The twins would discover they have a half-brother—what would that do to them?

Celeste herself feels like she’s almost more of a broken woman than she was throughout the entirety of the first season. She’s gone from a battered housewife who knew her husband would eventually kill her if she didn’t leave him to someone who blames herself for everything that’s happened. She misses the man who abused her and hates herself for it. She’s petrified that both of her sons will inherit their father’s worst qualities. We already know that Max was bullying Amabella at school due to the things he’d heard his father do to his mother, but now it seems that the twins’ behavior is only getting worse.

She reunites with her therapist (Robin Weigert) and as she blames herself for Perry’s death, the therapist tells her that even after his death, his toxic message lives on: this is all your fault. Celeste is unable to deal with things the way she wants or deal with the twins’ behavior properly because of the new huge addition to the cast. Meryl Streep is in town as Celeste’s lodger and mother-in-law from hell, Mary Louise Wright.

Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep as Celeste and Mary Louise in the season two premiere of Big Little Lies
Courtesy of HBO

Initially, I thought that Detective Quinlan would be taking over Perry’s role as the main antagonist of the show, but we only saw her in the first episode through a series of flashbacks and dream sequences. Instead, Perry’s mother is here to find out what really happened no matter what it takes. She’s an angry grieving mother and there’s no way on earth she believes the story that her son slipped. Complete with sinister false teeth and a whispery insolent voice, Meryl Streep is absolutely outstanding in the role. Everything Streep does is perfection but she really knocks it out of the park with this one.

She spends the episode subtly trying to get answers and wastes no time in insulting Madeline by commenting on her height: “You’re very short…I find little people to be untrustworthy.” Perhaps in some way her comments on Madeline’s size are a secret way of telling her that she sees her as the smallest link in the chain of lies that has been created. She doesn’t see Madeline as a threat and lets her know exactly what she thinks of her. She knows that asking direct questions about what happened isn’t going to get her anywhere, so instead she bides her time by ruffling feathers and putting people on edge. People are already close to their breaking points so it isn’t going to take Mary Louise long to shatter them.

It’s important to remember that she isn’t a villain; she’s just a mother who wants to know what really happened to her son. We’re seeing increasingly bad behavior in Max and Josh, so maybe when Perry was younger Mary Louise experienced it, too. She probably never knew what he was capable of as an adult, but I suspect that she must have some sort of inkling he wasn’t an angel. During a scene at the dinner table, she tells the family how much she misses her son and copes by letting her grief out in a scream. She proceeds to let out a brutally harrowing scream that I can still hear in my head now. That moment alone shows exactly why they got Streep in for this role.

She does care for Celeste; that much is evident. We see it as she comforts her after the nightmares she has about Perry on a nightly basis. But are the dreams going to be the women’s undoing? Mary Louise already knows something about a rape and killing somebody from the nightmares, so how much longer is it going to take for Celeste to spill something worse in her sleep?

Meryl Streep and Nicole KIdman as Mary Louise and Celeste in the season two premiere of Big Little Lies
Courtesy of HBO

The first season of the show began with rivalries and some of these women hating each other, but it ended with them coming together for a new friendship. But considering the basis for the friendship was a collective secret, it felt impossible to say whether these new bonds were genuine. There are moments throughout this episode when the women try to connect with each other or share something, but something happens to interrupt them or it gets brushed aside (Nathan interrupting Madeline and Bonnie’s conversation, the house viewer stopping Madeline and Renata’s discussion, etc.). They all want to move on and forget what happened but are unable to do so because it’s the only thing they talk about when they get together.

This first episode was eventful but quiet. There was no huge drama or event. Instead, it set the scene for how this season is going to play out. It almost feels like it’s a calm before the storm. Detective Quinlan is refusing to close the case and Mary Louise will do whatever it takes to get the answers she wants, so we know there’s definitely a huge storm brewing on the horizon.

A lot of people didn’t want a second season as they thought there was no more story left to tell; I disagree. When it comes to stories of abuse, rape, death, etc., people only ever want to know the gruesome details of the events themselves. They never want to ask questions about the aftermath or find out how these things have affected someone’s life. This season is going to show us why the aftermath is more important and I can’t wait to see where we go next.

Written by Martin Hearn

Martin Hearn is a Social Media Manager for 25YL who also writes, has a penchant for interviews, watches too much TV, and plays too many video games. He joined the site through his love of Twin Peaks and also has a passion for shows such as The OA, The Crown, American Horror Story, Lost, and Desperate Housewives. His hobbies include insomnia, dancing in secret, and buying too much Twin Peaks merchandise from eBay. Martin lives in Middlesbrough, UK, which is the birthplace of the Parmo (you may want to google that amazingly beautiful delicacy that definitely won't cause a heart attack). He loves spending long weekends binge-watching TV shows with his partner Anthony.

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  1. I just finished reading your fabulously thoughtful and insightful review of S2, E1 of BIG LITTLE LIES and sharing it with my wife. Spot on, as they say. We especially appreciate your closing words:

    “When it comes to stories of abuse, rape, death, etc., people only ever want to know the gruesome details of the events themselves. They never want to ask questions about the aftermath or find out how these things have affected someone’s life. This season is going to show us why the aftermath is more important.”

    For the eight years following our son’s murder, our lives were dominated by its aftermath: first and foremost the loss of our son and our future with him, but also including two long trials, many appeals (one debated and decided in a state Supreme Court), and two sentencing hearings (the most recent only two months ago), once again ending in a very long prison sentence for the killer. At which point we finally felt almost liberated, but only in a relative sense. Then today we received a formal letter from the state in question informing us that a new (and as yet unarticulated) appeal will soon be lodged (a TP-adjacent word). So, yeah, we understand and continue to experience the full metal aftermath and appreciate your wise words about such experiences.

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