Big Little Lies, like thousands of great TV shows and movies before it, has fallen victim to sequel fatigue. The first season, packed with A-List movie stars and a script that danced between witty satire of wealthy parents, and a devastating mediation on abusive relationships, can be fairly called a masterpiece.
The mini-series, based on Liane Moriarty’s book of the same name, made a bold new statement about television being a worthy home for movie stars, particularly women over forty, to find meaty roles and high-quality storytelling. The show was a hit, winning eight Emmys and four Golden Globes. It’s this audience praise and critical claim that prompted HBO to make the understandable but regrettable decision to make a second season.
All Out of Source Material: The Trouble with Sequels
But here’s the thing, it’s hard to make a second season based on a book that doesn’t exist (*cough* Game of Thrones, *cough*). Big Little Lies worked so well as a standalone limited series because the book had a clear beginning and end. Season one, episode one (literally titled ‘Somebody’s Dead’) establishes an unknown character’s death at a school charity night, and then it jumps back in time, with every episode leading us closer to the charity night in the finale. Once you remove that definite end point, what are you left with? A season that could go in any direction, and yet doesn’t really go anywhere.
Showrunner David E Kelley wrote the second season in consultation with the original novel’s author, Liane Moriarty, but together the pair fail to give season two any sense of purpose or clear direction. This disjointed tone can also be attributed to a messy directorial vision: Andrea Arnold, the season two director, allegedly had her work re-cut and re-shaped in post-production by season one director Jean-Marc Vallée to better fit his original style, according to Indiewire.
The Monterey 2/5: Why Bonnie, Renata and Madeline Deserved Better
They do, however, expand their scope by trying to give Zoë Kravitz and Laura Dernmore screen time, to varying degrees of success. We see Bonnie (Kravitz) trying to come to terms with the guilt of killing Perry in season one. Bonnie’s guilt is largely conveyed through the tense relationship with her mother, a new character played by Crystal Fox, who it is revealed abused Bonnie as a child.
The decision to rewrite Bonnie’s story from the books, giving her an abusive mother instead of an abusive father, and implying that the mother, a black woman, has “magical” powers, felt like a weird and uncomfortable choice. Many critics, like The Atlantic’s Shamira Ibrahim, Refinery29’s Kathleen Newman-Bremang, and Vulture’sAngelica Jade Bastién, have written about Bonnie’s poor treatment, and the show’s failure to meaningfully address her status as a black woman in an all-white town. These criticisms were levelled in season one, and, sadly, it doesn’t seem that the show has done that much to redeem itself. Kravitz is doing wonderful work, especially in a heart-wrenching confession monologue. I just wish the show had given her material worthy of her talent.
Speaking of unsatisfying season two storylines, Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) also falls into a rut. First her daughter (Kathryn Newton) refuses to go to college, which is a Really Big Deal until about episode three where we just…forget about it. Then, her marriage starts to fall about, which means we get five episodes of Reese Witherspoonstaring mournfully at a disinterested Adam Scott, before they abruptly fall back in love in the end.
Between all that, Witherspoon is given a few excellent monologues where she reflects on her infidelity guilt, and her identity crisis as a mother and a wife. But there’s only so many times we can watch Madeline plead to Ed “I don’t know how I can make you trust me again”, and it feels like the second-half of the season consists of us watching that scene on repeat.
Shailene Woodley is doing solid work as always, holding her own against heavyweights Streep, Kidman and Witherspoon (although whoever gave her that fringe should be fired). Between learning to overcome sexual trauma in her new romance with Corey (Douglas Smith) and coping with the now-public knowledge of her child’s parentage, Woodley is given plenty to do.
The same can’t be said of Laura Dern, who is spectacular as Renata, in a role that sadly limits her to comic relief for Twitter memes. After her husband Gordon’s (Jeffrey Nordling) dirty-dealings gets them bankrupt, Renata is forced to come to terms with the loss of her identity has a successful, high-powered, working mum who can have it all. This largely consists of Renata having hilarious, highly meme-able, meltdowns, such as when she kicks Gordon out of the car on a highway, storms out of a prison visiting room screaming “I will not not be rich!”, and takes a literal baseball bat to Gordon and his prized train toys in the finale. Although these moments are all very, very fun, it’s a shame that the script doesn’t let Renata have some quieter moments of nuance, as she deals with her world falling down around her. The one time the script gives Renata some depth, she really delivers, proving her dramatic chops in a heartbreaking monologue:
“Since I was old enough to dream of having my own family, I’ve been in my head planning my child’s life, what it would entail, what she would have, the opportunities I could give her. So I’m having a difficult time reconciling that all my dreams have gone to shit. All my hopes and plans for Amabella have gone to shit. I married a man who would take my life and all my accomplishments and just turn them to shit. That—that’s on me right? My choices. My stupidity. It’s my picker that’s broken. My fucking bad.”
Just Give Them Their Emmys Already: Kidman and Streep prove to be the best part of Season Two
The most engrossing storyline of the ‘Monterey Five’ is by far Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, a devastating portrait of a woman struggling to come to terms with the death of her abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) in season one’s finale. Through therapy sessions with Celeste and Dr Reisman (Robin Weiger), we see Celeste torn between being grateful for her newfound safety and mourning the ‘good’ parts of their marriage, like Perry’s playfulness with their sons, and their lively sex life. “You miss the war, Celeste”, her therapist tells her, after noting the comparisons between soldier’s PTSD and Celeste finding her safe, post-Perry life dull.
Kidman continue to do some of her best work of her career. Sadly, Alexander Skarsgård, whose work with Kidman in season one was some of the most compelling scenes of the show, now only exists in Celeste’s memory via flashback, which removes much of the tension from his scenes. However, Skarsgård is given a worthy replacement with Meryl Streep, who enters season two as a new character, Mary-Louise, Perry’s mother. Streep’s Mary-Louise is nosey, eccentric and unlikeable, but she’s also a mourning mother and a loving grandmother. By balancing these elements, Streep justifies Mary-Louise’s actions enough that, although she is clearly an antagonist, we can’t discount her as an outright villain.
“What’s Done is Done”: The Narrative Challenges of Making a Show About the Past
When Bonnie pushed Perry down those stairs in the season one finale, it marked a shocking and moving end to a very full and busy season. Whether it was the day-to-day bickering between the mothers of Monterey, the terror of Celeste and Perry’s volatile relationship, or Madeline trying to manage her feelings towards her husband, her ex-husband, and the man she’s sleeping with, season one was all about the present. A lot was going on in Monterey, the stakes were high, and the audience tension was too.
Flash forward to season two. Most of the drama and tension is revolving around something that already happened (Perry’s murder and the subsequent lie about his “accidental” death). For the Monterey Five, the season is largely about dealing with the regret and guilt that comes with the memory of that night. These characters are living in the past, which makes it hard as viewers, to be invested in a story that keeps returning to the same flashbacks.
The show seems to be aware of this problem, which is probably why season two lurches into a different direction in episode four when Mary-Louise announces her intention to file for custody of Celeste’s kids. Sure, writer and showrunner David E Kelley is known for his courtroom dramas, and sure, having Streep and Kidman square off on the witness stands looks great for their Emmy campaign. But the on-the-nose grandstanding court scenes, while perfect for awards campaigns, is a far cry from the nuanced and layered dialogue that made Big Little Lies so good in the first place.
Big Little Lies Season 2: Conclusion
In conclusion…*sigh*. HBO, determined to win some more Emmys, and replicate the lighting-in-a-bottle brilliance that was season one, made a season that fails to justify its existence. The beauty of season one came in its tight plotting and clear end point, that meant that every episode-built tension and depth before everything came into place in final episode.
In contrast, Big Little Lies season two started with no clear direction or end point and chucked in a courtroom showdown in the hope that a change in genre might give the show some needed-momentum. As in season one, each actress is doing incredible work this season. But not even Laura Dern with a baseball bat, and Meryl Streep and Nicole Kidman in a courtroom can justify making Big Little Lies season two.
What show are you looking forward to, now that Big Little Lies Season 2 is over?
(This article was originally posted on Film Inquiry)