Five very different women, one very big lie: That’s the premise of Big Little Lies, HBO’s lush drama, back for its second season.
Of course, the show, which is based on Liane Moriarty’s best-selling book, is about much more than a single lie. It’s about friendship, motherhood, survival, classism, and really gorgeous real estate. But one murderous lie ties our main characters, the “Monterey Five,” together — Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), and Renata Klein (Laura Dern).
From the moment the opening credits roll on season 2’s premiere episode, “What Have They Done,” it’s clear that while the characters are the same (with the addition of a few key faces like Meryl Streep as Mary Louis Wright and Mo McRae as Michael Perkins, the town’s new educational eye candy), there are some major changes afoot in Monterey, CA. Not least of which is the loose and conversational style of the show’s new director, Andrea Arnold (American Honey, Fish Tank) who replaces season 1 director Jean Marc Vallé (Sharp Objects).
The episode picks up months after Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgård) death — excuse me, “accident.” (Word on the street is he lost his balance and fell.) Spliced between each of the women’s narratives is a clip from their police interviews about the night of the death. Celeste is bruised and crying. Madeline fiddles with her ring as she describes the animalistic instinct that came over her and the other girls when they saw Perry strike Celeste at the gala.
As far as the women know, the police have nothing on them and everyone’s moved on. Ha!
Now, it’s the first day of second grade and the moms, forever intertwined by a bloody thread, are already back on their bullshit. Madeline is practically pulsating over the impending Mommy Wars sure to arise during the school year, while Celeste is as broken and delicate as ever. Jane looks emotionally and spiritually lighter and unburdened (the only obstacle in her life is her new set of blunt, black bangs), and Renata is...Renata. But Bonnie — sweet, zen, lithe Bonnie — is awash with guilt and slowly drifting further from her family and friends.
Celeste is having nightmares — disturbing, graphic, and haunting nightmares. She keeps waking up her new housemate, Mary Louise, with them. Perry’s mother has been staying at her late son’s home since his death, unofficially relocating from San Francisco. She’s been helpful, of course, by making dinner, running errands, and taking care of the boys — but her presence is almost as stifling as Perry’s was. There’s no longer any abuse happening within the walls of Celeste’s glass house, but there is a constant reminder of what really happened that night. And there are the nightmares.
“You said rape,” Mary Louise tells Celeste in the first scene of the premiere, shaking her awake.
“Something about a rape.” During a conversation with her therapist (who is still as therapist-y as ever) Celeste calls herself a monster and admits she feels “responsible” for the accident, which is why she thinks she is having these night terrors. The therapist suggests a wildcard solution: date! Go out and meet a man to get your mind off Perry. Celeste is thrown by the idea, but is this a teaser for a hot, juicy fling in Celeste’s future? (She deserves it!) Later, in the final scene of the episode, Celeste jerks awake in the middle of the night during one of her most violent nightmares yet. Mary Louise is, of course, immediately by her side, stroking her back. Quoting her daughter-in-law’s final words before waking up, the grandmother asks, “So, who do we have to kill?” Celeste is referring to killing Perry, and Mary Louise’s wicked expression hints that she knows just that.
Everything in Celeste’s life goes back to Perry. Every conversation with Mary Louise, with Madeline, and with Jane, who tries to have an awkward talk with her about the fact that, before it turned dark and violent, Jane had been flirting with a married man — Celeste’s man. It’s a strange, honest comment to make, but Celeste insists she does not care. Perry was a monster. Jane is not. But the conversation makes one wonder if one day Ziggy and the twins will ever know each other as brothers? The boys are only in second grade, but the closer Jane and Celeste get, the guiltier they are going to feel about keeping such a huge secret from their kids.
As if Celeste’s dark moments aren’t enough, she also has to handle her mother-in-law and sons’ freakouts. Over dinner one night, Mary Louise reaches a breaking point. Seated across from the boys, who have grown increasingly more violent in the months without their father, Mary Louis lets out a hair-raising howl that can only be described as an Emmy Moment(™). (An Emmy Moment(™) is the moment in a show when an actor goes to the absolute brink of sanity to portray an emotion, and viewers know that that is the sound of their Emmy falling into their lap. Previous moments include Darren Criss Saran-wrapping a man in American Horror Story: Versace and Glenn Close doing anything in Damages.)
Madeline Martha Mackenzie
“This is the first day of school, we have to earn our good mom badges all over again,” Madeline vents to Ed (Adam Scott) on their way to the second grade assembly. She speaks the truth. And the good mom badges matter more than ever since only a short while ago the whole town thought she might have pushed Perry to his death. Plus, she has to single-handedly convince Abigail (Kathryn Newton) to attend college since her ex, Nathan (James Tupper), is too distracted with Bonnie’s emotional detachment to talk to his daughter about her future. “Once I lean in, you know how I get” aka Madeline’s stressed, y’all!
In the premiere, M-cubed has multiple face-offs, one after the other: Chloe (Darby Camp), for playing music too loudly; the school’s principal, for being an asshole; Nathan, for being an absent father; Abigail, for wanting to skip college and work at a start-up focusing on the homeless; and, the biggest face-off of all is with Mary Louise.
The feud between Mary Louise and Madeline will feed me all summer. It starts at a coffee shop that smells like weed when Mary Louis calls Madeline short (“I find little people to be untrustworthy”) and says she seems like the type of person who “wants.” It continues at Madeline’s place of employment (of course she works as a real estate agent now — I’m sure she binges Selling Sunset to relax). Mary Louise tells Madeline that she called her short and shady because Madeline reminds her of a friend from boarding school who was both short and shady. Basically, Mary Louise thinks Madeline is a two-faced bitch, a concept that, after their screaming session over college in her bedroom, Abigail would surely agree with.
Bonnie is shut down. She killed someone and she cannot get over it. (“I am angry with myself.”) Bonnie wishes she was given the option to tell the truth, but instead she had to “swallow it all.” The lie is eating her up, and she doesn’t feel like she has the kind of support she needs from the rest of the group.
In the episode we see Bonnie run, cry, run, cry, and visit the police station at night. She stares at it — contemplating the value of her own sanity and peace of mind against the lives of the four other women.
In season one, Jane was defined by her love of running (the nervous habit that Bonnie has now adopted), but her runs always ended with a near suicide attempt. Now, her runs are joyful and carefree. She dances to “Mystery of Love” by Sufjan Stevens (does Call Me By Your Name exist in this universe? Is she a fan?) in the waves, and she smiles at strangers.
Jane is moving on. She has a new job at an aquarium and better relationship with her son Ziggy (Iain Armitage), but she still has a lot of her past to deal with. Unlike Celeste, she wants to talk about the complicated journey they are on together. She asks Celeste if she’s glad that Perry’s dead and Celeste can’t answer. But for Jane, nothing about it is complicated — she’s thrilled he’s dead — as long as they all don’t get caught. Speaking of getting caught, one comment from Celeste to Jane sounds like there is a loose thread in their scheme. Jane isn’t cashing the checks Celeste has been sending her as child support for Ziggy. She says they’re “rape checks” and she can’t bring herself to cash them. What will the police think when they see checks from the Wright family to Ms. Chapman? Plus, Jane has taken to drawing OA-looking sketches of Perry’s face. Let’s hope she destroys them after….
Renata isn’t demure. Or quiet. Or collaborative, really. She is Renata — a force to be reckoned with. Knowing her place as the only businesswoman in the Monterey Five, and one of the few in the town, she gives a crisp warning to Amabella’s (Ivy George) new teacher: “My Amabella was bullied last year, like biting and choking, so we are gonna make sure THAT doesn’t happen again.” She’s all arms, fake smiles, and power.
The power bleeds into her one major scene of the episode, which is fucking perfect. She’s standing in a cherry red dress, seducing the camera while posing for a spread in a magazine. Diana Ross’ “It’s My House” is playing as Renata gestures towards her home and its drool-worthy view. It’s her house. Don’t forget that.
The Husbands are so dense. None of them — not one — mention Perry’s name, despite their wives all being questioned about his death. Their lack of curiosity about the night may be addressed later in the season, but in this premiere it reads as foolish. A significant amount of time has passed since the sudden death of their acquaintance and this is a small town that runs on gossip, as we are often reminded. So why aren’t they talking about it more? The only guy who brings it up is the surfer dude who catches Jane dancing to the Call Me By Your Name soundtrack, and tells her that he knows she’s one of “them,” referring to moms/possible killers.
Nathan, Bonnie’s husband and Madeline’s ex, acknowledges that something is up with Bonnie, but he is so helpless at communicating that he asks Ed for help. Well, he asks Ed to take Bonnie out to dinner and get her to open up. Ed laughs — Are you serious? When Ed isn’t receptive to the idea, Nathan immediately gets defensive and scoffs, “You’re a snide fuck!” Maybe the guys need learn from their wives and murder someone together to get along better!
Speaking of people who need to get along better, Renata’s husband, Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) is in a bad place. He gets drunk in his train room (yeah, sus) while Renata hosts her girl power photoshoot on their balcony. He’s antisocial and disheveled, two qualities Renata loathes. Does he suspect his wife had something to do with Perry’s death?
-The floppy-haired surfer boy may have called Jane a murderer, but he can still get it. I mean, they work together and Jane deserves a little romance. Speaking of — where’s the latte guy from season one?
-Abigail needs to read up on Olivia Jade and watch her mouth! And social media channels.
-Madeline doesn’t “care about fucking homeless people!” and tells her daughter that she will have “no life” if she doesn’t go to college. The root of the conversation is Madeline’s own lack of a college education, which left her trapped until her previous marriage ended.
Big Little Lies is on Sky Atlantic and Now TV from June 10