You might notice something strange in the opening credits of HBO’s Big Little Lies season 2. Once names like Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman fade from your screen, you’ll see the words “With Alexander Skarsgård” appear. The cast listing is jarring the first time it pops up for one very simple reason: Skarsgård's character, Perry Wright, is very dead. In fact, as we learn in season 1 finale “You Get What You Need,” all of Big Little Lies’ inaugural run is leading up to Perry's trip down a set of rickety stairs.
How can someone that dead return for their series’ second season? The easy answer is in this case is flashbacks and dream sequences. But, Perry's return isn't about continuing an abuser's story. Instead, it's all about delving into Celeste Wright's (Nicole Kidman) own tale.
2019 premiere “What Have They Done,” opens with a mostly silent check-in with the Monterey Five. Each one spends their nagging pre-dawn hours haunted by the secrets of the previous season. For Witherspoon’s Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Witherspoon), it’s her affair. For Jane (Shailene Woodley) it’s the events that led to her rape. For everyone, it’s the night Perry attacked them and the fact Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz) pushed him down the stairs (this is the first time we actually see Perry). For the now-widowed Celeste, that moment bleeds into her other nighttime memories of her husband: The day they visited the in vitro clinic. Memories of him playing with their sons (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti. The addictive push and pull of their toxic relationship: violent one second, intoxicatingly seductive the next.
These flashback/dream scenes appear to be new — as do the many that follow — explaining why Skarsgård gets an acting credit for season 2.
It is the last sleepy moment that reveals why Perry was brought back to the Big Little Lies world. Celeste will spend the season grappling with her own complicated feelings about her husband. As we see in the dream sequence, a part of her wanted to kill Perry for abusing her. First, Dream Celeste sees Perry with a bloody scratch on his face, which we can assume he gave him. In the next scene, Celeste is choking Perry in the same way he would hurt her. But then the mood changes. They’re kissing. She smiling. It’s sexy.
Towards the end of “What Have They Done,” Celeste slips into a similar memory. At the start of it, she and Perry are in their underwear, enjoying a beautiful moment of intimacy that isn’t exactly sexual. These are just two people who seem to be very in love holding each other and swaying. In the next memory, Perry and Celeste kiss in their kitchen. You can see their sons’ artwork on the fridge behind them. It’s the picture of domestic bliss. Then Celeste remembers all the times Perry was a genuinely loving father. Unlike Celeste's morning dream, this bit of recollection doesn’t dip into her anger over the Perry who was a serial abuser.
That rage doesn’t come until the evening, when she dreams of the day she and the other BLL ladies were taken into the police station after his death. Only this time, Perry is alive, well, and going to accuse one of the women of harming him. Jolting awake, Celeste yells, “[I’ll] fucking kill you! No!”
That’s because all of these flashbacks, and Perry’s presence in general this season, exist to help Celeste reckon with her past love for a man who hurt her. Hence the repeated mix of sensuality, terrifying aggression, and sweetness. It seems impossible Perry, who viciously attacked Celeste and her friends in his final moments, could hold so many multitudes. And, yet, he did. Of course Celeste is still trying to understand what this all means, while trapped in the vacuum of shock that comes with the unexpected death of a spouse (even one you were planning to leave). If Big Little Lies is going to make a case for its second season, it has to dive into her growth through such a massive emotional obstacle.
Celeste’s current opinion on her husband's confounding and painful history can best be summed up by her therapy conversation with Dr. Amanda Reisman (Robin Weigert). While describing her episode-opening dream, Celeste says, “It was beyond disturbing… And a little exhilarating.”
That may just be Big Little Lies in a nutshell.