Big Little Lies is back for Season Two. I reviewed it earlier this week, and I have many thoughts on the premiere, “What Have They Done?” — with full spoilers — coming up just as soon as my grief is too loud for you…
Late in the episode, Jane asks Celeste if she’s glad that Perry is dead. “It’s complicated,” Celeste replies.
Welcome back to Big Little Lies, same as it ever was — just more complicated.
In the premiere, the creative team — Andrea Arnold succeeding Jean-Marc Vallée as director, David E. Kelley back on scripts, with Liane Moriarty still providing story help even as the show has moved past the events of her book — has a tight needle to thread. On the one hand, they don’t want to mess with the very winning combination of these characters, the great actors playing them and this fascinating, deeply privileged world in which they live. On the other hand, Season One ended with Bonnie killing Perry in defense of the other women. That can’t be ignored, as either a legal, moral or emotional matter. Perry’s death ties “the Monterey Five” (as Jane’s new coworker Corey describes them) together. It’s made Renata into one of the gang, while giving Bonnie an entirely different reason to feel estranged from Madeline and the others. This isn’t like Friday Night Lights Season Two, where two of the characters got involved in an ill-conceived murder plot. That one was so separate from every other story that FNL quickly decided to pretend it had never happened. That’s not possible here. Perry’s violence united these five, and his death has repercussions for his abused widow, his rape victim, his killer, and on and on.
For the most part, “What Have They Done?” succeeds in its delicate task. It’s the same show, only with a lot more guilt and grief and secrecy. There are moments where even the characters question the plotting — Bonnie tells Madeline (probably correctly) that if they had just told the cops the truth, she’d have gone free — but they’re also not suddenly turning into Vic Mackey or Walter White. Four of them meet in a car after hearing about their new nickname, but they are still civilians acting like such. Even as they worry about what Detective Quinlan does and doesn’t know, they’re still dealing with less explosive problems: Can Madeline talk Abigail into going to college? Will Ed and Nathan ever get along?(*) Could Renata look any more like a superhero in her magazine photo shoot?
(*) Bonus points to whoever decided to have James Tupper say “snide fuck” as if it was just one word in the scene where Ed and Nathan are swapping insults like always.
Symbolizing this tricky balancing act — not to mention the main argument for the series’ transformation into an ongoing concern — is the introduction of Meryl effing Streep. It’s a spectacular bit of casting and a spectacular introduction. We see clips from the first season, cut together in the same elliptical, dream-like fashion that Vallée favored. Soon the clips (some of them brand-new) are focusing largely on Celeste and Perry, and going faster and faster, more and more violent each time, until they are revealed to be a nightmare Celeste is waking up from — only to be confronted with the waking nightmare that is Perry’s intrusive, inquisitive mother, Mary Louise, standing over her in the bed. Were Kathy Bates playing the part, Annie Wilkes-style, she couldn’t look any scarier than Streep does in the moment.
The episode that follows largely slow-plays the threat Mary Louise poses to Celeste, and to the Monterey Five as a whole. She is a headache — and at times, like her encounter with Madeline, a cartoonishly awful one — but in the early going could be any grieving mother trying and sometimes failing to be of use to her daughter-in-law and grandsons. But her blinders about Perry are still on, and her presence further blurs Celeste’s own attempts to look back on her marriage. Season One already established that the marriage was not a black-and-white case of an abusive husband and an abused wife — that there was violence baked into their sexual dynamic, and that Celeste derived some pleasure from that, even as she was so often terrified of her husband outside of it. Dr. Reisman and others keep trying to encourage her to let go of the happier memories of Perry and get on with her life. But Alexander Skarsgård is still a cast member on the show, and Perry is very much an ongoing presence in Celeste’s emotional life, whether she wants him there or not. Later, when one of the twins talks about missing his dad, Mary Louise admits that sometimes the grief just makes her want to scream — and then she does exactly that. To the list of things which Meryl Streep is better at than everyone else, we can now add screaming, because the sound that emerges from her mouth is alien and freaky and disturbing, even as it also seems to be a controlled display for Celeste and the boys.
The hour closes as it opens, with Celeste having another nightmare and again waking to Mary Louise’s inquisitive face. This time, the dream is her and the other women in a police lineup, still in their Audrey Hepburn costumes from Trivia Night, with Perry emerging from the darkness to finger them all for his murder. Celeste screams, “I’ll fucking kill you!” — out loud, not just in the dream, prompting her now very curious mother-in-law to ask, “So, who are we planning to kill?”
Now, there are ways in which most of this episode’s stories (as well as the ones in the other two hours I’ve seen) could have been told in a world where Bonnie confessed and was cleared of all charges. The interwoven questions of who died and who killed them were a huge narrative and marketing hook for the first season, and the choice to have the women cover it up was made before anyone knew the show would continue. So this is the story BLL has to keep telling, and “What Have They Done?” is a very promising continuation of that story.