A review of “The Bad Mother,” this week’s Big Little Lies, coming up just as soon as I don’t fit in my wedding dress anymore…
When people talk about the talent involved in making Big Little Lies, the stars’ names understandably come up first. It’s such an impressive collection of actors, whose gifts are on full display throughout, that how could you not start with Laura Dern’s flair for using profanity as punctuation, or the haunted yet utterly natural quality of Nicole Kidman’s performance, or how completely watchable and appealing Reese Witherspoon is even when Madeline‘s behavior is the worst?
The behind-the-camera talent is immense, too. But if you’ve felt that Season Two has felt stylistically inconsistent — both with the first season and within these new episodes — an IndieWire story on Friday provided an explanation. Andrea Arnold, hired to succeed Jean-Marc Vallée aa the show’s director and artistic voice, was reportedly stripped of her autonomy and vision due to misgivings on the part of Vallée and showrunner David E. Kelley. It’s a mess, and a PR nightmare for a show about women, with two famous female executive producers (in Witherspoon and Kidman), to neutralize the female director in favor of the whims of two men.
The strangest thing about the story is how influential Kelley reportedly was in this process, because he’s always seemed like the oddest of fits here. He’s a TV guy — a Hall of Fame TV guy, at that, one of the best writers of oratory the medium has ever seen — on a production typified by movie people doing their first significant work in television. He’s a specialist in courtroom theatrics writing a story where most of the interpersonal drama takes place in cars and kitchens. And even though you could argue that the biggest footprint he’ll leave on pop culture was Ally McBeal, he’s scripting a show dominated by women, despite never being particularly good at writing for and about women. Throughout his career, he’s tended to write about the opposite sex from the outside looking in, as if they’re an alien species he hopes to understand if he watches them long enough.
The work of the cast, and the more muted palate and impressionistic style of Vallée and Arnold, have largely covered for some of the weaker or quirkier elements of Kelley’s writing. (Imagine an actor even slightly less gifted than Meryl Streep playing Mary Louise. The character would be an utter cartoon.) That Season Two eliminated the Greek chorus device with the other moms has also downplayed some of Kelley’s tics. But as we near the end of Season Two, this ongoing combination of show and screenwriter feels like Witherspoon and company are trying to prove they can throw a 99-mph fastball even using their non-dominant hand.
By taking place largely in and around the family court hearing — and by climaxing with Celeste promising to act as her own attorney and examine Mary Louise in front of Judge Ciprian and her friends — “The Bad Mother” felt much more like a David E. Kelley show than anything the series has previously offered. This has pluses and minuses. It’s Kelley finally getting to play to his strengths, particularly in the sequence where Ira Farber feigns sympathy for Celeste even as he’s grinding her into a fine powder while he examines her. Celeste has previously told both Madeline and Dr. Reisman about the ugly and complicated nature of her relationship with Perry, but that was in a controlled and private setting. The way Farber gets her to do it in public — while also challenging her with surveillance photos of the many men with whom she’s had sex since Perry died — he may as well have stripped her naked and lit her hair on fire in the middle of the courtroom. It’s brutal to watch, but also necessary to create any kind of illusion that Celeste could lose the case.
Even though they feature the same cast and the same visual and editing style — complete with Bonnie imagining herself confessing to the crime, in the same way she imagines euthanizing Elizabeth with a pillow — the family court scenes feel like a different show than the one we’ve been watching. Instead of Kelley bending himself to material for which he’s not ideally suited, now it’s him bending the entire show in a direction where it seems out of place. The climax of the season appears like it will take place on and around the witness stand, with Celeste (in a very Kelley move) volunteering to act as her own attorney so she can examine her hated mother-in-law. This should be a blast to watch, between Kidman and Streep thundering at one another and Kelley doing what he does better than anyone in television history. But will it be Big Little Lies at that point?
Some other thoughts:
* Right before Celeste announces her new plan, it seems like Judge Ciprian is about to wrap up the whole case without hearing from other witnesses. This seems odd, given all the talk in the previous episode about Mary Louise teaming up with Detective Quinlan to use the custody fight as a perjury trap to reopen the murder case. Presumably, we’ll see the other women testify in the finale, but the conclusion of this one implied they might not have had to were it not for Celeste’s new strategy.
* So the shot of Corey leaving the police station at the end of last week’s episode wasn’t exactly a fakeout, but it also wasn’t what it seemed. He claims to have been interviewed by Quinlan, but to be otherwise on the level with Jane about who and what he is.
* This week’s best Streep moment: Mary Louise shuts the door on Jane rather than listen to continued attacks on her son’s character, then stands near the door, her hands primly folded as her music drowns out Jane’s screaming, Streep’s posture neatly conveying how above-it-all Mary Louise feels.
* Bonnie ultimately chooses to confess not to the police, but to her incapacitated and mostly sleeping mother. The most interesting part of her speech is a thought she doesn’t finish: “I resent you for making me feel so fucking worthless that I settled for a man that I don’t…” So she doesn’t love Nathan? Doesn’t respect him? Doesn’t share the same taste in music?
* I alluded to it up top, but the way that Dern uses each F-bomb as a combination of punctuation, emphasis, and catharsis as Renata deals with the news that Gordon has been sleeping with their nanny, Juliette, is a work of art.
* It’s nice to see that Adam Scott can apply his gift for appearing profoundly uncomfortable to drama as well as he can to comedy. The scene where Tori again propositions Ed, while Ed notices all the men he knows walking by the coffee shop, was a marvel of squirminess.
One episode left. How do they wrap this one up, and will there be an attempt to clearly set up a third season?