A review of “I Want To Know,” the Big Little Lies Season Two finale, coming up just as soon as I have connections for my sugar cereals…
Midway through “I Want To Know,” Ed calms Madeline‘s fears about their marriage by offering to renew their vows. But, he tells her, “This is not some, like, ‘Put a tidy ribbon on it, bygones be bygones’ ending, OK? This is a shot at a new beginning.”
Which of those options was this finale meant to be? A tidy ribbon to the story of Big Little Lies, since the stars are all very busy and unlikely to converge again anytime soon, if ever? A shot at a new beginning, where a hypothetical third season would give the Monterey Five their day in court, even as most of the series’ other subplots and character arcs were resolved? Both? Neither?
With the future of this project cloudy at best — and whatever happened between director Andrea Arnold and the rest of the creative team only making it cloudier — it’s hard to tell exactly what David E. Kelley’s intentions were with this finale. But it’s also hard to feel enthused about the idea of the story continuing, in part because Season Two so often struggled to justify its own existence, all the way through this oddball finale.
The original miniseries incarnation of Big Little Lies told a complete story with a beginning, middle, and end in terms of plot, theme, and character. There were stray threads dangling — Would Ed find out about Madeline’s affair? Would anyone ever find out what really happened to Perry? — but not enough to merit continuing the show just to tie them off. Instead, the main argument for making this into an ongoing show was the chance to keep watching Kidman, Witherspoon, Dern, et al. working together — and, this time out, to enjoy the event that was Meryl Streep’s first TV series on top of that.
As an acting delivery system, BLL is still extraordinary. Even as this season’s story meandered and looped back in on itself and made strange left turns, the ensemble was giving it their very impressive all. The courtroom scenes of these last two episodes were often a mess, and yet there was Streep gasping for air as Celeste accused Mary Louise of killing her other son Raymond through rageful driving. The Ed/Madeline rift mostly went in circles — even the vow renewal doesn’t seem to really solve the problem of his ability to trust her going forward — but there was Adam Scott at his most vulnerably optimistic as Ed offered to give things another go. And I’ve run out of superlatives for the way Laura Dern has played Renata‘s many justified explosions, here resulting in Gordon‘s toys (and Gordon’s midsection) taking a deserved beating during her Godzilla-like, baseball-bat-wielding rampage. (Gordon brings it on himself by quipping that, with the nanny no longer around to have sex with, “I need something to play with, huh?”)
But my goodness, did it become frustrating watching these world-class performers give their all to such sketchy material. Too often, Season Two felt like a very long and expensive collection of deleted scenes from Season One — only displayed because they existed and the acting was wonderful, not because it was necessary, or at times even good, storytelling. Episodes tended to clock in around 45 minutes, on the extremely short side for pay cable, yet the amount of time devoted to characters staring at the ocean made them feel padded even at that length.
Last week’s episode seemed to be Kelley steering the show into his area of expertise by spending so much time in family court. But even though Kelley’s a former attorney with 11 previous Emmys, most of them for writing legal dramas, most of the courtroom scenes in the penultimate episode and this one felt extremely half-baked. Celeste emotionally broke Mary Louise, but the revelations about Perry’s brother felt almost anticlimactic. And then there was the sequence where Judge Cipriani allowed first Mary Louise, then Celeste, to interrupt her verdict with impromptu speeches that just rehashed points each had made before, only for Cipriani to resume delivering the verdict she’d already clearly decided on. Little of it made sense, other than the decision itself to let Celeste retain full custody of Max and Josh. And if the hope is to eventually make a third season, it would almost certainly involve even more legal maneuvering — to protect Bonnie, if not all five of them — which plays against the strengths of the show and, somehow at the moment, its showrunner and sole writer.
There were some nice grace notes elsewhere in the finale, like Corey assuring Jane that he doesn’t need perfection to be happy with her, or Nathan‘s response to hearing that Bonnie has never loved him. (The women in the cast rightly get the bulk of the accolades, but James Tupper, like Adam Scott, Jeffrey Nordling, and the other men, has also done fine work, even if their roles can also be underfed.) The courtroom scenes largely derailed whatever else was working over the back half of this season, but the finale brought most of the individual character arcs to resting places that felt like good enough endings for the major players.
And if I believed with certainty that this would be the end of the series, the image of the other four women joining Bonnie on her late-night trip to confess to the cops would be a good closing note. It wouldn’t retroactively excuse some of the various missteps of this year — or, really, this year’s existence at all, since so many of the problems came from trying to elongate a story that wasn’t intended to continue. (That everyone — including Madeline herself — admitted that it was dumb of Madeline to make everyone lie didn’t make the lie seem any less dumb as we had to watch its aftermath play out.) But because nothing in television is ever allowed to end anymore, we have to look at that as a possible new beginning, where Big Little Lies becomes a legal procedural even more than before.
Most of us went into this season with the sentiment that, yes, it was unnecessary, but it was also bringing Meryl effing Streep to our televisions to do battle with the women in this sterling returning cast. (Well, most of them; there wasn’t a whole lot between Mary Louise and Bonnie.) Is there a caliber of performer to rival Streep — both in terms of talent and the unlikelihood of them committing to a season of television — that could be brought in for a potential third season? It’s hard to imagine. Is there another kind of stunt that might bring comparable “I know this is a bad idea, but…” rationalizing from skeptical viewers? Never put it past Witherspoon the producer, though her attention is about to be split among the 57 or so other TV projects she has in development.
If this is the actual overdue ending of Big Little Lies, then we can feel grateful for getting to see this much acting talent concentrated in one place. But these great performances were in service to a story whose merits washed away in the Monterey surf a long time ago.