Five Years Out, Still Thinking About the Monterey Five: Big Little Lies Retrospective
Conclusion: Why I Thought the Second Season was Underrated and Why I Think (and hope) There Should Be A Third
You can’t discuss the second season of Big Little Lies without discussing the one big cast addition: Meryl Streep. If the only reason Kelley and his cast decided to do another season to work with her, I have no complaints. Incredibly, this was the first time Streep had been on screen with any of the five exceptional actresses of the stars (she had co-starred with Kidman in The Hours, the film that won the latter her Oscar, but because of the timelines, the two had never appeared in the same scene).
It’s a credit to yet another of the greatest actresses of all time that Streep spends so much of the seasons looking diminished and speaking mildly; she shows almost no emotion at all throughout the season. But by the first episode, we know that Mary Louise, the mother of Perry, is just as much a monster as her son is. The major difference is that while Perry expressed his rage towards others with physical violence, Mary Louise does so with emotionally so. Very quickly, we know that everything she says has a hidden meaning and is design to wound anyone she encounters. Most of them are the Monterrey Five (the term that now surrounds the five leads because of their actions surrounding Perry’s death), as she psychologically using every cutting phrase with the veneer of civility so that not even the characters that are being attacked know the danger.
I have many grudges against the Emmys for the 2019–2020 season (and I’m going to go through quite a few of them here) and among the biggest is that Streep lost the Best Supporting Actress prize to Julia Garner for Ozark. It’s not so much that I mind Garner winning (she is by far the best thing about a series I utterly loathe) as that she defeated Streep who gave, in my opinion, one of her best performances of her work in the past decade. (It’s far superior to the work she did in The Iron Lady which won her another Academy Award, to state the most obvious example.). Streep has played many difficult women over the years, as well as quite a few outright heavies, but she has rarely played a character so ruthless and single-minded in her approach to her goals as well as utterly determined not to ever change her views. When she learned of Perry’s rape of Jane, she attacks Celeste as a reason for knowing ‘he was unfaithful to you’. She initially denies that Ziggy is Perry’s son and keeps saying that Jane did something to lead him on all the way through the season. When she decides to seek out custody of Celeste’s sons, I have always gotten the feeling that it had nothing to do with the safety of them as it was taking possession of what she considered her property — there was nothing in her interactions with her attorney where she showed any sign of warmth or affection towards them; it was ‘what’s best for the boys.’ And in the season finale, when Celeste finally managed to turn the tables on Mary Louise after posturing and revealed the brutal truths about her son — and by extension, her own — behavior — there is absolutely no sign in her last two scenes that she still believes she is wrong, either about her son or her own judgments. Celeste spends much of the season talking with the detective in charge of the case about Perry’s death, but she’s not interested in justice — she was revenge.
I ranked the second season at the time as one of the ten best series of 2019, and while I fundamentally acknowledge that it is nowhere near the caliber of the first season, the truth is, how many shows are after a great first one? And I fundamentally believe that Kelley, working in concert with Moriarty on the scripts for that season, did a very good at showing the after effects of all the chaos surrounding the leads. All of Madeline’s chickens come home to roost in the second season, when both the fact that she withheld knowledge of Ziggy’s parentage and the affair she had with the theater director, are learned by Ed through her children. We learn that she is responsible for putting forth the real ‘lie’ at the center of Season 2 — that Perry tripped and convinced everybody to cover it up — and this starts the slow steady erosion of the relationship between the five women, as well as the near breakup of her marriage. Ed, who showed hostility towards Madeline and Nathan throughout the first season, now becomes angry towards everybody, especially Madeline; when he sees her break down in a school assembly, he barely hangs around in the aftermath long enough to insult her friends. Adam Scott’s work was ignored by Emmy voters for both season, and it’s certainly superior to many of the nominated performer in the Supporting Actor category, certainly those from Succession. And the fact Reese Witherspoon was in three projects that received Emmy nominations for other cast members (The Morning Show and Little Fires Everywhere were the others) but was ignored for all of them, is one of the biggest robberies in the history of the Academy.
Laura Dern’s work is somewhat separate from the major leads, but of course, her arc has some of the best parts of Season 2. (She certainly got some of the very best lines, only one of which I can quote: “I will not not be rich!) A lot of what happened to Renata in Season 2 actually is canon: her husband Gordon was involved in a financial scheme, did have an affair with the nanny, and eventually she did leave him. Watching everything Renata spent the first season being proud of disappear out from under her is utterly devastating; the fact that she has to deal with it on top of covering up the lie is horrifying.
Watching Jane trying to recover from the revelation of Perry as her rapist also shows brilliant work from her. When Ziggy learns the truth about his birth in the worst possible way, she is forced to confront the horror she had hoped to protect her son from. Throughout the season we see her trying to build a relationship with a co-worker, and she begins to tell the truth about her own life. We also see her physically recoil at times from his touch, and we realize she’s still dealing with the fallout from the fact the assault. (It’s implied, though Kelley and Moriarty never state it directly, that this is the first time Jane has tried to have sex since Perry’s assault.). In a series filled with so many dark moments, one of the few genuine pleasures was watching Jane finally have sex with him for the first time in the final minutes; of the Monterey Five, only she and Madeline have a future ahead of them that looks relatively positive.
But of course the revelation of the second season is Zoe Kravitz as Bonnie. A much reduced role compared to the four bigger names in Season 1, Kravitz takes the lead and shows how brilliant a performer it is. Many critics harped on the fact that so much of Bonnie’s backstory, particularly the presence of her memorably flaky mother (Crystal Fox) was baggage the season didn’t need. The thing is much of what we learn about Bonnie in Season 2 is also in the book. Bonnie was in abusive family situation throughout her formative years (she spent much of her childhood in foster care), and the fact that she pushed Perry at the climax of the book was because she was reacting to so much of what happened to her in her childhood, much as Bonnie tells her comatose mother in the next to last episode of the season. And a lot of the greatest work in Season 2 was watching Bonnie sleepwalk from place to place, avoiding her husband, refusing to talk to the other women and then beginning to place blame on Madeline, and making trips every few days to the police station, preparing to confess her crime. In the book it is far clearer than Perry’s death is an accident, and that the only crime was not covering it up. In the series, it becomes murkier in the fact that Bonnie was acting out a sense of rage that has been a part of her life pretty much since childhood.
I still hold, fundamentally, that the second season of Big Little Lies deserved to be nominated for Best Drama that year. It was far superior to Westworld, the machinations that allowed The Handmaid’s Tale to be nominated two straight years for the same season have always struck me as unfair, and The Mandalorian shouldn’t be talked about in the same sentence. (The same argument, for the record, goes for This is Us.) And I think much of the hostility I bear Zendaya in particular and Euphoria in general originates from the fact that she was nominated — and eventually won the Best Actress Emmy — for a series that is even further from reality than The Mandalorian is. The fact that Euphoria only had its original success because it benefitted from Big Little Lies as its lead-in has done nothing to alleviate that feeling after three years. Nothing about her work, then or now, holds a candle to the performances that Kidman or Witherspoon gave in the second season and that is a grudge I will take to my grave.
To explain why I think there still could be a third season, I think I need to get more personal. My mother and I watched every episode of both seasons of Big Little Lies together. Her tastes are more discriminating than mine, but she’s always been a huge David E. Kelley fan and the cast was too good for her to resist (even before Streep got involved). By the second season, we managed to lure my father in to the mystery and he can be even pickier.
When the second season finished, my mother and I disagreed whether there would ever be a third season. She thought the story was finally wrapped up with the image of Bonnie walking into the police station, surrounding by the other women. And to be sure, it’s hard to argue that there isn’t symmetry to it.
The thing is I still believe there are still stories to be told about these women. Perhaps they could be told after whatever punishment Bonnie ends up facing for her crimes. (For those who didn’t read the book, Bonnie does eventually do what we see in the series and faces minimal punishment and sentence; given the circumstances of the crime, it’s likely that would happen in real life as well.) Perhaps the story could tell us what is like for Bonnie when she leaves prison and has the face the community after her sentence. Perhaps we could see what the stigma around the Monterey Five, just whispers before, happen once a society that buries its truths has to face the fact some of their most prominent citizens were a part of it.
What would the marriage of Madeline and Ed be like now that he knows the truth about the biggest lie of all? What is the fate of Renata, now bankrupt and on the verge of leaving her husband? What stigmas will surround Jane when it becomes public that a member of the community raped her? What stigmas will surround Celeste now that she’s known as being part of an abused marriage? And how will all of these children — who spent much of the first season as proxies for the wars their mothers were waging — deal with these problems as they grow old enough to understand them?
Right now, the fate of Big Little Lies remains unknown. HBO has never renewed it for a third season, but they haven’t officially cancelled it either. Given the factors I listed at the beginning of the article about the cast and writers, it becomes more and more unlikely with each passing year that a third season will ever happen. Yet the actors have never ruled it out either.
Maybe the real reason I want there to be a third season despite all the odds is the simple fact I consider it comfort TV. I realize how absurd that sounds given the darkness of the material, but anyone who watched the show knows that it was also extremely funny at times. But more than that there is something about it that just makes me feel warm. Sometimes just hearing the opening music, watching the close-ups of the leads driving down the highway with their children, seeing them dressed as various incarnations of Audrey Hepburn, can make me feel warm after a hard day. There is something about watching the work of these extraordinary women looking like they have it all — which as we now know is the biggest little lie of all — that makes me glad that I’ve chosen my profession as a TV critic. I look at this series and I know, perhaps more than with even shows that are more complicated, what the medium is capable of. And like the characters at a critical point, I find myself wanting to shout: “I want more!” I think we all do.