The Lies Got Bigger, The Drama Got Better

A Reflection on Big Little Lies Second Season

It’s always harder to measure when a ‘season’ begins for a cable network, where original programming can be found every few weeks. But if one measures HBO’s season starting last July and beginning in June, there is an interesting symmetry. Last July, HBO debuted Sharp Objects, a female dominated drama, written by Gillian Flynn, and directed by Jean-Marc Vallee, which was based on the best selling novel that was centered on the poisoned relationship between a mother and her daughters that involved decades of psychological and emotional abuse, and culminated in murder. Led by the formidable actresses Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson (who received much deserved Emmy nominations for their work last week) it dripped, dripped, dripped until the climax came.

Yesterday, almost a year ago to the day, the second season finale of Big Little Lies aired. Originally based on a best-selling novel, when the second season was announced late in 2017, many (myself included) had considerable doubts whether it made sense to do another season of a work that seemed utterly complete when it ended. The doubts were resolved very quickly when we first saw Meryl Streep’s superb work as Mary Louise White, Celeste’s mother-in-law, a woman whose quiet behavior hid the fact that she was just as emotionally disturbed as her son — she just dealt psychological damage rather than physical abuse.

It is clear that the fallout for the actions of the Monterey Five (as they were referred to repeatedly throughout the second season) was internal. Each of them had to deal with their own level of damage during every aspect of their lives. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) spent most of the second season trying to repair the damage with her husband, who was doubly scarred when he learned about Madeline’s lie about Jane and her infidelity. Of all the survivors, she did everything she could to try and save her marriage, and her relationship may be saved.

The damage was far darker and not always the same for everyone else. Jane (Shailene Woodley) had to deal with Ziggy learned the truth about his conception and his parentage. She spent most of the season trying to build a relationship with a co-worker, who she clearly liked, but couldn’t connect with sexually because of the trauma of her assault. She was also further betrayed by the fact that he was brought in by the police for questioning, but it was the help of Ziggy (the incredible Ian Armitage) that eventually got her to move forward. In a time when HBO can rely so much on titillation, the filming on their love scene was one of the more subtle moments.

Renata (Laura Dern) had to deal with outside events. In the second episode, she learned her husband was guilty of embezzlement and securities fraud. She spent most of the season trying to deal with the humiliation of being dragged through bankruptcy court, and then finally to learn that her husband had been sleeping with her trusted nanny.. More than almost any other actress in this incredible cast, Dern had some of the most glorious moments in this season, climaxing when she finally released all of her pent up frustration at her husband by destroying a train set that he had tried to cheat the government from selling. Dern’s work is some of the best in her storied career.

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But by far the biggest surprise of this entire series was the work of Zoe Kravitz. Bonnie was given very little to do in the first season, but in the second season, reeling from her actions of pushing Perry, Kravitz was a revelation. Dealing with the guilt by ignoring her husband, and taking trips out to the precinct, she also had to deal with the problems with her mother. An alcoholic and emotionally damaged mother, Bonnie had clearly never been happy with her, and when her mother suffered a stroke halfway through the series, the feelings continues to bubble up, and in a way of penance, she spent most of her days and nights and her mother’s hospital bed, trying to deal with her brief emergence from a coma with the words ‘kill me’. Kravitz had two of the best moments of any actress so far this season; first when she gave a confession to her comatose mother of all the things she was angry at her for, and then when she told her husband, Nathaniel (Madeline’s ex) that she didn’t think she’d ever loved him. It was incredible work that is likely to be, as was her fashion last time, overshadowed by brighter suns.

Which would be Streep and Kidman. Celeste spent the majority of Season 2 dealing with the afterlife of someone whose been abused for years: she missed her abuser. Even after everything he did to her, she was still trying to justify her love for Perry. She kept getting high on Ambien, having sexual encounters with strangers, and dealing with a mother-in-law who refused to believe the worst in her son, even despite the evidence. The battle between climaxed in a courtroom (this is, after all, a David E. Kelley show), where Celeste finally brought out Mary Louise’s emotional failing — and it was tied to yet another trauma — the death of Perry’s brother in a car accident as a child, where Mary Louise had been yelling at him, and spent the rest of his childhood emotionally battering him. And even at the end, it’s unclear how much, if any, blame Mary Louise takes for her part in creating her son.

Now for the question that I have no doubt millions are asking: will there be a season 3? Once again, it seems very possible, given the last shot of the episode, that they have come to a natural conclusion for the show. But one could make the exact same argument for the ending of Season 1, and we got a second season regardless. There is, of course, the economics: in a post Game of Thrones world, will HBO try to prolong any series that has a measure of critical and ratings success? That is, after all, how television works, even in the New Golden Age. More to the point, I actually think there might be room for a third season. (Hell, considering all the traumas the children have gone through or might face in the future, maybe in ten years, we’ll get Big Little Lies: The Next Generation.) All I know is, after Season 1, I thought the story was over. After Season 2, I wanted to know what happened next.

Big Little Lies has the makings of great things for Peak TV. I’m more than willing to put it on my top ten list for 2019, and I have no doubt the female acting categories for next year’s Emmys are all but spoken for. (The biggest question is, who will be in the Lead, and who will be Supporting?) I don’t know if there will be more for Big Little Lies. But I really want there to be.

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