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“You’re Very Short”: Breaking Down the Season 2 Premiere of ‘Big Little Lies’

The first ladies of Monterey—plus Meryl Streep—are back, with a whole new set of problems, guilty consciences, and backhanded compliments

HBO/Ringer illustration
Spoiler alert

The sound of waves crashing against jagged rocks is growing louder, the strumming and humming of Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart” more distinct—that’s right, Big Little Lies has returned! The star-studded miniseries is no longer a miniseries. So join us each week as we recap the latest in lies, backhanded compliments, and carpool crises. The journey begins with the Season 2 premiere, “What Have They Done?”

Ah, the start of another school year at Otter Bay Elementary. So much has changed in Monterey since we last visited. Jane got bangs! Tori had her breasts done! Madeline is selling real estate! Renata’s husband got really into toy trains!

Also: Mary Louise Wright, mother to Perry, has come down from San Francisco to help Celeste with the boys. Mary Louise, by the by, is played by Meryl Streep, which means that Meryl Streep is in Big Little Lies, which means that Big Little Lies episodes now feature Meryl Streep, which means that the Meryl Streep–starring Big Little Lies is currently on the air. She does not, needless to say, disappoint. (Has she ever?) Helping with the boys, however, doesn’t seem to be Mary Louise’s top priority. It turns out that she’s much more interested in finding out what really happened to her son at last year’s fundraiser, and seeking possibly extralegal justice.

There’s still plenty of day-to-day drama to go around, though. Nathan and Bonnie are in a rut; Jane appears to have ditched cute coffee shop guy in favor of cute aquarium guy; Abigail would rather go work at a startup than take on student debt for college (which, I mean, rock on); and Amabella’s IQ is very high—just so you know.

Now, on to the rest of it.

The Investigation Into the Death of Perry Wright

On the surface, things seem to be going well for the Monterey Five: Renata reports that a friend of hers—Susie Burke from IBM, you know her? No?—is, ahem, very close with one of the detectives, and that she’d heard that the case “isn’t closed-closed, but they’ve got nothing.”

But there are two complications. One: Bonnie, who actually shoved Perry down the stairs, is wracked by guilt—even after spending, unthinkably, an entire summer meditating in Tahoe. Forever on a higher, chiller plane throughout Season 1, Bonnie is now anxious and angry, to the point that Nathan, apparently no more adept at parsing his second wife’s emotions than he was Madeline’s, thinks she’s mad at him. Bonnie goes so far as to show up at a police station, ostensibly to turn herself in, before she loses her nerve.

Complication no. 2: Mary Louise, who is convinced that her son’s death was the result of foul play. Making matters worse: Celeste has been having nightmares, and it seems that she has a habit of talking in her sleep. After waking up from one particularly nasty dream in which she saw evidence of Perry’s rape of Jane while she was getting a sonogram of the twins, Mary Louise asks her why she’d said the word “rape.” And in the episode’s final scene, Mary Louise gets a mic-drop moment as the overly inquisitive, unflinching nature of her personality becomes clear: “Who are we planning to kill?” she asks Celeste.

A mother-in-law with potentially vengeful aspirations, and a friend whose breakdown would have dire consequences for the other four members of the Monterey Five? Seems like the two could line up. If Season 1 was about the mystery of Perry’s death—starting with the pilot episode, “Somebody’s Dead,” and slowly working toward identifying who that was, and why, and at whose hands—then Season 2 is about the murder’s fallout. Not just legally, though we may see a courtroom yet: Mary Louise seems intent on getting an eye for an eye. In the end, it all might depend on just how far Madeline, Renata, Celeste, and Jane are willing to go to stay in the Otter Bay School District.

Feud of the Week

Ex-husbands and current husbands—it’s a messy thing. Especially when the ex-husband looks like a guy who rides motorcycles and the current husband literally rides bicycles:

All screenshots via HBO

Madeline’s lovers past and present never got on in Season 1, but a strange moment arrives in this first chapter of Season 2: Nathan asks Ed for help. Specifically, he asks Ed to take Bonnie out to lunch so that Ed can do what Nathan thinks he does best: relate to ladies. For Nathan, his intentions are sincere enough—he really is flummoxed by Bonnie’s distant behavior. (“She’s gone missing in mental action,” he says; Madeline suggested earlier that he feels that way just because Bonnie’s refusing to sleep with him.) But, well, asking for a favor by insulting the person you’re asking it of—“You have your little way,” he says, which is not the ideal framing of a theoretical compliment—is not a great strategy. “I swear to God, if I signed up for this bullshit, I’d still be with Maddie,” Nathan continues in a huff. “I mean—I don’t mean—”

Ed suggests, fairly—though, admittedly, not without a bit of twisted pleasure—that if Nathan is to the point of turning to his ex-spouse’s new partner for help with his current relationship, then he’s probably not approaching things the right way. This sends Nathan into a rage. “Why do you always have to be so snide?” Nathan demands, before declaring, “You’re a snide fuck.” He adds in three more “snide fucks” for good measure.

Last season, Ed and Nathan almost came to blows. Since then, Ed seems to have grown still more confident about demanding his dues. (Plus, now women with certain enhancements are flagging him down at the grocery store.) Sooner or later, we might get the Husband Bowl that we so richly deserve.

This Week in Meryl Streep

Mary Louise does not like Madeline, whom she rightly suspects of being the lynchpin of the conspiracy to cover up Perry’s murder: “I want to know what happened that night, and I’m very tempted to ask you,” Mary Louise tells her. “But I doubt I would get the truth, would I?” But there’s another reason she doesn’t like Madeline: She’s short. (Reese Witherspoon is just 5-foot-1.) The result is two perfect monologues, the text of which I am having tattooed across my back in their entirety tomorrow morning. Mary Louise could spend the rest of the season off camera and I would still support her Best Supporting Actress bid.

“You’re very short,” Mary Louise tells Madeline mid-pleasantries, before adding, “I don’t mean it in a negative way.” She then corrects herself: “Maybe I do. I find little people to be untrustworthy.” Madeline is rendered speechless, perhaps shocked to meet someone as adept at benign evisceration as she is.

The next time they meet, Madeline is in hot-pink stilettos; Mary Louise greets her, witheringly: “I see you’re wearing heels.” Mary Louise proceeds to expound on her distaste for the small, to Madeline’s growing shock. “When I was in boarding school,” she says, “I had a best friend, or so I thought, who revealed herself to be quite treacherous and caused me a lot of pain. She was just an itty-bitty little thing, with a big, bubbly personality that was designed to hide that she was utterly vapid inside. You remind me so much of her.”

Streep, bless her, distills Mary Louise’s hellbent rage with cheery officiousness; later on, at dinner with Celeste and the twins, she interrupts her own heartfelt speech about missing Perry with a bloodcurdling scream, and then, when Celeste asks her to stop, asserts that “my grief is too loud for you.”

You get the sense that she could explode, literally or figuratively, at any moment. Which is to say: She makes a perfect Monterey resident.

The Five Meanest Things People Said to Each Other in Episode 1

5. “Why are you cutting me off, dick!”

4. “It’s like you’re a snide fuck. That’s what you are, you’re a snide fuck. … Yeah, you’re snide. You’re a snide fuck. Whatever. Snide fuck.”

3. “By the way, did you see Renata getting up that new teacher’s ass? I thought she was going to have to pull out her snorkel.”

2. “You know, the other day I was with some friends, and their sons were not a patch on your dad. Not a patch. I felt so angry—angry—you know, that their mediocre, second-rate, pudgy, balding, middle-management sons are still alive.”


Most Profound Child of the Week

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.