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Can ‘Big Little Lies’ Have It All?

The second season (of what was supposed to be a miniseries) has been a welcome source of fan service, but many of those moments have come at the expense of the show’s most central story

HBO/Ringer illustration

Early in the latest episode of Big Little Lies, Meryl Streep’s awkward, unsettling Mary Louise briefly opens up. “It’s meant to be shared, you know. Grief,” she observes. She’s speaking to her daughter-in-law Celeste (Nicole Kidman)—a woman at once mourning the death of her husband and covering up for his killer, reeling from his loss and recovering from his abuse. “It’s insurmountable. Too difficult a battle to be waged alone.” In her own peculiar way, Mary Louise is finally trying to address the paradox at the heart of the two women’s relationship. They are at once each other’s support systems and adversaries; Mary Louise is helping Celeste take care of her children while also suspecting, correctly, that she knows more than she’s letting on about their father’s death. They’re the only people in the world capable of comforting one another, and also incapable of providing true solace.

This conversation over coffee is a rare moment for Celeste and Mary Louise, as well as writer David E. Kelley, to unpack their impossibly complicated relationship. But by episode’s end, the scene turns out to be the eye in the raging storm that is Big Little Lies second season. A quiet conversation between two damaged, guarded people is inevitably drowned out by the blaring disco at Renata Klein’s (Laura Dern) latest over-the-top extravaganza, or Celeste’s screams when she finds out Mary Louise is suing for custody and exploding their uneasy truce for good. “She Knows” brings Big Little Lies sophomore effort past its halfway point. It also raises questions about the direction of its story.

Unavoidable as they were before the season premiere, concerns about whether a victory lap around Monterey was “necessary” or “pandering” quickly began to ring false. For one thing, all multiseason television is technically fan service, extended for additional seasons to satisfy the demands of an audience; that Big Little Lies was initially planned as a finite object made it the exception, not the rule. For another, the new season never bothered to hide its own crowd-pleasing tendencies. Let she who did not enjoy Meryl Streep almost literally chewing the scenery cast the first ice cream cone.

But just because Big Little Lies doesn’t have to justify its own existence doesn’t mean it can’t be evaluated on its own merits. Part of what made the show’s first incarnation such a triumph was its ability to wrangle its many tones, themes, and subplots into a single, cohesive statement. With Liane Moriarty’s namesake page-turner as its blueprint, the seven-hour saga rebutted the idea that suds were irreconcilable with substance—that Celeste’s struggles existed on a different plane from her best friend Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) more mundane suburban ennui, or that a high-powered career woman like Renata couldn’t find common ground with a young single mom like Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley). Remarkably, almost every woman’s arc felt satisfyingly resolved by a single event: the death of Celeste’s husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) at a school fundraiser. Insecurity, solidarity, repressed violence, and fiercely protective motherhood all converged in one terrible moment, the makeshift family celebrating their fresh start in wedding white.

Such cohesion is quite the bar to clear, especially on a project with as many cooks in the kitchen as Big Little Lies. (Both Kidman and Witherspoon are credited as executive producers, as are Moriarty, Kelley, and directors Jean-Marc Vallée and Andrea Arnold.) Some strands of Season 2 even suggest the unraveling of this alliance is sort of the point; if the first volume was about the extraordinary circumstances that brought these women together, the second is about the forces that drive them apart. Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), briefly welcomed into the sisterhood for putting Perry out of his misery, is left to suffer in silence. Celeste may be free from her brutal, controlling spouse, but widowhood plunges her into a whole new circle of hell.

Still, not all of Season 2’s struggles can be chalked up to commentary. Rather, the deceptively easy balance between Big Little Lies component parts seems to have been thrown off. The real estate afforded to each character no longer feels commensurate with the weight of their problems. The connections between the Monterey Five feel more tenuous. And while there are still three episodes left, their stories don’t seem like they’re headed to a shared destination. With so many personalities to juggle on and off the screen, such unsteadiness is to be expected. Like explaining climate change to the children of Otter Bay, however, the outcome may be inevitable, but the execution is still up for debate.

Celeste and Renata now serve as mirror images, opposite examples of this shared predicament. Of all the primary conflicts, Celeste’s is by far the weightiest and most complex. Going into a season dedicated to the fallout of a crime, it was natural to expect the plot would center the woman on whose behalf the crime was committed. And what we’ve seen of Celeste’s plight largely suggests how much unresolved pain there is to plumb: blackouts culminating in car crashes and one-night stands; therapy sessions that end in screams; impulsive slaps in response to cruel jabs from Mary Louise. But just when Celeste gets the opportunity to start sifting through the emotional wreckage, like in that mano a mano about the crushing loneliness of grief, the conversation is cut off before it can even begin.

This abruptness is partly an outgrowth of Big Little Lies house style, which favors quick cutaways and impressionistic montages over lengthy conversational scenes. In Arnold’s episodes, this tendency is less pronounced than it was under Vallée, who deployed the rapid cuts as an artistic signature (and retains an editing credit in Season 2). The MO nonetheless colors Big Little Lies storytelling—and while it dovetailed nicely with the first season’s theme of secrets bubbling to the surface, it’s less of a seamless fit now that some of those secrets are out in the open. Quick flashes are here to stay, even though the viewer starts to crave a sustained sit-down or two.

The oblique, dreamy approach also applies to exposition, often at the expense of the detail and nuance Celeste’s story demands. Four episodes into the new season, it remains strangely unclear how much of Perry’s abuse is known to the public, Mary Louise, or the police. Kelley and Arnold prefer to let isolated vignettes stand on their own, a choice that hews to the age-old axiom of “show, don’t tell” but risks withholding necessary context. Was Episode 2 the first time Celeste told Mary Louise that Perry hit her, or was it the latest of many reminders? Is the party line that Perry slipped during a violent confrontation, as Celeste’s bruises in her interrogation tapes would suggest, or that he merely slipped? The answers have obvious implications for the season’s central suspense of whether and how the women will be found out. But they’re equally essential to how we understand the contradictory, ever-shifting relationship between Perry’s mother and his widow, which remains persistently vague.

Whereas Celeste represents an essential story element that’s been underdeveloped, Renata’s subplot is a supplemental one that’s been overserved. Hers is the sole conflict that isn’t a direct extension of last season’s, but an invention new to this one: Her husband, Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling), has committed securities fraud and run afoul of the federal authorities, thereby eliminating their assets and jeopardizing Renata’s self-image as an independently wealthy woman. The Kleins’ financial woes have enabled some glimpses of real pathos, as when Renata tells Gordon she blames herself for marrying a fuck-up in a devastating aside from their daughter’s party. More often, they’ve teed up a series of Dern flexes that are a joy to watch in and of themselves, but are less effective in the context of the season.

Many Renata scenes have felt reverse engineered to conjure not just the feeling of last season, but specific moments. “CAN SOMEBODY GIVE A WOMAN A MOMENT,” howled from a moving Tesla, is a direct answer to “I SAID THANK YOUUUU,” shrieked against the backdrop of a stunning ocean view. The theme of Amabella’s party forces everyone to don Afros and jumpsuits, just as last year’s Elvis and Audrey fundraiser occasioned a parade of pompadours and chic LBDs. “This season of Big Little Lies is fan service” may be a hollow complaint; offloading fan service duties onto a single character while others lack for finite narrative resources is a more specific, and damaging, issue.

Renata’s anguish also separates her from the rest of the cast. I’ve heard fan theories as to how the Kleins’ legal troubles could connect back to the Perry cover-up down the line; it’s possible an incriminating email or two could pop up on a seized computer. But for now, Renata’s arc has the distinct feeling of being generated to take up space, rather than extrapolated from existing fault lines, and taking up oxygen once conceived. It’s hard to imagine that her story will merge with the main action as seamlessly as last season, when Amabella’s bully turned out to be one of Celeste’s twin sons, following his father’s example.

Big Little Lies will never be without its pleasures. But this season, those pleasures feel divided. The fan in us all can scream at “I will NOT not be rich,” but the meme-ready moments can’t cover for the storytelling flaws. Of course, the gap between intellectual and visceral enjoyment is nothing new, as any HGTV or Bravo devotee can attest. And yet the great promise of Big Little Lies is that you shouldn’t have to choose.