The announcement of a second season of Big Little Lies—which was soon followed by the casting of yet another A-list actress, 21-time Oscar nominee Meryl Streep—was initially confounding for multiple reasons. Not only was the show strictly billed as a limited series, winning an Emmy in that category, but its first seven-episode season had also covered all of the Liane Moriarty novel of the same name. Any new episodes would have to venture beyond the source material.
Such an endeavor is always a bit daunting—just ask David Benioff and D.B. Weiss—but the unexpected second season does present the series with an opportunity to flesh out characters who were underserved in the first installment. Though its quintet of lead characters—Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline, Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, Shailene Woodley’s Jane, Laura Dern’s Renata, and Zoë Kravitz’s Bonnie—are dubbed the Monterey Five, that distinction indicates an equality of attention that didn’t quite exist in Season 1. Madeline, Celeste, and Jane were awarded the most focus, while Renata’s supporting turn was compelling enough to land Dern her own Emmy. Bonnie, by comparison to those four, was underserved. And considering the crucial, shocking role she played in the first season’s finale, the coming episodes will have to work to fill in the blanks about a character who we now know is central to the story.
In Big Little Lies’ first season, Bonnie was initially presented as a foil for Madeline, Witherspoon’s funny but subtly tragic character who willingly likened her personal grudges to “little pets.” Bonnie was the target of Madeline’s ire because she had eloped with Madeline’s douchey ex-husband, Nathan, and together they had built a life that was both more exciting and more well-adjusted than Madeline and Nathan’s marriage ever was. That life may have been primarily located in a home that looked like an ecogarden—a living situation that would seem to require spending way too much money on Off spray—but that sort of adventurousness, in comparison to Madeline’s whitebread existence, only harshened the dynamic.
As an audience, we were forced to view Bonnie only through the prism of other characters. To the men of Monterey, she was an object of sexual desire; to Madeline, she was the “younger, attractive second wife” archetype mostly deployed to heighten Madeline’s own gnawing insecurities and jealousy.
Seen through Madeline’s tragicomic perspective, her irritation with Bonnie seemed understandable, thanks in large part to the excellent casting of Kravitz, who always projects an effortless coolness. A yoga instructor, Bonnie was often cloyingly chill, a prototypical neo-hippie who crafted her own jewelry and willingly drove Maddie’s eldest daughter, Abigail, to Planned Parenthood. Had Season 1 been released this year, there easily would have been a scene in which Bonnie extolled the virtues of various CBD products. That’s who she was to us for much of the first season: a minor character who operated in service of other characters.
#BigLittleLive is coming! First, join @akdobbins and @minakimes this Friday, June 7, at noon P.T. for a preview show, and then make sure to head back to Twitter after every Sunday episode of #BigLittleLies for the aftershow. pic.twitter.com/QAomVrS0s5— The Ringer (@ringer) June 5, 2019
It’s not a sin for a TV show to define a secondary character merely by how other people in the show feel about him or her. Nobody complained that Breaking Bad failed to mine the emotional depths of Badger. But as it turns out, Bonnie isn’t a secondary character at all—she’s one of the most important figures in the series. Which makes the decision to keep her on the fringes of the narrative seem like a miscalculation.
If you’ve made it this far, you know how things ended during the show’s ill-fated Trivia Night: Celeste’s abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), was revealed to be Jane’s rapist, and in the midst of a scuffle with the show’s other lead women, Bonnie pushed him down a flight of stairs, the impact of the fall killing him. The death—who was killed, and who did the killing—was the central mystery of Big Little Lies Season 1. The moment is slightly foreshadowed in the finale, as director Jean-Marc Vallee’s sweeping direction catches moments when Bonnie can be seen noticing the tension between Celeste and Perry, picking up signs of abuse that Celeste’s friends didn’t. And for her part, Kravitz sold her character’s knowing glances well.
It’s just odd that, up until that point, Bonnie’s purpose in the series was seemingly to be a character for other, more important characters to react to. Make no mistake, that certainly made the staircase scene shocking to viewers who hadn’t read the book. But it seems unfair for the show’s brain trust, which knew this was where everything was leading, to limit Bonnie to such an underdeveloped role. We knew how Madeline felt about her, but how did Bonnie feel being at the receiving end of that shade? What were some of her own insecurities? How did she feel about all the men of Monterey salivating over her? As the only prominent character who was a person of color, what did it feel like to live in an aggressively white town? Also, while we’re asking questions, what the hell did Bonnie see in Nathan, who plainly sucks?
Bonnie’s minimized role is even more perplexing in the context of Moriarty’s novel. In the book, Bonnie sees the signs of Perry’s abuse because she experienced domestic violence up close, when her father abused her mother during her childhood. Vallee did tell The Hollywood Reporter in 2017 in a post-finale Q&A that this bit of Bonnie’s backstory was omitted—in what would’ve been a single line uttered by the show’s detective—because the impetus for pushing Perry was already obvious. “Whether or not she has been abused, she is going to push this motherfucker,” Vallee said. “He’s beating the shit out of four women. This guy is fucking strong. And then the smallest [woman] pushes him, not to kill him, but the accident happens. To give it a reason and justify that because she was abused and had a thing against men, it’s not about that.”
That’s Vallee and series writer David E. Kelley’s prerogative, but now that there’s a second season, the door is open for a course correction. The first season deployed elliptical flashbacks to convey Jane’s traumatic sexual assault; a similar execution could demonstrate how Bonnie’s childhood defines her as an adult. Her father’s abusive behavior informed the climax of the first season—putting in the effort to explain how she arrived at that conclusion is a worthy extension of the show’s themes. And because of her past, Bonnie could serve as an ideal thread between the then-climactic events of Trivia Night and what’s to come.
If Season 2 of Big Little Lies shares Season 1’s themes of female friendships, wealth, and loneliness, it stands to reason it will also explore patterns of abuse and how they affect people throughout their lives. Moreover, more time in Monterey simply means more opportunity to give Bonnie agency, to tell stories from her perspective, to really explain the person we barely met a season ago.
The Monterey Five was a misnomer in Season 1. Thankfully, instead of being forced to lament the roads not taken, Big Little Lies now returns with the chance to further develop Bonnie into a character worth investing in.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.