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What Kind of Mischief Will Madeline Mackenzie Muster in ‘Big Little Lies’?

Reese Witherspoon’s character tends to her grudges “like little pets.” What can we expect from the drama-loving queen bee of Monterey in Season 2?

HBO/Ringer illustration

Call Madeline Mackenzie a shit-stirrer, and the odds are good that she’ll thank you for it.

Drama is, after all, a way of life for Big Little Lies’ queen bee, played with manic aplomb by Reese Witherspoon. Over matters big and small—OK, they’re mostly small—she’s advised to bury the hatchet; as a rule, she responds by digging up hatchets buried by other people and adding them to her arsenal instead. She forms a clique—her, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Jane (Shailene Woodley)—of the sort not seen since sixth grade’s first vicious rush of hormones, and uses it to draw battle lines among the other mothers at Otter Bay Elementary School. Chief among them: her dreaded frenemy, Renata (Laura Dern), who insists on aggressively mispronouncing Madeline’s name (Renata says “line” instead of “lyn”). But that’s just as well: Madeline’s defining line—“I love my grudges. I tend to them like little pets.”—doubles as her raison d’être. Why make nice when the opposite is so much more exciting?

But a funny thing happened as the first season of Big Little Lies came to a close: Madeline ran out of enemies. Her community theater production of Avenue Q was finally approved by the city, ending her First Amendment crusade. Then, detente was reached between Renata and Madeline’s respective crews when Renata learned at last that Jane’s son, Ziggy, was not the one who kept hurting Renata’s pigtailed Amabella. Madeline’s other favored conflict resolved into niceties as well, in still more dramatic fashion. Much of Season 1 dealt with Madeline’s angst over her ex-husband, Nathan (James Tupper), and his beautiful, cool, enlightened second wife, Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), who had the nerve to move into the same school district. Then the finale saw Bonnie—whose let’s-just-be-friends overtures had only infuriated Madeline up to that point—charge forward to push Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), husband to and abuser of Celeste, as well as violent rapist of Jane, to his death. It’s not your traditional bonding experience, to be sure—but Season 1 concluded with all five women enjoying a day at the beach together with their children. Mischief managed.

Except, of course, that Madeline thrives on unresolved mischief. So as we barrel down Highway 1 toward Big Little Lies’ second season, which debuts Sunday on HBO, what’s a drama queen to do? Who will she beef with now that peace has come to Monterey?

Well, OK—“peace” is maybe not the right description of “aftermath of a grisly death and communal cover-up.” Season 1 took place within the framing device of the police department’s press conference announcing its investigation into Perry’s death, and initial interrogations of witnesses. As Season 2 gets underway, we can assume that the investigation will dominate—we saw the fivesome’s beachside frolic in part through the binoculars of one of the detectives working the case, so it’s safe to count Monterey PD as a source of friction. (Madeline spending a night in the slammer would be appointment viewing, I’m just saying.) And then there’s the small matter of Meryl freakin’ Streep, who arrives this season as Perry’s mother, intent on finding out what happened to her son and, presumably, seeking justice.

Some of the old problems remain. Season 1 saw a few bumps in the road for Madeline’s marriage to Ed (Adam Scott)—bumps laid, alas, by a pothole-loving contractor from hell, Madeline herself. Mostly, strife arrived at Chez Fog Beach courtesy of Madeline’s harping on and on about Nathan, whose daughter with Bonnie joined the same kindergarten class as Madeline and Ed’s daughter, Chloe. Madeline raged at everything from Bonnie’s decidedly more laid-back parenting (she took Abigail, Madeline and Nathan’s shared teenage daughter, to Planned Parenthood to get birth control) to Nathan’s audacity to so much as share her airspace: “Monterey has 30,000 people and I can’t go to a goddamn yoga class without seeing him and her?” All this, in turn, made Ed wonder whether her feelings for him were sincere. He tells Madeline, heartbreakingly, that he “will not be anybody’s runner-up” and eventually asks if he’s even her “the one.” She tells him yes—and then steals a kiss with the local theater director, with whom she previously had an affair, seemingly out of boredom. Not exactly inspirational stuff.

But while Lies’ first season was more interested in what Madeline saw in Ed and whether he could fulfill and, just as importantly, placate her, it might be time to give Ed some space to contemplate what it is that he sees in Madeline. Ed after all, is a catch: smart, thoughtful, romantic, true to himself, funny (if in a decidedly goofy way), and wealthy (an all-important add-on in Monterey); he might be the only truly stable person on the show—“good old steady Eddy,” as he puts it—let alone the only truly positive role model for all these kids. (Bonnie might have made that list before, but, well, you know.) In Season 1, Ed often found himself exasperated by Madeline’s relentless drama-seeking—at one point, he suggested that he might make an app to keep track of all her feuds, and he made no secret of his growing hurt at his wife’s obsession with Nathan. Surely Ed won’t be thrilled that she’s added being an accomplice to a killing to her list of troublesome side projects.

Then again, we know how Ed feels about violence. In one of Season 1’s more memorable exchanges, he told Nathan that he was bullied as a child. “Some 30 years later, it still haunts me that I didn’t beat the shit out of that kid,” Ed says. “So much so, I find myself fantasizing that someone will come along one day and say or do something to me that’ll offer me the chance to redeem myself.” It could be that Ed—assuming he gets the truth from Madeline, which is a big if—understands what prompted the demise of a veritable monster like Perry.

Throughout Season 1, it was Ed who worked to keep Madeline’s worst instincts in check, trying to dissuade her from everything from counterprogramming Amabella’s birthday party to escalating disagreements with Nathan and Bonnie to confronting the man she mistakenly believed to be Jane’s rapist. If she loses him in her corner, it will be bad news for Madeline—but great news, perhaps, for those of us who want to see Monterey’s drama rage.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.