From the moment she first appears on Big Little Lies, Renata Klein (Laura Dern) is clearly the villain of Monterey. The high-powered venture capitalist arrives at first grade orientation with her Burberry-clad child, smiling like a bloodthirsty hyena. With stunning efficiency, she manages to brag that she’s seen Hamilton four times, mention that her summer activities included joining the board of PayPal (“What was I thinking?”), and mistake a young mother for a nanny. Cocooned in designer sheath dresses and statement jewelry, she is the embodiment of Silicon Valley wealth: unavoidable, gushingly insincere, and sure to make others feel bad about their own personal accomplishments.
More crucial to the plot of the series, Renata pours the same bullish attitude that made her a successful tech executive into the upbringing of her daughter, Amabella (who I can only assume was named after the high-end Italian lingerie she was conceived in). When she discovers that another child at school choked her daughter, she zeros in on the supposed culprit, a 6-year-old boy named Ziggy Chapman, with terrifying intensity. “Ziggy, do you see her neck?” she says, crouching down to meet the first-grader at eye level. “If you ever touch my little girl like that again, you’re going to be in big trouble.” As one parent witness put it: “Battle lines were drawn right there.” In that moment, she made an enemy out of Ziggy’s mother—the not-a-nanny named Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley)—and an archnemesis out of Jane’s new friend, Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon).
Predictably, Renata makes the whole thing about her. Later in that first episode, as she sips a glass of wine and soaks in her coastal property’s obscene ocean view, she complains to her aging tech bro of a husband that she’s unpopular. “What kind of person chooses to work?” she asks in a rambling soliloquy. “Certainly not a mother, by any acceptable standard. You should have seen the way they looked at me today. Oh my God.” Renata is so isolated in her own reality, so convinced of her victimhood that, over the course of the season, she interprets this ongoing feud as proof that the mothers of Monterey are punishing her for her success. That may be sliiiightly true, considering Madeline’s penchant for pettiness. (She outwardly admits that she lords her stay-at-home-mom status over “women like Renata and the other career mommies.”) But mostly, it’s because Renata is using her outsized power to sabotage the lives of a defenseless 6-year-old boy and his single mother.
As concerning as Renata’s rampages are, they also give Laura Dern the chance to deliver the most R-rated Desperate Housewives–esque one-liners of the season with mesmerizing frenzy. Some of her greatest hits include: “Do not fuck with my daughter’s birthday,” and “I’ll even get Snow White to sit on your husband’s face, maybe Dumbo can take a squat on yours.” The physical summation of her character—a woman who aggressively takes up space in whatever room she enters—is crystallized in a moment from the second episode, when she dismisses a friend who delivers bad news by screaming “I SAID THANK YOU” with such intensity that you worry she might shatter her gorgeous floor-to-ceiling windows.
What’s nice about Renata, though, is that she does not remain a shallow caricature of tech privilege. Her scheming to expel Ziggy culminates in a physical confrontation with Jane that leaves her sulking around at home in an eye patch. When Jane apologizes and makes one final plea for Ziggy’s innocence, Renata lets her guard down, sensing that the two of them actually have a lot of overbearing mom energy in common. (It takes Renata’s husband Gordon, who threatens legal action, a little more time to get there.) When Celeste (Nicole Kidman) finally tells Renata that it was her son who was abusing Amabella the whole time, Renata’s first instinct is to hike up her My Fair Lady dress, find Jane, and offer an earnest apology. In this moment she comes full circle, from an oppressive community power broker to just another humbled mom.
That Renata’s apology just so happens to place her at the scene of a crime is bound to complicate this newfound compassion. On one hand, covering up a killing has a way of bonding people, as evidenced by the picturesque final scene of Season 1, in which all five of the series’ main characters enjoyed a carefree day on the beach with their children. And in a way, the death of Perry Wright gave Renata exactly what she’d always yearned for: real female friendship, rooted in a mutual admiration and respect. We may be pleasantly surprised by the way she can yield her considerable wealth and influence to protect her new relationships in the face of legal threats.
Then again, Renata is at her most ruthless when the well-being of her family is threatened. If her reaction to a little suburban meddling is to declare her opponent “dead in this town,” just imagine how she might react when police come knocking to say that she’s a suspected accomplice. The last time I checked, tech companies don’t like when their board members are subjects of ongoing criminal investigations. Neither do aquariums, or veteran-focused charities, or the people you must bribe to get Hamilton tickets. With a single set of handcuffs, everything Renata holds dear—her prestigious corner-office job, her power marriage, her outrageous oceanfront view—could be ripped away.
It’s hard to expect someone like Renata, whose identity is so wrapped up in her success, to jeopardize her life’s work for a couple of new gal pals. But however she handles this situation, we can expect that she will do so the only way she knows how: with unapologetic, frantic aggression.
#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
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.