The penultimate episode of Big Little Lies’ second season ended on a cliff-hanger promising a face-off for the ages. Kidman vs. Streep is a matchup to rival Foreman vs. Ali; it’s a surprise HBO didn’t market Sunday’s finale accordingly, with the prestige actresses on brightly colored promo posters. The courtroom confrontation between Nicole Kidman’s Celeste Wright and Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise over custody of Celeste’s sons was the scene the season had been building to. Fittingly, it also became a microcosm for the story it culminated: a vehicle for bombastic performances enjoyable in the moment, but without much narrative foundation or lasting impact.
We can now say definitively that not much happened in Big Little Lies’ improvised sequel: Some strained marriages broke up; others were repaired; children looked on precociously as their parents floundered. As a collective catharsis, the so-called Monterey Five’s decision to turn themselves in was not an adequate substitute for the impulsive manslaughter of Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard) and hasty cover-up thereof. The season’s true climax had arrived about a half-hour before, when past and almost-certainly-future Emmy winners collided in an explosion of dramatic reveals, cruel accusations, and pained reactions. Though the tea leaves had been legible all season long, “I Want to Know” delivered the ultimate victory for inertia over evolution, performance over plot.
Of Big Little Lies’ five major characters, only Laura Dern’s Renata Klein earned a story line novel to these seven supplemental episodes, ordered after the planned miniseries earned the kind of acclaim regular series just don’t anymore. At first, Renata’s bankruptcy seemed as out of place as the character herself, bulldozing the Lululemon-clad moms of Monterey in her shoulder-padded power suits. While Renata faced poverty (or at least nonprosperity), infidelity, and other new problems, her compatriots stewed in old ones: Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) the fallout from her affair; Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) the trauma of pushing a man to his death; Celeste the lingering impact of abuse, even after her abuser had been expunged from her life.
On paper, these internal conflicts—particularly Celeste’s—seemed like wise, even necessary, choices. Writer David E. Kelley and novelist Liane Moriarty, who jointly conceived the story, couldn’t very well skip past events as monumental as mourning or recovery. Yet Kelley and Moriarty didn’t just incorporate the events of Season 1 into the plot of Season 2. Reflecting on the former became the entirety of the latter, turning Big Little Lies into an unfortunate metaphor for being too preoccupied with one’s early success to live up to it. Madeline and her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), repeated the same conversation about trust and communication ad nauseum; Bonnie got more monologues and retroactive backstory, but not much more nuance. Only Renata was free to flex for photoshoots and demolish train sets. With so much new material to work with, was it any wonder she got the most set pieces?
Two years ago, Perry’s demise crystallized and triple-underlined struggles that had been brewing all season long. Celeste belatedly recognized just how far her life had strayed from perfection, happiness, or even safety; Jane (Shailene Woodley) had fled to Monterey from her assailant only to find him standing right in front of her. But without much else to do this season besides process their pain, the group’s implied confession can’t hope to achieve the same effect. By the finale’s final minutes, Jane allowed herself to be intimate again, and Madeline renewed her vows. But neither journey is as monumental as the one either woman completed last season.
Without a more organic source of fireworks, Kelley and Moriarty compensated with Mary Louise, a veritable Lush bath bomb for a show in desperate need of suds. Streep was Big Little Lies’ nuclear option, an unignorable source of drama and suspense. The legendary performer did successfully turn a one-note villain into a transfixing one, shading in a vindictive monster-in-law with unscriptable gestures—a necklace on the chin here, a girlish giggle there—that together added up to the idiosyncrasies of a person. But Streep could compensate for only so long. Beneath those false teeth and that shifting gaze was only the wan reveal that Mary Louise had blamed a 5-year-old Perry for his brother’s death in a car accident, possibly contributing to his adult dysfunction. For all her quirks, Mary Louise’s role in the ensemble remained a functional one, launching a custody battle into a vacuum. Someone had to be the antagonist once Renata turned ally.
Big Little Lies remains the leading example of Movie Star TV, and one reading of Season 2 positions it as a cautionary tale of stars run amok, chewing through scenery until there’s no set left to act against. But Renata’s epic freakouts didn’t just break through on the awesome power of Dern’s index finger. They were also rooted in aspects of her character that were previously unknown to the audience, but fit with the woman we saw before us, clinging to her hard-won independence. Meanwhile, the courtroom scene flattened Mary Louise into a wicked witch and Celeste into a hard-charging warrior—a turn that’s superficially satisfying, but a much less complicated note to hit than last season’s vaunted therapy scenes. The season’s acting didn’t come at the expense of its story; ultimately, the reverse may be true.
Without new plot to feed into television’s ever-hungry wood chipper, a more introspective second season was never going to work as a soap opera. But Big Little Lies proved unwilling to modify its approach, an on-camera issue that also played out behind the scenes. Two weeks ago, IndieWire reported that director Andrea Arnold had creative control seized from her by Kelley and Season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallée, who set about “removing Arnold’s signature contributions” in postproduction, including “character exploration and ‘ephemeral stuff.’” We’ll likely never know whether Arnold’s version of the season included more of the quiet psychological work the material seemed to call for. But Kelley and Vallée’s involvement seems symptomatic of a broader reluctance to modify Lies’ approach. And in the absence of more compelling action in the show, the popcorn drama of a directors’ tug-of-war inevitably overshadowed, and provided some of the erstwhile thrills of, the work itself.
Big Little Lies’ second season had its moments. The difference from the original is that the season was unable to string these moments together into a cohesive story, or even a compelling set of themes. The takeaway from the first iteration of Big Little Lies was that women separated by social station or petty rivalries could find themselves bound together by more primal instincts. The takeaway from the second is that Laura Dern can really swing a baseball bat. The rest of the season may fade into the rearview mirror of Peak TV, but we’ll always have the GIFs.
Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.