Defined by Behind the Scenes Drama the Second Season of ‘Big Little Lies’ is a Shadow of its Former Self

Why did Big Little Lies need a second season? A question that’s only become more prominent in the hours since the finale aired, capping off a contrived, flat season with a fittingly predictable finale. The show was such a surprise when it premiered back in 2017, taking its airport novel source material and treating it with a reverence similar to David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl. The trashiness remained intact, even gleefully amplified at points, but it gave way to an honestly realized story of domestic abuse framed through an intoxicating, dreamlike lens. Despite being backed into a fairly definitive conclusion at the end of season one, showrunner David E. Kelley tries to write his way out of that corner in the second season and the result is a limp imitation of the first season, one that feels like a lesser show in almost every possible way.

Part of the success of Big Little Lies‘ first season lies in how wonderfully it realized the idyllic Monterey setting and the splintered lives its outwardly-perfect inhabitants led. Every character had interiority and the relationships they shared felt exciting and dynamic. While the game-changing events at the end of the season may have brought all the central characters together, as they agree to cover up the death of Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), that shift makes for a much less compelling second season. “The Lie”, as the situation is commonly referred to, leads to a much more unified Monterey, one focused entirely on the frequently static progress of our protagonists with none of the wonderful side flourishes that made the first season feel so alive. The show certainly isn’t humorless now by any means, but as the show progressed the feeling of all the air being sucked out of the room started to intensify, and while Big Little Lies obviously deals with intense subject matter that needs to be treated with the appropriate gravitas, Kelley leans much more into rote peak-TV drama this season, shedding a lot of the beachside-read novelty that season one relished in.

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Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in ‘Big Little Lies’ © HBO 2019

The main focus of the new season lies in the conflict between Celeste and the newly introduced Mary-Louise (Meryl Streep), Perry’s intrusive, gaslighting mother. This is where the season is at its strongest, in large part due to being built upon the talents of two of our finest living actors. Even when the plotline devolves into ludicrous courtroom drama as Celeste is forced to fight Mary-Louise to retain custody of her children, it’s still utterly riveting and truly a joy to watch. Streep is the best excuse for this season’s existence, realizing the reprehensible Mary-Louise with such devoted vindictiveness that she immediately leaps into the pantheon of all-time great TV villains. In hindsight it’s difficult not to feel like she was maybe under-utilized; forced to repeat the same spiel time and time over while the show is left wheel-spinning until the eventual face-off with Celeste in the finale, but Streep and Kidman are such a ferocious, formidable on-screen presence that it’s difficult to do anything but lean back and roll with it.

The new season really suffers from its supporting plotlines, which range from boring to baffling. Take for instance Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) — the most underutilized member of the Monterey Five in the first season was a natural to take on more screentime this season seeing as she’s the one who dealt the killing blow to Perry. Despite Kravitz’s best efforts, where Kelley takes her character ends up being deeply frustrating — the sense of sistership implied between the Five at the end of the first season is almost completely absent here, leading to Bonnie’s suffering feeling totally isolated from the rest of the group. The introduction of her mother is the biggest misfire — this character is supposed to reinforce the cycles of abuse seen throughout Monterey but is saddled with bizarre premonitions throughout the season that lean dangerously close to the Magical Negro archetype. The show’s refusal to acknowledge Bonnie’s race is confusing as well — Big Little Lies is a show with its finger on the pulse of so many issues, from gender to class to abuse, and that it just turns a blind eye to how Bonnie being black may complicate her relationship with abuse and the murder of Perry feels like a major oversight.

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Zoë Kravitz in ‘Big Little Lies’ © HBO 2019

Madeline’s (Reese Witherspoon) story this season is frustratingly underdeveloped as well, as her marital struggles with Ed (Adam Scott) more often than not feel as underwritten and basic as can be, and her daughter (Kathryn Newton) all but disappears after the first few episodes despite being such a major character in the first season. On the plus side, Scott makes the most of the extra material to emerge as one of the standout performers of the season, though again it’s difficult to not feel disappointed at how much more he should have had to work with.

It’s nice to see Jane (Shailene Woodley) navigate being in a relationship again after being raped by Perry, but in execution, it’s just a fairly dull literalization of what was implied at the end of season one. And while Renata (Laura Dern) is given plenty of scenery to chew and yell at, her progression this season of being a woman who refuses to be dragged down by an oppressive husband falls flat knowing that what happened behind the scenes of this season is totally against odds with it.

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Zoë Kravitz, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley and Laura Dern in ‘Big Little Lies’ © HBO 2019

The Andrea Arnold situation is forever going to be the elephant in the room with Big Little Lies season two, and rightly so. A male showrunner hiring an acclaimed female auteur under false pretenses and then yanking control away in favor of the first season’s male director has terrible optics for a show about female empowerment and women breaking free of toxic male influence, and it’s also a likely root of many of the season’s issues. Big Little Lies season two feels like half the show that the first season was; a skeletal, barebones progression that’s been hacked and slashed to death. Plot points are introduced and abandoned, prominent supporting characters disappear, and concurrent storylines feel totally divorced from one another. There’s no catharsis in any of the presented resolutions, they just feel like poorly realized inevitabilities. This is a sixty-minute show where several episodes barely ran forty minutes, with many minutes of that time taken up by repeated flashbacks to the first season. Nobody involved with the show may have confirmed the reported circumstances with Arnold, but the season itself does – it feels entirely like a compromised, incomplete vision.

It’s difficult to definitively say that Arnold’s cut would have been great  — a lot of the issues with season two lie with Kelley failing to justify its existence and getting trapped in narrative corners with no interesting way out. Arnold’s cut, however, certainly must have been a more substantial show; one that felt like a genuine creative vision rather than mandatory wheel-spinning just to get a vague overview of where these characters went after season one. This season alone marks a disappointing end to Big Little Lies, as even a cast as talented as this one can’t distract from how unnecessary a sequel this was. But the behind the scenes drama beyond the new season makes it an unforgettably ugly conclusion, souring the show’s legacy as a female artist’s vision is compromised all for the sake of a season that only leaves behind one question: what was even the point?

 

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