Big Little Lies: Season 2 – Episode 1 ‘What Have They Done?’ REVIEW

After the testing ground of the first season, a straightforward book adaptation, the second season of Big Little Lies is finding its own rhythm.

Big Little Lies 'What Have They Done?'

Big Little Lies, initially a limited series based on the mystery novel by Liane Moriarty, is now being stretched out into a second season. My fear was outweighed by my love for these characters, and from the very start of ‘What Have They Done?’, it seems I made the right call.

Season one explored Moriarty’s sardonic murder story in the town of Monterey, California. Seen through the eyes of three mothers — Madeline, Celeste and Jane — the first season was all about divulging the secrets of these three women and how their dirty little secrets lead to a murder at a school fundraiser. And the first season did reveal who was killed, and how they were killed. Since this is a review of season two, you know who it was: Celeste’s abusive and virulent husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), who was also the one to rape Jane years ago. Bonnie was the one to push Perry down the stairs after seeing him being violent with Jane and Celeste, forcing Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) and Renata (Laura Dern) to cover up the death for the sake of protecting Bonnie, or themselves.

The star-studded cast is back, season one writer David E. Kelley has returned, and Jean-Marc Vallée may not be directing this season, but a very capable Andrea Arnold (the director of “American Honey”) takes the helm. The mystery is gone, but the cover-up will prove to be an emotionally taxing inward battle, plunging the characters to undergo the ramifications of their actions in foreseeable and disquieting manners. Season two insinuates to more character-driven conflict, and having seen the season premiere, it appears the performances will be the glue that holds this season together.

Using Monterey (a town riddled in gossip and specious perfection) as the backdrop, the characters are in the forefront again, trying to move on from the indelible incident but realizing there are implacable individuals seeking the truth in Perry’s death. But it’s easier to flee the scene and ignore the scrutiny from others than weathering the penitence and trauma of masking a murder. Especially for Bonnie, Nathan’s wife and the one Madeline always excluded in the past, who is more keenly enduring the guilt of concealing Perry’s murder because she’s the one who pushed him. Kravitz’s performance is measured in silence and dejection, and she’s able to expertly exude the cryptic and lifeless face acting to supply an authentic portrayal of self-condemnation.

The generally conceited and dubious Nathan (James Tupper), spends the entirety of ‘What Have They Done?’ trying to get Bonnie to open up because she’s become so reticent. She’s unresponsive, she’s taking long jogs and her spirit has gone colorless. During one point in the episode, Nathan seeks help from his archnemesis, Madeline’s levelheaded husband, Ed (Adam Scott), but comes out of the conversation unsatisfied — therefore prolonging their diverting feud and emanating more nicknames. Tupper and Scott wonderfully illustrate how the husbands of Monterey can be just as snide as the women. Their chemistry is always rollicking and sustains the satirical look at helicopter parents.

Madeline is her perky and vociferous self, invigorated to start a new school year by preparing to deal with other mothers, who will inevitably judge each other based on every itty-bitty detail. The schoolyards are a battleground for mothers, rumors are their most valuable and baleful weapon, and much recently, the jovial citizens of Monterey have branded Madeline, Celeste, Jane, Bonnie and Renata as the Monterey Five. The five of them are a tight-knit group, embedded in secrecy, obviously a temptation for the gossiping and subtly catty town of Monterey.

But ‘What Have They Done?’ sees a fierce and unapologetic Madeline uses her voice to establish hegemony out in the schoolyard, which includes insulting the Principal, telling him to shove a cupcake you-know-where after informing her that an assembly is different to a service (and he’s technically right). Madeline hides behind her feelings, upholding her animated personality to deter from facing the repercussions of concealing Perry’s murder.

Madeline is also trying to push her daughter to attend college, who has clearly demanded she’s not going. Life moves on, but the past can never be easily forgotten. Madeline finds herself a new, shiny job as a real estate agent, and is dealing with an intractable daughter, but she can’t possibly feel entirely fine about everything that occurred. Witherspoon was tailor-made for the role of Madeline, able to render the character’s insistent and loud attitude as appealing. Despite all of her faults, Madeline is a likable character — but hopefully, the series doesn’t make her into an impenetrable figure, incapable of ever reflecting on her actions.

Celeste, on the other hand, isn’t able to escape the emotional implications of Perry’s demise, thinking of his absence as a blessing and a curse. A blessing because the physical maltreatment has ended, but a curse because despite concluding the cycle of abuse, Celeste is encountering surreal and tense nightmares containing or alluding to Perry’s ineffable abuse — evincing how abuse not only leaves a physical scar, but an emotional one as well. To make things even more convoluted, Celeste yearns for the boorish sex she used to have with Perry. She dreams of his aggressive and ardent touch while reminiscing of his more tender side (when he would frivolously play the kids and when he would shower Celeste with beguiling affection). Kidman preserves the despondency and emotional hardship she withstands because of Perry, convincingly. Kidman is another able actress who’s at the top of her game here — but then again, when isn’t she?

Celeste’s homelife is plagued by unsavory dreams and thoughts, but she’s also unable to secure any personal space. Perry’s self-assertive and harshly blunt mother, Mary Louise (an impeccable Meryl Streep), has (permanently?) stopped by for a visit. Mary is helpful and benevolent, but she’s also immensely weird and occasionally minacious. She’s good with the kids and she seems to ultimately care about Celeste’s well-being, but she implies more troubling things.

Mary doesn’t wholly buy that Perry just slipped, she believes there’s more to the story, and she’s gradually making her way through the Monterey Five. Mary doesn’t blatantly threaten them or probe for the truth with hard-edged stares, but she gets them under her spell by being bitterly plain-spoken. In this episode, Mary confronts Madeline with a startling and forbidding monologue about short people, and how untrustworthy they appear (so imagine how duplicitous she must be), and that monologue alone captures the character of Mary and how she’ll function in this new season, and I’m vastly intrigued.

Jane gets a job at a pet store and befriends a fellow co-worker. Jane, like everybody else, is trying to move on, but the thought of being a part of the Monterey Five frightens her. She seems more relaxed about Perry’s death (as she should, speaking as he raped her), but she’s also petrified of being caught. Woodley is operating at her best here, and the fashion in which she dances alone on the beach while listening to Mystery of Love, the song from Call Me by Your Name, really made my day. After all, what if Call Me by Your Name was part of the Big Little Lies universe – wouldn’t that be wonderful? Laura Dern is one of the standouts as Renata, who plays the character with purposeful wrath and dominance, deviating from the practicality of masking Perry’s death by remaining fervid, peppy and “in control” of the situation.

The outcome of ‘What Have They Done?’ has Madeline beaten down by her daughter’s disobedience, while Celeste has a vivid nightmare involving Perry in which she screams bloody murder, and that leaves us with Mary Louise charging in Celeste’s room, asking “So, who are we planning to kill?” For a tranquil episode, that’s the dose of intrigue that’ll keep viewers coming back for more.

The writing keeps the mordant humor between rancorous parents — who hold  onto grudges as tightly as if they were their child — alive and well. The citizens of Monterey continue to nurture fiddling feuds and acid remarks, and the characters of Madeline, Celeste, Jane, Renata, and Bonnie have never been more rigorously drawn and put in place, ready for the next move. Still commendably upheld by brisk editing and frequently fuzzy and intimate cinematography, which enhances every other scene with a frenetic vision, memory or close-up dredged up by trauma, carnal desire, relief or guilt, Big Little Lies still has all the atmosphere of the first season. However, the technical mechanics employed are meant to foster new sensations of contrition and perfidy. I only hope the season continues to tinker with the iniquity of the characters in fairly innovative means.

Big Little Lies isn’t a mystery anymore, it’s a cover-up story interrogating the Monterey Five as they work out their issues in reasonably different and enthralling ways. The cast is what makes this season premiere feel warranted. The examination of trauma and how these abundantly distinct characters go about to evaluate their actions, or how they go about to repress their emotions, provides the whole cast ample room to utilize their acting dexterity. Meryl Streep is an absorbing new addition to the show, sprinkling more relish on top of a series that already seemed to be exercising all of its flavors, but she’s just one facet of a dedicated cast, alongside a punctilious writer and director who are conserving the mocking style of the series while potentially steering this new season down a fresh path of clashing perspectives.

Verdict
It’s a slow start, still victim to being an unneeded sequel to what was supposed to be a limited series, but the performances are still significantly superb. Hopefully, the season wields the fragments of guilt, grief, duplicity and murder compellingly throughout. So far, the outlook is looking good.
8.5

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