With the smash-hit watercooler TV series Big Little Lies now into its second season, Jenna Guillaume explores the main characters in order to explain why it works so well. Spoiler alert: this article is intended for people who have watched the first season.
If Big Little Lies season one was about the lengths people go to – and the lies they tell – to protect the ones they love, then season two is about the consequences of those lies. And about how maybe they don’t really protect anyone after all.
I have to admit, when I first heard there was going to be a second season of Big Little Lies, I was extremely skeptical. I loved the first season, don’t get me wrong, but the story felt complete. As a fan of the book, I had even more cause for concern. It’s very rare that an adaptation improves after going off-book (*cough* Game of Thrones *cough*).
So it was with trepidation that I tuned into the season two premiere. However it only took about 20 minutes before my doubts were washed away – and each subsequent episode has just impressed me more. Not only is the addition of Meryl Streep as incredible as you might expect (and then some), but the rest of the cast and the story are as brilliant as ever. Best of all, the extended narrative has allowed for some really interesting character exploration.
Let’s take a look at where each of the main characters are at now, and why it works so well…
Madeline (Reese Witherspoon)
Madeline is an explosive character, loving and hating in equally fierce measures and steamrolling over anyone who gets in her way. She was a joy to behold in season 1, but season 2 has made her situation much more complicated, and her character is all the richer for it. She’s having to face her mistakes and her lies – her husband, Ed, has discovered her infidelity – plus grapple with her own insecurities about how her life has turned out.
Most importantly, for the first time she’s coming head to head with a person who can truly steamroll her: Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise, the mother of Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard) who sees right through Madeline’s charming exterior and isn’t afraid to call her out on it. Their scenes together absolutely crackle. I could honestly just watch 10 hours of these two of them bickering non-stop.
Celeste (Nicole Kidman)
Celeste’s story in season one was a rather remarkable portrayal of domestic violence that pushed against stereotypes of what abusers and their victims look like. Now that Celeste’s abusive husband Perry is out of the picture, though, her story doesn’t automatically get a happily ever after. While her mother-in-law Mary Louise is sniffing around, suspicious of how Perry died, what’s most fascinating about Celeste’s season two story is the way it further explores her complicated internal life. This includes the ties that bound her to Perry, even though his abuse haven’t suddenly been cut because he’s not there.
In fact they’ve become even more knotted, as Celeste grapples with her very real grief over his loss. Celeste long hid her abuse from those who cared about her, but season two is revealing that the primary person Celeste lies to is herself.
Renata (Laura Dern)
Renata was somewhat of an antagonist in season one as she fought ferociously with Madeline over classroom bullying. But she became one of the gang when she witnessed Perry’s death and banded together with the other women to tell their big little lie. She had perhaps the smallest personal stake in that event, so season two has destablised her in other ways – namely through the betrayal of her husband and the loss of her fortune.
With her cushy security gone, Renata is a loose cannon, firing off barbed one-liners with breathtaking eloquence. But as her precious daughter Amabella succumbs to paralysing anxiety attacks – mostly about the end of the world (same, Amabella, same) but also about her parents – it seems Renata will soon have to face up to the consequences of her actions and, like Celeste, stop living in her own kind of denial. It’s going to be a hell of a ride.
Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz)
Aside from Celeste, the death of Perry perhaps has the biggest impact on Bonnie – because she’s the one who pushed him and (accidentally) killed him. Season one eliminated a book plot about Bonnie that explains why she reacts to his presence the way she does, but season two looks like it might be bringing that back into the show – albeit in a different way.
We’ll have to wait to see how that unfolds. Meanwhile, the season has primarily dealt with Bonnie’s struggle to cope with what happened, and the inability of those around her to actually help her. It works so well because of course empathetic and sensitive Bonnie wouldn’t just shrug off someone’s death at her own hands. The “happy” ending of season one was just another lie.
Jane (Shailene Woodley)
Season two for Jane has been about telling the truth, no matter how brutal it is. While she spent years lying about who the father of her son Ziggy was, confronting Perry and witnessing his death in season one seemingly unlocked something in Jane. This season, she’s talked through the truth not only with Ziggy but also with Perry’s mother Mary Louise. It’s been excruciating to watch at times but also incredibly powerful. Jane refuses to back down from her truth, and in that sense she’s miles ahead of every other character on the show.
Mary Louise (Meryl Streep)
And then there’s Mary Louise. She’s a new addition to the show in season two and doesn’t exist in the book. Created just for Meryl Streep, her character alone makes the whole season worth it. She’s grieving her son while suspecting the circumstances of his death and simultaneously learning some dark truths about him; it’s no wonder there’s something off about Mary Louise.
In Streep’s expert hands, Mary Louise’s presence injects an ominous and slightly unhinged air to the whole season. She’s extremely manipulative and always ready to go in for the kill – with an all-too-innocent smile on her face, of course. Streep has slotted into the incredible ensemble cast with glorious ease, and has helped make season two just as compelling – if not more so – than season one. At the time of published there are four episodes left, and so much potential for what comes next. In contrast to how I felt before the season began, I can’t wait to see what happens.