Big Little Lies season 2 review: HBO, Meryl Streep school Kabir Singh in the true meaning of violent love
Big Little Lies - season 2
Director - Andrea Arnold
Cast - Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep
Rating - 3.5/5
“If we do a season two, we’ll break that beautiful thing and spoil it.” - Jean-Marc Vallée, director, Big Little Lies season one
Watching Big Little Lies in a post Kabir Singh world certainly puts things into perspective. On the surface, both stories are about a deeply toxic relationship, and yet, the approach couldn’t have been more different.
While Kabir Singh rewarded its protagonist for his violence and harassment by highlighting his every move with a heroic theme tune and presenting him with the moral victory of ‘getting the girl’ in the end, Big Little Lies treats the delicate situation with the complexity that it deserves.
Watch the Big Little Lies season 2 trailer here
A knife in the hands of a chef serves a different purpose than it would in the hands of a murderer. A friend told me that once; he was defending recreational drug use. Kabir Singh director Sandeep Reddy Vanga’s (objectively nutty) suggestion that physical violence is a sign of true love is systematically dismantled by director Andrea Arnold, who in the second season of the breakout HBO hit, focuses on Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and her complicated mental state in the aftermath of her abusive husband’s death/murder and cover-up.
She says she still loves Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), and that she misses him, despite the physical and emotional scars he’s left behind. She’s made a series of videos for their twins, for them to remember their father by. In her bathroom cabinet, there are signs of her trauma - dozens of different kinds of pills that she’s formed a dependance on; for anxiety, for depression, for sleep. “I was a better mother with him around,” she tells her therapist. “Life feels deader now.”
To the tone-deaf ears of Vanga, this could sound like validation. But to Arnold, Celeste is an addict; Perry is her drug. And now that her supply has run out, she’s spiralling out of control.
The second season of Big Little Lies isn’t quite the ensemble piece that the first season was. It also isn’t as good. But such are the hazards of being burdened by incredibly high expectations.
The new series of episodes explores the aftermath of the shared trauma that our five protagonists experienced at the end of season one, when Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), pushed the monstrous Perry to his death at a school function. The women decided then and there that they’d tell the police and the world that Perry’s death was an accident. But as their lie metastasises, they find that perhaps telling the truth and suffering the consequences might have been the right thing to do. No one believes this more strongly than Bonnie - she was the one who did the deed, after all - and her unravelling makes the tight knit group vulnerable to infighting and outside influence. It’s an interesting take on the age-old (and inaccurate) belief that women turn on other women.
And there is no stronger outside influence in the new Big Little Lies than Meryl Streep, who plays Perry’s mother, Mary Louise. While there is never any doubt that her arrival is meant to create friction - both among the Monterrey Five, and in the plot - the show makes the wise decision to use Mary Louise sparingly. She reminded me of Judi Dench’s character from Notes on a Scandal. There’s an exaggerated manner to Streep’s performance, accentuated by odd external ticks and an over-the-top appearance; her jitteriness hidden behind a pair of plain glasses and almost comically conspicuous prosthetic teeth. She is cruel without ever seeming cunning; cold but never calculating; her eyes light up when’s talking about her Perry, about whose innocence she is absolutely convinced. I believe Mary Louise might be on the spectrum.
Big Little Lies 2 is in many ways a story of outrageously aggressive moms. The most tragic suggestion it seems to make is that victims of abuse often display abusive behaviour themselves. Gradually, everyone from Celeste to Madeline (a dependably committed Reese Witherspoon) to Renata (a massively underused Laura Dern) begins to transform in reaction to the incident which they were all made unwittingly a part of. Never - and this is crucial - is this behaviour condoned. In fact, it is often seen with a mix of pity and despair.
The incident itself is often flashed back to, in the same manner that Jane’s rape was evoked at the beginning of every episode in season one. I found this to be a purely stylistic move, and not necessarily valuable thematically. The first season was a pulp mystery with serious dramatic undertones. Season two isn’t as soapy; there’s no mystery to solve; we were there when the murder was committed; we don’t need to be reminded of it. More than anything else, the flashbacks, and the split-second editing, seem tacked on - an empty tactic to connect season two’s visual language to what director Jean-Marc Vallée did so splendidly in season one, and subsequently in his other HBO series, Sharp Objects.
The new episodes are shorter - most of them clock in at around 45 minutes - and yet the narrative feels oddly stretched; the storytelling less seamless; and the structure, on certain occasions, bafflingly illogical. For instance, there is a sequence that intercuts between two parallel conversations that are seemingly taking place at the same time, but apparently at different times of the day.
To a trained eye, these are telltale signs of some sort of behind-the-scenes drama. And certainly, that is what a recent news report suggested. It said that control was wrenched from the hands of Arnold once shooting wrapped, and handed back to Vallée, who brought his own team of editors to structure what Arnold and her crew had shot. Episode six has 11 credited editors, which is insane. HBO’s patronising statement in response to the report seemed to suggest that regardless of what happened, the proof is in the pudding. I agree. Andrea Arnold is one of the most distinct filmmakers working today. Big Little Lies 2 is an effective piece of television, but stripped of every ounce of Arnold’s individuality. It is the definition of a Hollywood sequel.