TV review: Big Little Lies season 2 was a big mess

Abandoned subplots, ponderous writing and behind-the-scenes intrigue sink HBO's starry drama

BIG LITTLE LIES: SEASON 2 (Andrea Arnold). Seven episodes streaming on Crave. Full season rating: N

I described Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise as “an unknown quantity” when first reviewing the second season of Big Little Lies.

After three episodes, Mary Louise, the mother-in-law to Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, had shown warmth but also bitterness, awkwardness, suspicion and the promise to make this Streep character something major. I just wasn’t sure what that would look like.

Was she going to give us a meaty and honest take on a mother-in-law’s concern and resentment after her abusive son plummeted to his death? Or was she going to be a more theatrical villain, conniving and plotting revenge?

The only character propelling the plot forward, Mary Louise would define the kind of show Big Little Lies would become.

But it became clear when the finale aired on Sunday night that nobody involved had actually figured out what kind of character Mary Louise was supposed to be.

Over the course of what turned out to be a disastrous second season, Mary Louise was having it both ways. She was seen plotting with the detective investigating her son’s murder, as if looking for some way to trap the Monterey Five – as the characters played by Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz came to be known. She flashed as much scowl and side-eye as Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada. She put on an awkward puppy-dog routine before going in for the kill with venomous verbal takedowns in routine match-ups against the other women. All of it culminated in a calculated and premeditated child custody battle. Mary Louise is about maximum showmanship.

But the season also recoiled from the theatricality, occasionally making the wounded-puppy act stick and trying to convince us that Mary Louise’s actions could simply be those of a troubled but still caring grandmother in extraordinary circumstances. At least, that’s what the final act seemed to sell.

Like Mary Louise, the show as a whole felt stranded between opposing impulses and a total lack of direction.

There have been reports of behind-the-scenes director drama. According to IndieWire, director Andrea Arnold had the show hijacked from her. Season one director and executive producer Jean-Marc Vallée took her footage, commissioned reshoots and edited his cut.

Allegedly that had been the plan all along. Executives had wanted Arnold to shoot the show and Vallée to take over as soon as he was freed from his obligations to HBO’s Sharp Objects. But nobody told that to Arnold. She was editing her own cut without realizing the executives wanted Vallée to make the show look more like the first season. #ReleaseTheArnoldCut became a thing.

The optics are terrible. On a project starring some of Hollywood’s most powerful women, the creative direction of a female director was undermined by men. And then there’s the sheer stupidity of having Arnold, the director of Fish Tank and American Honey, make something that looked like Vallée’s work – their styles aren’t remotely close. Yes, they both utilize restless camera work that never stays still and constantly feels searching. But Arnold’s work tends to linger on characters, whereas Vallée lingers on moods.

The off-camera drama was evident in the final product. Edits felt abrupt. Scenes seemed incomplete. Subplots and details were abandoned. (Wasn’t that detective planning on cornering these women about their lies at some point?)

But let’s face it, season two was always going to be a disaster. The ponderous script lacked direction, having nowhere to go after the first season wrapped up so well. It felt scrapped together from leftover ideas, the only constant being the theme about the hurt parents pass onto their children. 

Witherspoon’s Madeline spent almost the entire season watching her husband mope because of her betrayal from the first season. Dern’s Renata spent the season raging, each episode giving her at least one outburst that we could turn into a GIF. Woodley’s Jane awkwardly fumbled around with a new boyfriend. And Kravitz’s Bonnie, the only major POC character, was left isolated in her own story about an abusive mother who also happens to be a mystic. This latter subplot was both the most out-there development and the most underdeveloped.

These characters were left hanging in a season that was all about Kidman’s Celeste, whose complicated struggles with trauma remain the most fascinating thread. From its first episode, the season felt like it was heading toward a final showdown between Celeste and Mary Louise, aka Kidman vs. Streep, a battle not so much of wits but of who had the most incriminating information that the audience knew nothing about.

There were so many speeches and glares, and, according to Cosmopolitan, an enviable number of meme-worthy moments. But look at the mess left it in its wake and the talent wasted along the way.


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