Big Little Lies concluded its second season on Sunday, a season as choppy as those damn waves the women of Monterey seem to always have time to stare pensively into. After six episodes of Ambien-addled neglect, Celest (Nicole Kidman) won back her kids following a courtroom tête-à-tête with her mother-in-law Mary Louise (Meryl Streep). Celeste not only exposed Mary Louise’s son for the abusive dickwad he was thanks to a rather convenient (and disturbing) video she discovered in her sons’ scrapbook, she also pointed the finger of blame back to Mary Louise’s own bad parenting and possible child murder.
The other ladies’ plotlines were also wrapped up, some more neatly than others: Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) finally renewed her vows with her husband, even after Ed went on a date with the wife of the man she’d had an affair with. Jane (Shailene Woodley) seemed to move on from her past, getting back together with her twink boyfriend, whose nudes must be available online somewhere (DM me). Renata (Laura Dern) trashed her husband’s toys after learning he’d not only lost their fortune but cheated on her with their nanny. And Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) forgave her abusive, psychic (???) mother instead of smothering her with a pillow, only for her mother to suffer another stroke and die anyway, prompting Bonnie to come clean to her husband about not being in love with him.
This all culminated in what the team behind the show clearly believed would be the cliffhanger to end all cliffhangers: the Monterey Five turning up to the police station in order to, we are led to believe, confess to their crime, the lie that hung over them all season long: the death of Celeste’s husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). Because we were all so torn up about him. Fade to black.
And that’s it?
Within just a few episodes, it was clear that Big Little Lies season two wasn’t hitting quite the same way season one had. The first season was a masterfully-crafted exploration of abuse, sex, womanhood, marriage, parenting, wealth, and class featuring powerhouse performances by some of the industry’s most brilliant actresses (plus Shailene Woodley). Season two attempted to recreate that formula but never quite got there.
Season one had a clear endpoint, one introduced in the very first scene: a murder had taken place and we were going to figure out who and more importantly, why. But season two had no clear destination, and because of that, often felt like it was treading water. Few seasons of television have wrapped as definitively and effectively as BLL season one. Even thinking about the final montage of the women at the beach with their kids makes me emotional. Instead of intentional, intricate storytelling, Big Little Lies’ second season seemed more concerned with creating gag-worthy moments: Mary Louise’s scream, Nicole’s slap, literally every scene Renata was in. But while those moments were certainly memorable (and memeable), none of them had any real emotional resonance. Sure, the final courtroom battle was a tour de force, letting two of Hollywood’s most celebrated actresses go for each other’s throats, but did you cry when Celeste finally got her kids back? Or were you just hoping she’d go another round with Mary Louise?
A lot of what didn’t work about season two makes sense now that we know about the drama happening behind the scenes. According to a report by IndieWire, director Andrea Arnold was brought in when season one auteur Jean-Marc Vallée was too busy filming Sharp Objects to return to Lies, only to have her work turned over to Vallée to edit when HBO wasn’t pleased with the results. Knowing this, it’s easy to spot the hastily restitched season: the shortened episodes, the reuse of footage and music from season one, the abrupt cuts from scene to scene. Rather than allowing Big Little Lies to transform into something else under the guidance of a female filmmaker’s vision, HBO’s bigwigs instead handed her work over to a man in order to recapture what they believed worked so well the first time. Perhaps that’s why season two felt a bit soulless.
With the show’s enduring success and cultural resonance — and, of course, that cliffhanger — there’s little doubt that the ladies of Monterey will return for a third installment. And hopefully, HBO (and the powerful actresses, who surely have a bit of say in the matter) can course-correct and understand that this show doesn’t have to keep treading the same water in order to work. There are always new oceans to explore...and new lies to tell.