It’s easy to be cynical about sequels and spinoffs, revivals and reboots. After all, they’re everywhere, and most of the time they’re derivative of what came before, an attempt to capitalize on the success of something (usually) intended to be a one-and-done thing. By that metric, it would have been easy to be cynical about the proposed second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies, a limited series designed to maximize its potential by starring multiple Academy Award winners and nominees, like Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, and Laura Dern, as well as Shailene Woodley and Zoë Kravitz, not to mention Alexander Skarsgård, Adam Scott ,and rising star Kathryn Newton. It was the epitome of the HBO mega miniseries under the new paradigm of television events brought about by the likes of Game of Thrones, as well as increased competition from Netflix, Amazon, and Hulu. Most surprising of all was that it turned out to be as good as it was.
Adapted from the book of the same name from Liane Moriarty by David E. Kelley (a guy who knows a thing or two about writing for television) and directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (Sharp Objects), the “limited” series would go on to win numerous awards, including Emmys for Kidman, Dern, Skarsgård, and Vallée. So, of course there was going to be another season of a closed-ended story starring one of the most ridiculously talented ensemble casts on television ever. The biggest surprise, though, was when the show announced it was bringing Meryl Streep onboard for season 2, as Mary Louise Wright, the grieving mother of Skarsgård’s now deceased wife abuser Perry.
In many ways, the addition of Streep is proof that Big Little Lies is following the sequel maxim of “bigger is better,” as bringing on perhaps the most celebrated actor of her (or any) generation is essentially ensuring the show’s ratings success. What’s fascinating about the series’ second season, however, isn’t how it has stacked its already unfair cast for the purpose of dominating Sunday night’s for the next few weeks, but that Kelley and director Andrea Arnold (Fish Tank, American Honey) have created a follow-up that’s entirely devoted to following through with the ramifications of the season 1 finale, ostensibly creating a much different show than it was before. And the results are very good.
Big Little Lies season 1 was essentially an upper class domestic potboiler mystery very much in the wheelhouse of Vallée, which he proved with his own HBO follow-up, the gothic murder mystery Sharp Objects. As such, bringing on Arnold to direct season 2 not only puts a talented female director behind the camera, but also makes the transition from cleverly staged mystery (the series began with a clear crime, but obfuscated who the victim was) to a story about consequences for the five women involved in the cover up surrounding the exact circumstances of Perry’s very timely death.
Gone is the first seasons’ non-linear, pre-and-post death storytelling structure. In its stead comes two parallel narratives centered on Mary Louise’s quest for the truth about her son — both the accusations of abuse and rape against him and particulars of his death — and the ways in which the lives of the Monterey Five begin to fall apart, seemingly as a result of the conspiracy in which they’ve found themselves a part of, though not entirely. The new season is interested in moving on from Perry’s death and the actions that led up to his demise, but it’s distinctly uninterested in moving past the fallout from that event. To that extent, Big Little Lies season 2 is as much about narrative follow through as anything else, and Kelley and Arnold approach the culpability felt by the likes of the story’s main characters by taking each of them on a different emotional roller coaster, often — but not entirely — due to what they have wrought.
One of the most entertaining aspects of the new season’s devotion to follow through is the power struggle that quickly emerges between Witherspoon’s Madeline Mackenzie and Streep’s Mary Louise Wright. There is a darkly comedic sensibility to watching the pair square off and offer up inherent truths about one another as a way of trading insults. This brings a necessary degree to levity to a story that is largely interested in exploring the emotional and psychological toll of having either participated in or directly committed an act that led to the death of another human being. And it does so without coming down on one side or the other about whether or not Perry deserved what he got. Instead, the series very smartly examines the ways — both big and little — a single incident can cause a ripple effect that has life-changing (or ending, depending on the individual in question) ramifications.
As a result, the series is compartmentalized in a different way, as Kelley and Arnold weave their characters in and out of situations in which they’re either operating on their own or are paired up with another character. This creates plenty of opportunities for the women to interact with one another, and to say one thing in front of their friends, while attempting to deal with something else entirely on their own. This is particularly true of Kidman and Kravitz, who most clearly bear the greatest burden with regard Perry’s death. And in Kidman’s case, the series points to some difficult complications in which Celeste must not only keep the truth from her mother-in-law, but she must also grapple with the complicated feelings stemming from the abuse she suffered at the hands of the man she loved and in some ways continues to love.
There are no easy answers to the questions left by the season 1 finale, and to its credit Big Little Lies season 2 isn’t in a hurry to find them and make it all go away. In doing so, the series justifies its existence with a compelling story and the addition of Meryl Streep to an already absurdly talented cast. Whether it’s thought of as a sequel or a continuation of an unlikely (and possibly ongoing) television series, this is the sort of follow-up that has the ability quiet even the loudest cynic.
Big Little Lies season 2 premieres Sunday, June 9 @9pm on HBO.