Why Big Little Lies Season Two Ultimately Didn’t Make a Case for Its Return
Despite excellent performances, a messy season leaves the show's legacy in question.Image via HBO TV Features Big Little Lies
When Big Little Lies first came to a close, it was divisive. Not regarding its storytelling, which followed Liane Moriarty’s hit novel, but about whether or not it should continue. There were some (myself included) who were swept up in the eye candy of it all—the outfits, the A-list stars, the real estate—and wanted to continue to explore that world and inhabit it for further seasons. The cast, some of whom doubled as EPs, agreed. But there was a contingent who felt that the limited series story was complete. It had been all about a mystery, a murder and a cover-up that were intriguingly hidden (although most viewers had guessed the victim by the finale). In the end, both were revealed with some satisfaction, so what would a potential Season Two cover? The women moving on? The continued domination of this death in their lives?
I gave the first few episodes of Season Two a fairly positive review, happy as I knew I would be to return to this world and to these characters. But as the new episodes wore on, they became increasingly disjointed. Some of that, we now know, is because the entire season was recut from its original direction by Andrea Arnold. But Season Two also suddenly turned into a melodramatic courtroom drama for its final three episodes. And yes, while Celeste (Nicole Kidman) has always had the most interesting, heartbreaking and dynamic character arc, and seeing Kidman stand off against Meryl Streep’s cretinous mother-in-law Mary Louise was wonderfully tense, for better or worse it completely overshadowed and dominated the season.
In hindsight, if Big Little Lies ends here, it’s all Celeste’s story. And that doesn’t always make a lot of sense. The other women were almost totally sidelined, perhaps most egregiously Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline. Her story of a difficult redemption with her husband Ed (Adam Scott) only felt dragged out because that’s all they had to do for these seven episodes. Madeline had nothing else going on. The same was true for Renata (Laura Dern), the last vestige of the show’s cartoonish tone and snark from Season One (which felt very out of place in Season Two). Her husband lost all of their money, and for seven episodes that’s all Renata was allowed to talk about.
Each of the women got exactly one thing to do this year: Jane (Shailene Woodley) started finding peace and healing through dating a kind young man, while Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) was forced to just mope and be mildly telepathic. Even with these singular storylines, there still wasn’t time to explore them fully. And the friendship that supposedly came out of the events of the first season among the Monterey Five primarily manifested in occasional nocturnal beach meetings to say they had to hold the line on their shared lie, or to all sit together in the courtroom to support Celeste.
On their own, any of these stories were worthy ones deserving of emotional exploration. But that’s not what we got. Because of muddled, sometimes incomprehensible editing and David E. Kelley’s messy (and often unbelievable) scripting, the second season was a pale imitation of its first. It wasn’t all bad—Kidman and Streep performed their hearts out, and it was magnificent—but the new season was a disappointment and a missed opportunity to expand more meaningfully into this world and give these wonderful actresses all something to really dig into. (Speaking of which, much more could have and should have been made about the car accident flashback of Perry’s childhood).
While much of the season naturally extrapolated what might have happened after Perry’s death by exploring the real-life fallout, it was often a slog. Big Little Lies Season Two doubled down on the premise of relational abuse, where every adult pairing in the show was defined by betrayal of some kind. Is that what the series is trying to be about? And if so, to what end? The finale was full of triumph: Madeline and Ed reconciling, Celeste winning custody, Mary Louise being banished, Jane accepting intimacy, Renata smashing up Gordon’s toys and Bonnie convincing the others to free themselves of the lie that bound them together. And yet, the group marching into the police station at the end didn’t feel like any less of cliffhanger than the first season; it’s still about how the fallout of this shared experience will define these relationships in this town, just in a new way.
So did we need Big Little Lies Season Two? It’s easier to say now, after the fact, probably not. Beyond the fact that it didn’t capture the zeitgeist the way Season One did or advance these stories beyond what a text-based epilogue could have done, its behind-the-scenes drama and messy, disappointing narrative work damaged an overall enthusiasm for it. The question now, of course, is whether or not the series will return for third season, perhaps as an act of redemption. Anything is possible, although given the schedules of its cast and the hullaballoo with the Andrea Arnold / Jean-Marc Vallée switcheroo, it’s unlikely to happen anytime soon. But that might be what the story really needs; if the Monterey Five return, it should be after these characters—and perhaps the production itself—takes some time to regroup.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat, and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV