The following is a review of the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies.
The second season of Big Little Lies — now directed by Andrea Arnold, but more on that later — follows the so-called Monterey Five — Madeline (played by Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (played by Nicole Kidman), Jane (played by Shailene Woodley), Renata (played by Laura Dern), and Bonnie (played by Zoe Kravitz) — during the aftermath of Perry Wright’s death. Bonnie is struggling as she feels incredibly guilty about what she did. So guilty, in fact, that she considers turning herself in to the local police. Just as Celeste is struggling as a single mother, Perry’s mother, Mary Louise (played by Meryl Streep), starts to question not just her son’s death but her daughter-in-law’s claim that she is a victim. Meanwhile, Madeline’s marriage is coming apart and Renata’s financial security is at risk of collapsing.
I’m a sucker for limited series. I genuinely loved Jean-Marc Vallee’s first season of Big Little Lies. It was fascinating, soapy, comedic, and thrilling. And, of course, it featured these phenomenal actresses giving it their all. I thought it was an above-average, greatly enjoyable limited series. However, HBO and Big Little Lies‘ stars won countless limited series awards due to category fraud. I felt cheated and frustrated when it was announced that the series would return for a second season even though its producers, stars, and its director claimed that it wouldn’t be necessary or a good idea. It was absolutely unnecessary, I thought. And after having seen all seven episodes of the second season, I can say that the second season never justified its existence as anything other than a blatant attempt to shoehorn another great actress into a series that had already run its course. The biggest and most obvious lie of them all was that a second season was necessary or worthwhile.
Let’s get one thing out of the way early: I think these actresses are brilliant. Laura Dern has so many brilliantly satisfying temper-tantrums this season. Zoe Kravitz, though sidelined and done no favors, gives a solid but easily overlooked performance. Seeing Witherspoon, Kidman, and the rest of the cast contend with Meryl Streep’s brilliantly offensive and galling character can be really entertaining. But the memorable screams, baseball bat freakouts, and slaps are mere moments in a season that, to me, is defined by an aimless and pointless narrative with disappointingly unearned subplots.
The biggest talking point about Big Little Lies right now is the controversy surrounding the direction, editing, and production of the hit series. In case you’ve somehow missed it, let me sum it up for you. Essentially, Andrea Arnold was meant to direct the entire season and present these characters in her unique vision. However, when all of the episodes had been shot and Arnold was getting ready to oversee the post-production, HBO allegedly took the second season away from Arnold and let the director of the first season — Jean-Marc Vallee — reshoot and edit the second season in an attempt to make the two seasons feel more similar. HBO cruelly attempted to remove the visual style that Arnold had attempted to bring to the established series. Arnold was, allegedly, not aware of HBO’s plan to erase her vision. It’s baffling that HBO thought that was a smart thing to do to a show like this.
Whether a direct result of the controversial shift or not, the second season of Big Little Lies suffers from a lack of purpose. Writers David E. Kelley and Liane Moriarty have put together an unsatisfying story that does very little to advance the narrative over the course of the seven-episode season. Characters merely spin their wheels for episodes on end, which leads to a weird feeling of deja-vu more than once because the series goes absolutely nowhere and becomes frustratingly repetitive. Honestly, they could’ve ended this season after two-or-three episodes, and they probably should’ve. I became weary of dream sequences used tirelessly to foreshadow or telegraph a potential character death. On top of this, the editing is choppy, and certain scenes seem jumbled together without a unifying visual style.
Madeline’s storyline is fairly insignificant, and its conclusion feels like an unearned cheat. We are robbed of the full potential of Renata’s storyline. Bonnie is entangled in a storyline that is particularly oddly put together with its many deliberate misdirections. I think the show failed Kravitz and her character this season. Jane is a bit-part player in the drama that overtakes the season: the trial that puts Kidman’s Celeste at odds with Streep’s Mary Louise. Though their exchanges can be electrifying and entertainingly infuriating, the trial itself is preposterous nonsense. And the most absurd part of it all may be the speeches that interrupt the verdict in the season finale.
Big Little Lies simultaneously suffers from not having enough story for an entire season, being absolutely pointless, and rushing to unearned endings for plot threads that were fundamental to the season. The notion that Big Little Lies was being given a second season was frustrating in the first place, and, having now seen it, my fears and frustrations were justified. HBO and the series’ creators should’ve left well enough alone instead of providing us with a frustratingly hollow and pointless second season that, though buoyed up by temper tantrums and uniformly strong performances, was, ultimately, hamstrung by choppy editing and bad writing.
– Jeffrey Rex Bertelsen.