Aside from its truly astonishing and mouth-watering real estate, the lasting impression of Big Little Lies’ first season was that of friendship. Over the course of its initial episodes—which is where the story was originally then meant to end—the women who would become the infamous “Monterey Five” became an unlikely coterie. The makeshift family was also, for four of the women, rooted in-but ultimately superseded- shared experiences with certain men. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) had a (former and current) marriage to Nathan (James Tupper) in common, while Jane (Shailene Woodley) and Celeste (Nicole Kidman) both had abusive encounters with Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) under very different circumstances. But the other element in the equation was that all of the women felt like outsiders, even the super put-together Madeline, who felt inferior because of her lack of a college education. That’s what also bonded them with the high-strung Renata (Laura Dern), and it was in that spirit of support that the women all came together in the season’s final, shocking moments.
The moment, of course, was Perry’s murder when Bonnie shoved him down a set of unfinished concrete steps. It began with a chaotic scene of fighting that ended up involving the entire group, but when Bonnie saw what was happening there was no hesitation—she went to protect her friends. And directly after that, they protected her by immediately agreeing to lie and say Perry slipped and fell.
Season Two of the HBO series, written by David E. Kelly and author Liane Moriarty, and directed by Andrea Arnold, picks up about a year later as it investigates the fallout from both Perry’s death and the lie the women shared about its circumstances. Though Arnold follows the dreamy, fractured visual style that director Jean-Marc Vallée established in the first season, the tone is very different this time around. Season Two is about consequences, and though the series doesn’t lose its edge or satirical style (particularly when it comes to Renata), it’s far more meditative and melancholic than before.
Each of the women—now known more infamously as the “Monterey Five” by the community gossips, the former Greek Chorus who we hear about but mercifully do not actually hear from this season—is handling the situation differently, and often in inverted ways from the first season. Jane’s mystery about Ziggy’s father is solved, and she’s finding new life in truth, a new job, and the comfort of her friends. Madeline starts off as essentially the group’s switchboard operator before facing the consequences of her crime from the previous season (her affair with the theater director), and Renata is similarly hit with family drama that throws her controlled world out of whack. The typically zen Bonnie may be the worse off of all, as the person who actually pushed Perry to his death. In the aftermath, she’s felt forced to swallow the lie that has left her drowning in depression and isolation, with a dark foreshadowing of her losing the will to go on.
It’s Kidman’s Celeste, though, who remains the most interesting figure in the series, an “enigma” who is wrestling with both her relief at being saved from her husband’s abuse while also grieving the loss of his love and attention. Their relationship was always a dark and horribly twisted combination of sex and violence, but it’s something she struggles to contextualize in a life lived without him. Complicating that is the advent of Perry’s mother, Mary Louise, a bizarre figure played by an unmatched Meryl Streep. Streep brings a mousey physicality to the role, but for as unassuming as Mary Louise appears, she can be a viper. She very casually and demurely expresses her displeasure in her encounters with Madeline, Renata, and the others, but she’s also incredibly infuriating in the way she questions Celeste and later Jane in believing their version of events regarding Perry. And yet, it’s also completely understandable that a mother would balk at the idea that her son, who suddenly died in what appears like mysterious circumstances, is suddenly revealed to be a monster. Knowing Big Little Lies, it’s unlikely that this revelation is sudden for Mary Louise, but nevertheless, her snooping into the truth about that fateful night is a major thorn in the women’s side to start this meandering season.
Big Little Lies is at its best when it’s primarily a character exploration, and the caliber of its cast cannot be overstated. Though the series always has been a strange blend of trauma and satire, Season Two leans into the former much more so than the latter. That’s particularly true in the cartoonish way that Renata and her husband’s story is shoehorned in, feeling like it belongs in a parallel but totally different show. There are worthy layers to Renata’s behavior and her horror at the thought of ever being poor, but as of the first three episodes they aren’t explored. And while Jane was in most ways the centerpiece of the Season One story, Season Two focuses (perhaps rightly) far more on the dynamic Celeste and Madeline and their interior lives. To continue to overall inversion, if the first season was about the women coming together, then so far this is about them falling away. That’s not an unnatural result given their shared trauma and the lie that will surely come out, but it does leave the narrative feeling unbalanced and fractured.
While it may lack some of the bite and urgency of its first season thus far, Big Little Lies is still an absolutely gorgeous series with a lot to unpack in terms of its complex women, the legacy of abuse, the makeshift families we form, and protecting one’s friends. There are several conversations in these early episodes about people who “want,” and women who “want” in particular. Each of the Monterey Five want for different things, but in this moment-in their lives that are full of convoluted lies and devastating consequences-most of all they want to know who they really are.
Big Little Lies Season Two premieres Sunday, June 9th on HBO.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV