The messiness of the Monterey Five is what made them so strong. Through the first season, they clash against each other relentlessly, doing whatever they can to protect themselves and their own. They all attach a deep part of their identity to their motherhood. How could they not, with all the anxieties linked to that role ? They are expected to raise exemplary citizens, have fulfilling (but not too fulfilling) careers, be perfect wives and look like models. Under such scrutiny, everyone would collapse.
But they don’t. They’re stronger than what Monterey likes them to be. They are complex human beings, and as such, they have their differences. But they’re more than mothers, they’re more than wives, more than the roles they play. And that is something only them can understand. The sea is a huge part of the show’s imagery, and it’s not hard to understand why. The waves may crash against one another, but in the end, they still are one. A sometimes roaring, sometimes quiet, always powerful entity as old as the Earth herself.
If the first season of Big Little Lies was about the things that are left unsaid, this time around the show focuses on the consequences of saying them. Secrets don’t disappear the second they get shared. People will start asking more questions. Things will get harder than expected.
The consequences of abuse is such a wide subject that it seems impossible to sum it in seven episodes. Yet there were reasons to stay hopeful. The first season managed to talk about the cyclic nature of violence, the difficulties of motherhood and marriage with masterful performances and a surprising amount of control over a tone allowing for both funny moments and heartwrenching ones. Why couldn’t it happen again ?
Perhaps in another universe did this perfect sequel happen. What HBO did end up offering is nowhere near the miracle that they produced two years earlier. What was previously implied now has to be said out loud through unsubtle dialogue and dragged out scenes. It also is hard to believe in anything the show is saying when it decides to discard realism so thoroughly in its final act. When even someone with no education in law whatsoever can tell that a trial scene makes no sense, it most likely isn’t a great thing.
Being aware of the production context surrounding the show certainly helps to understand why the show seems all over the place at times. Trying to manipulate footage from a director with a style as distinctive as Arnold’s into someone else’s style couldn’t go unnoticed for long. Cuts seem out of place, sequences feel incomplete. There’s no doubt about it: something’s missing.
As curious as I would be to see a version of this season fully approved by Arnold, its problem may still lie elsewhere. In fact, its biggest marketing reveal turned out to do more harm than good. Mary Louise is nowhere to be seen in the book, making her the first main character exclusive to the TV version of the story. The appeal of getting an actress as beloved as Meryl Streep on board was undeniable for producers, and there is no blaming them for following through the opportunity. As a matter of fact, Streep is probably the best anyone could have been in this role.
The problem lies in the role itself. Mary Louise is not allowed to be a complex woman. She’s not allowed to be more than what the show wants her to be, which is a villain. And yes, she is incredibly easy to hate — but she shouldn’t be. The first season spent much of its runtime developing the idea that nurture could win over nature, that the child of an abuser wasn’t doomed to be like their parent. That it was always possible to rise up, to stop themselves from drowning even when the stream gets stronger.
This second season takes this message and completely reverses it in a matter of minutes. That is not to say that the answer it formulated in the first season was the correct one — a question as difficult as this one can’t be dealt in a black and white manner. But the facility with which it discards its own work for the sake of pursuing a plotline that didn’t necessarily need to be continued is hard to witness.
Is this season a disappointment ? Yes. But does that make it bad television ? Thankfully, no. Far from it: it might be some of the most entertaining drama put to screen this year. Drama in all its form is happening left and right, leaving the viewer very little time to catch their breath or get the tiniest bit bored. The cast once again proves itself to be one of the best ensemble groups in television. There isn’t a single weak member. On the contrary, they all constantly outperform each other, making their journey an absolute blast to watch. Laura Dern in particular gets an incredible character upgrade that should make any other Emmy contender very afraid.
And of course, as clumsy as it can be, when the show finds its footing again and explores the multifaceted results of trauma, magic happens. Finding pleasure in physical touch again after assault; reconstructing a marriage that never was as honest as it promised to be; dealing with the difficulty of admitting someone you deeply loved might have been equally dangerous. All of these subjects are treated more or less extensively and more or less effectively. It isn’t always perfect — but when it plays the right note, everything does seem to fall into place.
The reason Big Little Lies’ second season turned out to be of lesser quality than what fans would have expected it to be isn’t a new one in the field of television. It sacrificed quality for the sake of entertainment, set aside much of its uniqueness in the hopes of getting a wider audience on board. And yes, it is quite a shame considering how great the show used to be. However, such gripping television remains rare to see, and anyone with a few hours and a good bottle of wine would have a good time witnessing the newest madness of Monterey.