A Short History of Broken Things. Big Little Lies, Season 2.
written by Valerie Morales
When it premiered two years ago, Big Little Lies felt Sex in the City-ish but for the uber wealthy white of a certain age. Instead of Carrie, Miranda, Charlotte and Samantha, there was Madeline, Celeste and Renata. Instead of Soho and the Upper East side, there were architectural homes, stirring Monterey sunsets, and winding drives to the neighboring elementary school. Both HBO series appropriated friendship as a satirical prop. While Sex in the City never tilled the social burden ground, Season 1 of Big Little Lies quietly segued into domestic violence delicacies. You can love your abuser and just as easily nurse wounds he created.
Wife and mother Nicole Kidman managed her husband’s temper in Season 1 by dragging the detritus into compartments. Sexual violence was disguised as intimacy. Physical violence was disguised as complications. The former was tolerated while the latter was loathed. It’s a game women often play with violent men by telling themselves it’s not that bad. Or, he is a good father. Or, I love him.
Then there was Bonnie. A woman of color, she mysteriously dropped into this plume of whiteness. By nature of her age she was too young, too untutored, too not white and so she struggled to fit in. Bonnie’s soulful presence played beautifully by Zöe Kravitz was an outlier to BLL’s narcissistic premise. She didn’t have much to say or do in Season 1. She was a gentle wind, a Santa Ana bringing in warmth before it brings fire and destruction disguised as that last episode of Season 1, the cliché cliffhanger, when Bonnie became an agency of her own impulsivity and the show’s self-absorbed oeuvre. She killed a man. Nicole Kidman’s husband was dead.
Any vague notion that Big Little Lies was more than a television show was put to rest after the Season 1 finale and the opening of Season 2. A black women kills a white man and she is not in jail. That she is not penalized for her blackness is richly wonderful in an unracialized fantasy world, which is all BLL is, a fable where a half black woman can get away with killing a white man, the husband of one of her friends who himself is despicable and cruel.
But here’s the thing. Bonnie was free to do what white wealth could not. Bonnie became the servant to the absurd vagaries of her friends. She acted out their impulses because they didn’t have the instincts to do it themselves.
To my surprise, Season 2 so far has been a little ultra-modern. It is not more of the same rich bitch schtick but more agony and afflictions. An affair that becomes public. A husband arrested. Memories of love interspersed with episodes of pain. PTSD. Renata and Celeste and Bonnie and Madeline have to settle their past negotiations of fuckery. Whether it is Celeste longing for the man who nearly killed her, or Bonnie’s guilt over sending a man to his grave. And Renata whose loss of fortune is slaughtering her sense of self. Or, Madeline who is outed as a cheater. Suddenly all the wealth in the world can’t replace grief and loneliness and anger.
Meryl Streep has joined the cast and her character as the mother of Perry, the villain who Bonnie pushed down the stairs, is defiantly convinced he only had a weakness, and was not deviant. Streep humanizes her son as someone seduced into raping- like that is even possible-but in refusing to admit to his criminality, she is blaming the women whose bodies he is responsible for traumatizing.
It is the glorious Streep that is so chameleon like, motherly, defiant, grieving, and a little bit nosy and preachy, plus slavishly devoted to a past she cannot let go of. Her character is peculiar in the surroundings but she is also a cautionary tale for the feckless Monterey women. Perhaps Streep is the woman they are going to be years down the line. Or, maybe she is the grotesque mother-failure they are trying to avoid copying.
The writing in Big Little Lies is at its most elegant with the dialogue between friends, the kind of words people don’t say to one another in real life but you really wish someone would just blurt out, “It confirmed my biggest fear about marriage. It’s not to be trusted.” Madeline confessed this to Celeste after she and her husband spent an hour in a therapy session.
Reese Witherspoon via her character Madeline climbed her way up into this Monterey clique. She thinks she is a good mother because she is organizing and maneuvering and manipulating but that is not a good mother, just a busy one. Beneath all of her carefully laid foundations she is breakable and insecure and wanting a lot of what she just cannot have. She is a 40-ish woman who has lost control of her dreams. It is a desolate place to be.
Like all series grounded in human emotions, viewers of Big Little Lies are asked to choose between gods and monsters. In Season 2, Laura Dern is nastier than she was in Season 1. Dern is perfectly rendered, like a Matisse painting. Her angular body and granite face, her cold bitchiness- or, not bitchiness- just the privilege of having choices and reminding everyone else they are worthless. She can be hysterical to the point of a dramedy because the money is all gone. Suddenly, she is the crazy, fuming rich woman who cannot control her violent responses which earned her the slur “the Medusa of Monterey”.
It’s obvious and a little overwhelming that Big Little Lies Season 2 has done something with the women of Season 1. It’s like when you crack open an egg and you look at the shell and its color has changed from white to pale to yellow. Renata and Celeste and Madeline and Bonnie have to live with the consequences of the mess they have made but they are not equipped to catalog their failures. They are equipped to be privileged.
Big Little Lies isn’t a profound series. It doesn’t unpack women at their core. It’s not feminism but theater. The main characters aren’t generous or kind, they are stuck on themselves in a time warp, like it is still 8th grade. But the appeal is in the asymmetry. On the one hand they are surrounded by excess, and on the other hand surrounded by scarcity. Their vulnerability and fear is just as powerful as their quartz countertops and floor to ceiling walls of glass.
Ever since The Great Gatsby, we have submitted to a world where a certain kind of wealth is acceptable, only because its inhabitants are wanderers. They are coarse and unhappy with the money they cannot use to offset their gleaming misery. They rent happiness and pleasure then watch it circle the drain, uncatchable. Big Little Lies has some of that going for it, a repetitive loneliness. It is, at its core, when you peel the skin back, sad. There is a lot of pretension and snobbery. It is a false kind of world where women are the center of themselves.
Nevertheless, Renata and Celeste and Bonnie and Madeline are trapped in the narrowness of their lives like a midwestern housewife is trapped in the sallowness of hers. So perhaps Big Little Lies is feminism after all. Women learning how to step into their own authentic light without the assistance of men.
Shakespeare gave us “What is past is prologue.” Katherine Porter wrote, “The past is never where you think you left it.” We repeat what we don’t resolve and there are wretched moments between redemption and mercy. Bonnie, adorned in her own beauty and standing besides a vast and decadent Monterey beach, the waves a supplicant of grace said, “I’m such a hypocrite. Nathan has no idea who I am.”
Women who lie to themselves, their partners, and the world suffer gloriously.