Below details spoilers to the second season of HBO’s Emmy-winning Big Little Lies, including the season two finale. The author has chosen to remain anonymous.
A slow revolt had been growing on social media. A frustration with the incremental movement in storytelling. An outrage about whether this show, in which actresses executive-produced their program, might have slighted a female director’s work. A wearisome debate about which strong performance was most exemplary. To me, all this mishegoss represented a lot of avoidance behavior. We feel empowered when we see victims triumph over aggressors as occurred in the first season. The actual work of healing is not photogenic. It is not shocking. It is internal. Performances become more muted, interior.
This show was no longer about telling ‘big little lies.’ An adult survivor killed a wife beater in a post-traumatic response to her own childhood physical abuse. A wealthy woman is forced to open her eyes to the reality that she had mistaken money for respect. A rape victim must carefully find her way to trust. A woman must make amends for her infidelity. A mother must swallow a lifetime of big little lies that hid the truth from herself about the real nature of her son. And of course, Celeste, beautiful and broken.
The second season was now about the work of healing.
Bonnie’s guilt in Perry’s death reopened old wounds from an abusive childhood. The recurrence of grief paralyzed her. Zoë Kravitz is very good here. She walks the chilly coastal trails for hours. Her apparel changes from tight, revealing yoga outfits to bulky, oversized items where can envelop herself and hide from what haunts her. The arrival of her abuser brings her struggle to the forefront of her conscience. Her mother’s stroke is a common experience of the abuse survivor. They are often called upon to nurse their abuser on the death bed. As with Bonnie, it provides an opportunity to speak unspoken truths, to forgive the adult who hurt the child, to acknowledge that the pain was not the child’s fault. I think this was best conveyed in the hospital room at the end of the series. Bonnie enters her mother’s hospital room and sends her father away. She softly but firmly shuts the door. From a nearby chair she picks up a pillow. We are certain Bonnie is preparing to euthanize her mother. When the father remembers his keys and returns unexpectedly, he finds Bonnie in the bed with her mother, curled in a fetal position. There we see Bonnie’s face differently. The trouble that clouded her is gone. She has chosen a path. We don’t know what that path will be, but she is no longer living under the weight of the past.
Renata presents the anger of a survivor. Laura Dern edges toward overplaying with her comedic interpretation. Actually, it is a quite wise choice. We would never have lasted seven hours with this women’s rage if Dern had played it without humor. She has so many wonderful highpoints in the series that it seems trivial to highlight one when you slight so many more. Yet, I do adore the final, violent blows she inflicts on her husband’s toys. In that burst of energy, her shout of primal rage about respect surprises even herself. She stops. She realizes what she truly wants and that this man is incapable of offering it. Her facial expression at that moment is a wonder. The slack-jawed awareness and then the immediate regaining her composure is a brilliant piece of acting. You know in an instant that Renata has chosen a path and will not look back.
Madeline has a much more difficult task. She committed adultery and was caught by her inability to keep quiet what is private. Most of us have been hurt and/or have hurt others in our sexual relationships. Lifelong monogamy is challenging. Madeline’s lie isn’t really to her husband. It was to herself. She refused to accept that she was content with a happy marriage, healthy children and financial success. Her affair was really about creating unneeded drama. Those ongoing conversations with Ed, in my opinion, were extremely well played. Witherspoon was comical with the New Age encounter group, earnest in telling her girlfriends of her intent to be a better wife, and motherly in comforting her daughters. All of this leads to Madeline’s realization that she doesn’t want to renew her vows in an extravagant beach ceremony. She is content with an intimate moment of love. We should all be so lucky as to find such peace.
The rape survivor is a story that has been told many times. Keeping it away from cliché is a challenge. Shailene Woodley is masterful at this. She refuses the melodramatic reading. Rather, she underplays. Her protests when memory becomes too taxing are firm but insistent. We root for Jane. I thought Woodley’s finest moment came at the final episode in court when Celeste plays the videotape her sons made of her abuse. We are aghast again at what she endured and are intent on seeing the physical evidence’s effect on Mary Louise. In a momentary cutaway, we see the other women seated in the front row of the courtroom. They are repulsed by the scene. Jane has slid down the bench getting further away from the image of Perry’s violence. We see her fail to maintain composure and visibly ache with grief. Interestingly, the moment in the courtroom which validates her experience provides Jane the healing she has sought for so long. Here the series reminds us of the importance of being heard, of being believed. Too many abuse victims are not.
And so we are left with Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Mary Louise (Meryl Streep). At the end of this brutal confrontation before a judge, I was not convinced either woman had capacity to raise these damaged children well. As with most survivors and abusers, the legacy will be passed down. The failure of these two woman to bridge their differences for the sake of the twins is a huge loss. This is not a happy courtroom victory. Look at that night scene when Mary Louise arrives at Celeste’s home after their intense exchange on the witness stand. Each woman is too encamped at that point in being a victor, being right to think of what is needed for the mental health of those children. The sound of Celeste firmly locking the glass door resounds with finality. This is not the happy ending of self awareness and life change that greets Bonnie, Renata, Jane and Madeline. The legacy of abuse is too horrid here. The odds are not in favor of Celeste overcoming the past, her own issues, and persevering in raising healthy children alone.
Herein lies the tragedy. The series may end with the five women in solidarity going to the police station to end this. In the back of our minds, we are cautiously aware that the real heartache is that Celeste will most likely be back here again. In Big Little Lies, the truth of abuse is not masked. The road to healing is challenging and not always successful.
I loved the second season. I like films that are brave in telling internal stories that require the audience to work to gather the pieces which will inform. Such storytelling only works with exemplary actors. Here we are treated to a gathering of incredible women. I will be watching this again.