Big Little Lies: Meryl Streep's Mary Louise holds this haphazard season together, redefining the notion of 'villian'
Without Meryl Streep, Big Little Lies would truly be unwatchable.
It pains me to say this, but the second, and hopefully the last, season of Big Little Lies was a dud. It was needlessly dense, lacked the piercing intensity that made so many of us fall in love with the first season, and, oh, the worst thing a story can be — it was just plain boring.
Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) deserved so much more than long, leisurely shots of staring into an abyss while fantasising about stifling her mother with a pillow.
Renata (Laura Dern) is reduced to a shrill parody of the complicated, overprotective, nervous wreck of the mother we saw in season one. Her tantrums were fun initially, but after the fifth or sixth time, the teeth-gnashing and yelling starts to give you a mild headache.
Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is understandably defeated and deflated due to shame over jeopardising her marriage and family, but did humility have to come at the cost of squeezing every last ounce of her spunk?
Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is erratic, but it’s more to do with the aimlessness of her character arc than any real urgency of emotions, and Jane (Shailene Woodley) might as well have packed up and left Monterey altogether. The mystery disappearance might have been more appealing than the ham-fisted attempts to force her into a neatly wrapped up and bow-tied happy ending.
Possibly the only thing that keeps you invested in a plot, that very quickly drops every pretense of going anywhere, is the quietly menacing Mary Louise (Meryl Streep).
She's immovable in her faith in her son’s goodness, no matter how much evidence there is to the contrary. The loss of a child is among the most excruciatingly traumatic experiences a parent can go through. And Mary Louise has lost both of hers. But when your entire sense of self is derived from your identity as a mother, and within months of losing your perfect, can-do-no-wrong child you’re told that what you actually raised was a violent husband and a rapist, it is enough to make you lose your grip on reality.
I found myself feeling sorry for Mary Louise and empathising with her unhinged attempts to explain away the ugly in her son.
If you look at her actions dispassionately, Mary Louise is the kind of person who puts your senses on high alert. She’s always lurking around, making Celeste uneasy in her own home. She shamelessly hovers near windows and doors, watching her for signs of weaknesses, while silently judging everything — from her way of mourning her husband’s death to her parenting.
In real life, you’d cross the road to avoid a person like Mary Louise. But in Big Little Lies, every now and then, you find yourself feeling a twinge of sympathy for her. And it’s only after you’ve allowed yourself to see Mary Louise as a human being, not evil incarnate, that you stumble upon this unnerving realisation: she has neither lost her grip on reality, nor is she unhinged. She is simply adamant that no truth is truer than her own. She’s so determined to keep her son’s memory spotless and alive, and find out what really happened on the night he died, that she simply doesn’t care whose equilibrium she destroys in the process of getting the answers she believes she deserves.
And that, I suppose, is the mark of an impossibly good actor. Meryl Streep, a card carrying feminist and one of the major backers of Hollywood’s famous Time’s Up initiative, takes on the delicate task of tempering Mary Louise’s slut-shaming vileness with humanity, and does an exceedingly good job of it. She also manages to do so without offering excuses or justifications — and that is among the few victories that Big Little Lies can boast of this season. Without her, the show would be truly unwatchable this season.
Perhaps the reason I could allow myself to feel sorry for Mary Louise for a few fleeting seconds — with guilt but without feeling like a complete gender traitor — is that at no point do the writers or Streep asked me to be kind or compassionate in my assessment of her.
Mary Louise is not a helpless, misunderstood character; she is an intelligently hostile one, but only when it suits her. She is hurting — but of course she’s hurting — but the havoc she wreaks is not the result of a grief-stricken mother’s hysteria, it is the naturally expected consequence of very deliberate actions. Having her emotionally overwrought and struggling daughter-in-law followed and photographed as she has sex with random men she picks up at bars is a choice she makes long before she claims that her twin grandsons are in danger by being in her care. What kind of person is able to walk up to a woman who claims she was raped by her son, and tries to convince her that she is either mistaken or is mis-remembering, while simultaneously requesting a paternity test to establish her dead son’s fatherhood? To muddy matters more, all of this is said and done with compassion. She’s only trying to do what’s best for everyone in this helpless, sordid situation. No one can be the winner, but Mary Louise won't let her dead, defenseless son be the loser.
Mary Louise is not evil, she’s just convinced she’s right. You can be disgusted by that, but you can’t hate it. In some moments, you can even understand it. As much as I didn’t want Celeste to lose her boys to her scheming mother-in-law, I’d never allow any child of my own to be in the car while she was driving.
And that’s the thing about villains — at least the ones you’re forced to remember because you can’t ever quite understand what to make of their actions, or see them as starkly black or white. A good villain is not evil for the sake of evil; they're evil because sometimes the means justify the ends. Someone’s got to do the dirty work, ask the uncomfortable questions, and speak the ugly truth. A good villain doesn’t alienate, she draws you into her motivations and even makes you nod in your more unguarded moments. And by god, Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise is a damn good villain.