Big Little Lies season 2 episode 1 review: The Monterey Five want to forget 'what they have done' — but can they?
Even though it may seem like not much has changed in the Big Little Lies universe, so much is simmering under its 'normality'.
On the surface, it doesn't look like much has changed in the Big Little Lies universe.
Season two of the HBO series begins with a flashback of the dramatic events of the season one finale: 'The Monterey Five' (as they would come to be known) — Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), Madeline MacKenzie (Reese Witherspoon), Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), Renata Klein (Laura Dern) and Bonnie Carslon (Zoe Kravitz) — are dealing with the mental repercussions of the "accident" involving Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård), Celeste's abusive husband, with whom they had showdown at a costume party in the last episode of season one.
Accident is what they're calling it to save their own skin, but in reality it was an ambush (a much-needed one). Perry couldn't handle the fact that Celeste dumped him, and started to attack her. She retaliated. Once the women find out that he raped Jane years ago, they attacked him as well, with Bonnie landing the final blow and pushing him down a staircase, to his death.
The first episode of season two, aptly titled “What Have They Done,” starts slow. The trauma that these women are living with manifests in different ways, and the show is in no hurry to rush through it. This is murder, after all, no matter how monstrous the victim. But as the episode plays out, like a crescendo of the ocean waves that are a part of the opening credits, the excitement builds and you know you're going to be left with a cliffhanger. The beauty is in the details; you blink and you miss.
Bonnie has clamped down, much to the dismay of her husband Nathan (James Tupper). Madeline slips straight back into working mom mode (she's now a realtor) but her breakdowns creep up on her when she least expects it. Renata is owning her professional life, but when it comes to her daughter Amabella, she's as nervous as she was in the last season. She's one problem away from losing it and uses authority to cover this up. Jane seems to really be living the "new beginning"; her smiles are measured but her laughs are genuine.
Celeste has nightmares about Perry almost every night, and she has to confront another nightmare as soon as she wakes up: Mary Louise (Meryl Streep). Perry's mother, a mousy yet wise woman who is constantly looking for answers, is living with Celeste and the twin boys to help them cope. She has a unique way of digging up the past: it doesn't involve direct questions, but putting people on the spot to get out what she needs from them. For example, she says "my son is dead" multiple times around Celeste to gauge a reaction from her (because something is definitely fishy, and Mary Louise knows). She also gets off on the wrong foot with Madeline, by telling her that she doesn't trust "little people." The tension between Madeline and Mary Louise is so palpable that it almost comical, and a much-needed respite from the heavy-handed themes being explored in the 44-minute episode.
There's a part of you, as a viewer, that buys the hidden urgency in each actor's performance, making you want to get to the meaty bits sooner (a showdown between Mary Louise and Celeste or maybe their secret being unraveled) but then there's also another part of you that wants to stew in the "normal" — watching Madeline fight with her daughter over going to college, marveling at Renata's ability to hold it together as everything around her crumbles (a standout moment of this episode involves her posing for a photoshoot about powerful women, as her husband drowns his insecurities in alcohol), and smiling with Jane and her son at their goofy moments. The best parts of episode one manage to merge the two tones subtly.
And so, even though it may seem like not much has changed in the Big Little Lies universe, so much is simmering under its "normality".
The juxtaposition of how Jane and Bonnie have internalised the "accident" is important. Bonnie has frequent brain-freeze moments, in which she can be seen staring pensively as the world moves around her. She goes on frequent runs to take her mind off the heaviness. She seems to be on the brink of a panic attack, and what the show doesn't explicitly state, but I'm hoping will tackle eventually, is the burden of being a black woman in an overwhelmingly large white community, and living with the knowledge of crime.
In contrast, Jane seems to be moving on, bit-by-bit. In a poetic scene, she is seen dancing to Sufjan Stevens' 'Mystery of Love' on the beach, and embracing change. In season one, she would be the one taking long runs to distract herself, but now she doesn't need them anymore. It begs the question: Do you feel better about your trauma if the perpretrator dies?
Big Little Lies is committed to authentic characterisation. Celeste often dreams about the good times with Perry and Mary Louise is convinced that her son could do no wrong (despite so many red flags just waiting to be discovered). Madeline can't stop being jealous of Bonnie even though they share a common secret. Nathan and Ed MacKenzie (Adam Scott) are still quarreling with gutso, no matter what happens behind their back. It will be interesting to see how these dynamics play out in the next couple of episodes.
Beyond everything else, let's take a moment to live the excitement of having six more episodes of watching Meryl Streep in action. She is, by far, the best thing about Big Little Lies season 2, but are we even surprised?
Big Little Lies season 2 is streaming on Hotstar.
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