It’s a shame that HBO dropped boxing from its network last year, because Sunday’s finale of the second season of “Big Little Lies” should have aired as a pay-per-view event. A pair of legendary fighters entered the ring, a suffocating family courtroom where the matter of the guardianship of traumatized twin brothers would be decided by a sympathetic but inscrutable judge. In suits and ties, the boys are handsome carbon copies of the season’s recurring ghost, their father, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), the abuser and rapist who died at the end of Season 1. The weaponry of choice for their mother, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), is a severe suit in lifeless blue and a line of lawyerly, hideous questioning. Her adversary, sitting before her on the witness stand, is Mary Louise, the mother of Perry, who is played by Meryl Streep with a set of fake teeth and a bad case of maternal denial.
Our eyes darted from Kidman to Streep, from Kidman to Streep, in the climactic scene, like they do when we watch champion athletes. Celeste, acting as her own lawyer, was the stoic, bringing Mary Louise to heel by invoking Perry’s brother, Raymond, who died in a car accident after Mary Louise lost her temper; according to Perry, Celeste says, Mary Louise blamed him for his brother’s death, emotionally and physically abusing him. Mary Louise, the witchy hysteric, dissolves, but recovers herself enough to counter with her slut-shaming theories of Celeste’s shortcomings as a mother. Then Celeste plays for the courtroom a secret video, recorded by the twins, of Perry savagely beating her. The people in the courtroom grimace; Celeste wins full custody. Intensely choreographed, reminiscent of the interrogation operatics in “The People v. O. J. Simpson,” the scene guarantees the actors their Emmy nominations. On Twitter on Sunday night, I saw a video showing Kidman on the courtroom set bowing to Streep.
This ended up being the whole point of the seven episodes of Season 2, didn’t it? Flashy glorification of the “Big Little Lies” phenomenon. The electricity of the performances from Kidman, Streep, and Laura Dern (as Renata, the power broker reduced to forsaken wife) pumped into existence a thousand memes and a million GIFs, but the currents were not strong enough to distract us from the weak plot of this encore season, which probably should not have been made, or, rather, recycled from the first.
The initial episodes I watched for review, in June, were promising. The Season 1 murder mystery had been solved in a perfect finale, but I thought the writers were right to dwell on Celeste’s complicated grief, the threatened marriage of Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Ed (Adam Scott), and, most importantly, the backstory of Bonnie, (Zoë Kravitz), who pushed Perry to his death and is disintegrating under the weight of the guilt. Quickly, and disappointingly, the scripts thinned, looping back to the same arguments and the same tearful monologues, so much so that the episodes started to give me déjà vu. Forward momentum and psychological surprise were forfeited for Emmy-baiting speeches. How many times would Ed, and Nathan, the ex-husband of Madeline and current husband to Bonnie, sneer at each other on their running path, like yipping puppies? How many times would Renata wail about her stolen wealth? To be clear, I loved the rage of Renata, who, in the finale, like Pipilotti Rist by way of Beyoncé, smashes her husband’s train set with a baseball bat. But I loved it discretely, as it was basically unlinked to the central matters of the plot.
Do the showrunners of “Big Little Lies” know that their soap opera is about whiteness and the toxic effects of keeping up appearances and suffocating the truth? Story-wise, the biggest injustice in Season 2 was done to Bonnie. In the Liane Moriarty novel upon which the series is based, the Bonnie character is almost peripheral, and she’s white, like the other members of the clique. In Season 1, it seemed that the casting of Kravitz in the role was color-blind, not meant to rouse any comment on the monoracial culture around her.
Season 2 nudges Bonnie toward depth but is not capable of explaining what it is on the edge of its tongue: why this young black woman lives in this town. What she thinks of the nouveau riche around her, how she plans to secure the survival of herself and her daughter. She is not truly friends with the others. She does not love her husband, she confesses in the finale. Throughout the second season, we learn that Bonnie is a victim of cruel mothering; when her mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), comes to town, Bonnie is beset by flashbacks of abuse. Her dark-skinned mother, queasily, is revealed to be a mystic; when she shakes the hand of Renata at a disco-themed party, Elizabeth seizes, collapsing on the floor from a stroke. For most of the season, Bonnie is alone, sitting by her mother’s hospital bedside, fantasizing about smothering her mother with a pillow, asking for forgiveness. When she pushed Perry, she was actually pushing her mother, she says. It is so rich, the implications of Bonnie’s life—the passive white father, the besieged black mother, her blank marriage, her woo-woo childhood—but the show doesn’t allow any of these details to penetrate the sanctum of the group.
IndieWire reported, recently, on the creative controversies that plagued the set of Season 2. Andrea Arnold was brought on to direct, but some of her scenes were allegedly reshot or recut by Jean-Marc Vallée, the show’s co-producer and Season 1 director, to unify the styles of the first and second seasons. “Sources describe dailies filled with Arnold’s trademark restless camera searching for grace notes—those gestures, movements, and poetic frames of natural light that added another layer to what is not being said,” according to IndieWire. The rest of us couldn’t see Arnold’s raw footage, but we could detect a palpable sense of interference. The transitions between scenes were jagged, and information shockingly apportioned. The motif of the flashback began to lose its power as a summoner of memory, becoming more like a technical crutch. In the sixth episode, through the private investigations of Mary Louise, we learned that Celeste had been having anonymous sex with men she met at bars. This is a profound bit of character detail, but it arrived so late in the season, and so disconnected from Celeste’s perspective, that it served only as a lurid “gotcha” revelation.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about something you said a while back, about the lie, and that it had a shelf life,” Madeline says to Celeste, during the finale. The same could be said of the series. With its murderer’s row of actors, “Big Little Lies” could plausibly pull us in for many more seasons, but should it? The finale seemed to be weighing this question. Nervously hopeful for a new beginning, Madeline and Ed renew their vows, and Jane (Shailene Woodley) has the first consensual sex of her life, with her sweet co-worker Corey. One way to view the last minutes of the finale is not as a cliffhanger but as an ending. Bonnie, who through her mother’s death has experienced catharsis, texts Madeline, Renata, Jane, and Celeste to meet her at the police station. Wordlessly, they file in; their ordeal has dragged on for far too long.