Big Little Lies: Tell-Tale Hearts

Posted on June 17, 2019

The lie is going to get them all.

As we noted in our pre-air review, Big Little Lies made the case for a second season by simply continuing from where they left off and letting the story progress from the characters’ well-established personalities and story arcs. A tenuous sort of bond was formed by the five women who oversaw Perry Wright’s demise, but it was naive to assume they’d all be able to walk away from that event intact. More important: it was naive to think their secrets and lies could stay hidden or that there wouldn’t be consequences.

Celeste is feeling a mixture of guilt, shame and longing as she attempts to wrestle with her still-existent desire for her dead abusive husband. Under the strain of too many emotions and the unceasing and judgmental scrutiny of her mother-in-law, she’s popping Ambiens and crashing her car while watching the violence of her husband’s abuse play out again in her children. Madeline’s rather cold ability to compartmentalize her life (in which her husband is relegated to a little box all his own, separate from her true concerns and feelings) catches up to her as several of her secrets tumble out at the worst times, to the worst people. Just as Jane is tentatively opening herself up to the possibility of liking someone, her secrets get revealed and she’s forced to make an incredibly painful choice and have an incredibly awkward conversation with her son. Renata, not given to introspection or even feelings of guilt, has her life explode around her just as she’s feeling like she’s conquered it all. And poor Bonnie is out wandering the woods, alone in her grief and guilt, not able to rely on the tentative friendships she formed with the very different women who share her secret and unable to connect with the people most important to her. She told Madeline that she had recurring fears that the lie was going to get them all. But there’s no question that their lies have already caught up with them. It’s just that they’re all in that one state people in this community seem to value most: pure denial.

There’s another, even more powerful argument in favor of a second season of Big Little Lies and it runs through every scene of this episode: the acting. Laura Dern is simply amazing to behold; the human embodiment of barely suppressed rage. Her comic abilities as an actress are so finely tuned that this character never truly becomes ridiculous, even as she’s having hilarious meltdowns and spitting out lines like “I will NOT not be rich!” She can’t even say the word “poor,” because it’s a status she never even wants to acknowledge, let alone return to. Reese Witherspoon is getting a chance to spread her wings a little too; not just in her scenes pleading for forgiveness, but in the subtle ways she treats and mistreats her friends. Notice how she asks Bonnie if she’s doing drugs while pointedly refusing to acknowledge that she’s picking up Celeste for crashing her car while strung out. There’s a subtle form of white-lady racism on display here and Witherspoon knows exactly how to finesse it out of her character while never making her seem sinister about it. But there’s no greater joy than watching Witherspoon go up against the great and grand Meryl Goddamn Streep, who is tearing into this script like it’s a fine cut of steak, made just to her liking. Their scenes together are both hilarious and revelatory. Streep’s business with her cross necklace while reading Madeline for filth was one of those utterly perfect Streepian touches; a gesture that felt at once as studied as a thesis and as natural as a fart. She is, of course, equally as adept at interpreting a line as she is inventing perfect character gestures. Her “You left that part out” speech to Celeste was delivered like a virtuoso; each line increasing the tension in the scene ever so slightly until she got to the final, whispered “Ohhhh, you left that part out, didn’t you?” which lands like a bomb going off.

Having said all that, it’s time for us to admit that we find the writing this season not quite as nuanced or subtle as the previous one. There was a too-often-stated “family” theme that was hammered home in ways that felt like spotlights being flipped on rather than subtle motifs being highlighted. “Can’t we have dinner like a normal family?” asks Bonnie’s father. “We are having dinner like a normal family,” her mother responds tersely, having done her part to blow up dinner. “That’s the thing about families,” Madeline assures her daughter, in the face of her family’s dissolution, “You can be mad and you can fight, but you always get over it and then you come back together, because that’s what families do.” “I don’t think we’re that kind of family,” one of the twins sadly responds to Celeste when she weakly attempts to argue that families are always open and honest with each other about their feelings. It’s no sin to highlight a theme and make it clear to the audience, but people only have so many “That’s what family means to me” moments in their lives and when all the characters are having them simultaneously, it tends to dampen any power those moments might have.

In addition, there’s some painfully on-the-nose stuff dealing with Celeste’s anger. One scene of her pounding on a table and bellowing NO like Darth Vader is enough to get the point across. When you have her do it again and add the clumsy “YOU WILL NOT BE LIKE HIM!” (a line that sounds like it belongs in an Avengers movie) in the same episode, you’re asking a lot of Nicole Kidman’s considerable talents. The weird part is, all this bellowing they have her doing doesn’t feel like the Celeste of last season at all. We suppose there’s an argument here that her years of suppressed emotions have caused them to start spilling out uncontrollably, but that’s kind of a weird place to take her character and an odd way to utilize Nicole Kidman, who’s a master at playing repressed emotions and wire-taut women. This Hulk thing they have her doing just isn’t working for us.

There’s also a more subtle and minor motif about childhood hurts and traumas, with Renata spitting out that she will not return to the apparent poverty of her childhood and Mary Louise constantly comparing Madeline to the bullies and mean girls for which she still clearly carries lifelong grudges. We’re much more interested in seeing this play out, because the exploration of long-held pains and grudges dating back to childhood has a lot more power to it than a rather anodyne “Families are important but sometimes they hurt each other” message. But we think they’re going with the latter theme, since the episode ended with the families of Celeste and Jane coming together in an awkward truth,  just as Ed informs Madeline that their family is over and Bonnie rejects her mother’s meddling and asks her to leave. “Our lies are tearing our families apart” isn’t quite as riveting a theme as last year’s “Our lives are made of secrets because of the myriad pressures we face as women” but as long as we get these actresses taking a chunk out of each other in scene after scene, we’re okay with the ride so far.


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