Big Little Lies season 2 episode 1 review: What Have They Done?

Big Little Lies is back for another season of finely-wrought drama, with some of Hollywood's best actors doing their best work. Spoilers...

As this episode first aired at 2am in the UK, this review contains spoilers.

2.1 What Have They Done?

Big Little Lies season one was more than just one of the best TV experiences of 2017. An adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s bestselling murder mystery novel about rich mothers living in Monterey, it was and remains a rare example of women-centric storytelling granted the budget and prestige usually reserved for stories with men at their centre.

Big Little Lies was so successful as a miniseries that HBO brought it back for a second season, with Moriarty on board to help writer/producer David E. Kelley expand the original story past what we saw in the books. There was a bit of controversy surrounding the decision—not least of which because Big Little Lies won its heap of Emmys in the “Limited Series” category, which it ended up not being.

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Most negative fan reaction to the announcement of a continuation, however, centred around concerns that an unnecessary second season could dilute the power of the first season, an argument I tend not to agree with, but understand. After one episode of Big Little Lies season two, I can see how this sophomore season doesn’t have the tightness of season one’s classic “whodunnit” structure, but that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Culturally, we are very good at pointing the finger, but not so good at examining the fallout past that moment. Big Little Lies season one was so important for the ways in which it centred nuanced stories of domestic abuse, sexual violence, female (mostly white, upper class) social dynamics, marriage, and motherhood. Two years later, it remains vital for those reasons, and has the further opportunity to examine the very topical theme of the differences and similarities between accountability and justice.

But does that make for a good story? In this first episode, it’s hard to tell. It’s beautifully done, of course—impressively-acted and beautifully-shot—but much of the emotional action here is disjointed place-setting for what’s to come, a mesmerising retreading of what we know and an introduction to a world we have already been introduced to.

It’s not all familiar, of course. We meet Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise, the mother of late rapist Perry ostensibly in town to help Celeste take care of her sons (and herself), but with enough passive-aggressive and sometimes aggressive-agressive interrogation regarding her son’s death to represent a threat to The Monterey Five, as they have come to be known in the local community. 

Perry’s death has been deemed an accident, at least for now, but Bonnie and co. know better. Perry didn’t fall; he was pushed, in an act of defence to keep him from hurting Celeste anymore than he already had. Perry may be dead, but the bastard is far from gone. His spectre is everywhere, many of The Five seeing him in traumatic flashbacks of the night he died. Bonnie is haunted by the fact she has taken a life, even if it was in protection of another woman, and has become emotionally-isolated as she, previously the most emotionally-healthy of the gang, can’t talk to her own husband about her pain and trauma.

It doesn’t help that Bonnie has never been as close as the other four—especially Celeste, Madeline, and Jane—are to one another. She is the only woman of colour in the group and she is the one who did the pushing, even if the defense of Celeste was a group effort. Now, feeling alone with the lie and the action, Bonnie resents the fact that the group chose to lie about it. What may have looked like freedom at the time now feels like a prison. Over the course of the first episode, Bonnie seems continuously on the verge of telling the police, but is held back by her understandable fear.

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For Celeste, the spectre of Perry is more complex. He may have been her abuser, but he was also her husband and the father of her children. She loved him, and fought so hard to break free of his manipulations only for him to die before she could fully go through with it. She has both terrible and wonderful dreams of him, and is unable to move on in her romantic life because she still feels as if she has failed him.

Celeste confides in her therapist that she blames herself for his death—if she hadn’t chosen that night to confront him about raping Jane and tell him it was over, maybe it would have turned out differently. Her therapist notes that, even after Perry’s death, his toxic message lives on: this is all your fault.

Meanwhile, Jane seems to be doing better. She has a job at the Monterey Aquarium where she gets to teach kids about marine life and flirt with Corey, a cute surfer guy she works with. She’s not taking cheques from Celeste to help pay for things for Ziggy (who is Perry’s biological son), but at least the two talk about it. Like me, Celeste thinks Jane should take the money, but respects Jane’s decision not to.

Meanwhile, school is starting up again, with our protagonists’ kids beginning the second grade. It’s just as extra as you would expect it to be, with Renata threatening her kid’s teacher on the first day. We don’t get much of a chance to check in with the kids here, save for Celeste’s twins, who continue to act out in the wake of their father’s death. So far, this just involves fighting one another, but the school year just started. Give it time.

We also check in with Madeline’s oldest, Abigail, has declared she’s not going to college. It’s expensive, and the world needs changing now. Many of Abigail’s observations about the fucked-up-ness of the world are on point, but her ambitions to help change the world via a job at a new start-up are naive and ego-driven. Madeline doesn’t handle it well. Instead of listening to her daughter and perhaps repackaging college as a place where Abigail can make connections and learn skills helpful in saving the planet, she simply pulls the mom card and tells her she has to go. Yeah, good luck with that.

Madeline’s fears that Abigail will end up working a minimum wage job are overly dramatic, too, of course. College would probably benefit Abigail, but it is far from the most important factor for Abigail’s potential future success and happiness. She was born into a very wealthy family and will continue to reap the benefits of all that goes along with wealth. Even if she doesn’t go to college, she will likely be financially-privileged and have plenty of other opportunities for success.

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Madeline’s own insistence that Abigail go to college seems to stem from her own regrets over not going. Presumably, she forwent the academic/career path to become a wife and mother, a subject that comes up often in her rants about the different judgments and expectations for working moms versus stay-at-home moms in the first season. In the space between seasons one and two, Madeline has become a real estate agent and thrived in a professional setting. It’s no doubt made her think even more about what she could have been doing these past 20 years if not focusing so much on being a parent.

Perhaps she can take some classes while in prison? With Mary Louise sniffing around both Madeline and Celeste, it seems like only a matter of time before she figures out what really happened to her son. If she doesn’t do it, Detective Adrienne Quinlan will. She is another spectre haunting the Monterey Five in this premiere, still watching and analysing.The Monterey Five may think that they are off the hook, but it doesn’t seem like the police have forgotten about them. 

Big Little Lies season 2 airs at 2am and 9pm on Mondays on Sky Atlantic. Watch Big Little Lies season 2 on NOW TV.