This Big Little Lies review contains spoilers.
Big Little Lies Season 2, Episode 6
“The Bad Mother” is a tough episode of Big Little Lies to watch. There’s the intentionally unsettling storytelling, of course, of watching these women continued to be tortured by the secret they share, but also the meta layer of knowing the reported directorial context of Season 2, as outlined in an Indiewire article published on Friday.
The article reports that, following the close of principal photography on the season, Season 2 director Andrea Arnold, who was hired to replace Season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallée due to scheduling conflicts on his part (he was working on Sharp Objects), had creative control taken from her by Vallée in order to “unify” the looks of Season 1 and 2. Allegedly, this was always the plan, but none of it was made clear to Arnold, who thought she would have complete creative control in the same way Vallée did in Season 1.
These events would be upset if they happened on any show, but are perhaps particularly upsetting in relation to a show that tells the story of women struggling to maintain power, autonomy, and emotional health in a society structured to keep power firmly in the hands of men. Season 1 was a fascinating, cathartic exploration of the tragic gender imbalances in even the most privileged of circles and a celebration of the power of female solidarity despite them. Season 2 has not been that, which brings us to this week’s episode, “The Bad Mother,” which turns up the heat on Celeste and Mary Louise’s brewing battle, and the pressure on the Monterey Five along with it.
Let’s start with Celeste, who may be having the worst week of her life—and she watched her abusive husband die unexpectedly moments after he nearly beat her to death. The process of determining where Max and Josh should live has moved along quickly, with the judge in the case asking to have Celeste on the stand so she can determine her capability to be a parent. Reader, it’s not great. The prosecutor, I guess, in the case lays out Celeste’s Ambien addiction, the times she has become physical with both Max and Josh and her mother-in-law, and her sex life.
Celeste’s life, her struggle to move through the pain of her husband’s death and the terror and pain he caused in her life before that, is laid bear. She is forced to face all of the ugly realities of her coping mechanisms in front of an entire courtroom, including four of her closest friends and the woman who is trying to take her children away. For me, it’s the sex shaming that is the hardest to watch. The other lines of inquiry are, frankly, very relevant, but if her string of hot one night stands whose names she can’t always remember helps her through this difficult time in her life, whatevs. You know if she were a man, she would never be judged for this sort of thing.
It’s nice to see Jane get angry. After watching Celeste’s layers peeled back like an onion on the witness stand on the first day of the hearing, Jane shows up at Mary Louise’s apartment to confront her. When Mary Louise turns it around on Jane, as she does with everyone, asking her why she bought a gun and wondering if she planned to use it to kill her son, Jane isn’t willing to play. Mary Louise shuts the door in Jane’s face and tries to smother her honesty by blasting oldies, but she doesn’t fully succeed. Jane tells her the truth: She thought about killing Perry. That’s how much he hurt her. That’s how much she wanted to hurt him.
But she didn’t, and that fact is one that only four of the Monterey Five can use as a shield. When Mary Louise’s lawyer asks Celeste if she killed her husband, she is at her most confident while on the stand: No, I did not. Meanwhile, Bonnie is writing the truth in her diary and, in one of the best scenes in this entire series, confessing to her mother all of the reasons why she is so incredibly angry at her.
Bonnie is angry at Elizabeth for all of the ways Elizabeth’s abuse spiraled out into self-destructive behavior. For the fact that Bonnie began having sex at 13 because she wanted to feel loved. For the way she married a man it is implied she doesn’t love or respect. For the way she shoved Perry Wright down the stairs to his death because she had been waiting for decades to do the same thing to her tormentor. Bonnie, bastion of goodness and might, tells her mother that she is so angry at her, but she also tells her she wants to forgive her, and isn’t that the most compassionate loving thing someone can do for themselves?
Elizabeth appears to be unconscious, still recovering (or not) from her stroke throughout this confession, but a tear streaming from her closed eye suggests otherwise. If Elizabeth does recover, she has the reason for Bonnie’s “drowning” and while it is not just Perry’s death that caused the emotional turmoil in Bonnie’s life, it is the secret that could hurt Bonnie the most, should her mother decide to be honest about it. I can’t imagine her turning Bonnie into the police in the name of justice, but I can imagine her make the controlling decision to tell the police because she thinks it is the best thing for Bonnie’s emotional health.
Bonnie might beat her to it, of course. It is implied in her confessional speech that she is telling her mother before she tells the police. She imagines it again and again in her mind: confessing. She imagines standing up while Celeste is on the stand to save her friend and herself with the truth. She imagines herself in the police interrogation room, spelling it out for Detective Quinlan (or is this a flash forward—the editing in this season really can be confusing, which now we have a behind-the-scenes context for).
Throughout this season, it has only felt like a matter of time before Bonnie confesses, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. On the one hand, I think it might be what Bonnie needs for her mental health, but I also don’t trust the system to take care of this woman of color who acted out of, on some level, her friend’s defense. Perry didn’t deserve to die, but he needed to be stopped. I think Bonnie made the brave choice in that moment, and it’s cost her almost as much as it cost Perry.
While Bonnie is finally coming clean to her mother about The Lie, Madeline is seriously considering telling Ed, who is looking for greater emotional intimacy with Madeline and can tell when she is holding back. It’s a valid ask, but one that feels unfair when we know that Ed isn’t offering the same emotional intimacy to Madeline. In this episode, he meets up with Tori, who is apparently Joseph’s (aka Madeline’s ex-lover) wife. I did not catch this before (my bad!), thinking she was just an old flame, but this gives some added context to their dynamic. They are both considering cheating as punishment for their partners, which is obviously a dumb idea if they have any intention of repairing their respective relationships with their partners.
Meanwhile, it’s getting harder to watch Renata have to suffer the lies and betrayals of Gordon. Renata is supremely resilient, but she doesn’t deserve this—no one does, least of all from one of the people they are supposed to most be able to depend upon. Their partner. In this episode, we find out that he has been paying Amabella’s nanny for sex for perhaps the last seven years. Gordon is a garbage person, a term that I usually try not to use because I think it is more helpful to adjectivize actions rather than people… but, guys, he really sucks. I can’t believe Renata is still with him.
As the season races towards its finish, it’s getting harder to watch these women tortured for the crime of stopping Perry from killing their friend. What made the ending of Season 1 so subversive was that the story itself seemed to say: So what if these women killed Perry? Maybe he deserved it. It refused to make the story about Perry, about his misery, about his tragedy. Instead, for once, it centered the women who had to deal with the abuse. It explored what it felt like to be on the other side of men’s violence, and it reveled in the power of women to protect one another, to survive, and to heal.
Increasingly, Season 2 feels like it is unwriting so much of what made Season 1 great. This story is no longer about how an unspoken solidarity between women can be a shield of sorts in a world of male violence. In Season 1, it was these women’s solidarity that gave them strength, echoing a form of female experience that is often seen in real life, but rarely depicted on the screen. In Season 2, this same solidarity becomes a prison, subverting the theme of empowerment that was so prominent in and so vital to the first season and its acclaim.
While we had to watch these women go through a lot in Season 1, it never felt as if the show itself were punishing them. Now, we have to watch as they go through emotional distress not only as a result of the secret, but also of a volley of other misfortunes that have befallen them. Every one of these women is haunted by the secret—not one of them, not even Renata, seems OK with keeping it. None of them feels like Perry’s death was an acceptable price to pay for Celeste’s safety, and for the safety of other women like Jane who Perry could terrorize outside of his marriage.
Mary Louise is a corporeal manifestation of this haunting: a specter of their guilt over Perry’s death come to life, which is unfortunate. By bringing Mary Louise in and making her character so unsympathetic, into the villain of the narrative, the story veers back towards making the pain Perry inflicted about him, about his feelings, about his loss. I’ve been hungry to explore Mary Louise’s pain that came as a result of Perry because it is so different from how he hurt people like Celeste or Jane.
It’s a kind of struggle—the struggle to love men who are monsters—that is hardly ever done well because it is too often told with the monster as the protagonist. Big Little Lies had the chance to do something different and, thus far, it hasn’t. Mary Louise has become a stand-in for Perry, too often separated from the Monterey Five in her aggressive attacks on them, rather than alike them in the ways she, too, has most likely been hurt by the careless men who wield power as violence and care not for the damage they do.
I’m not looking forward to watching Celeste tear Mary Louise apart on the witness stand in the season finale. I don’t want to see more women who were hurt by the violent actions of this one man turn that violence on one another.
Despite my criticisms of this season, it continues to be a pleasure to watch this cast tear into this material, good and bad, they are given.
Celeste’s relationship with her therapist is not healthy. If you’re worried about upsetting your therapist and are therefore withholding vital information about your life, it might be time to find a new therapist.
Thank god Corey isn’t an undercover cop. As mentioned in last week’s review, that really would have been one twist too many. That being said, things are still not great between Jane and Corey after he was called in to talk to the cops about Perry’s murder. Jane’s impulse to distance herself from Corey is an understandable one, even if it is a sad one. Corey is a bit of a dick about it, but also really seems to like Jane. Hopefully, his attempts to show her that stay on the right side of supportive.
It’s worth noting that, even with its incredible cast of writers and with Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon as executive producers on this show, Big Little Lies has always been mainly in the creative control of men in the form of showrunner David E. Kelley and Vallée. In Season 1, this was tempered by Liane Moriarty’s source material. In Season 2, there seem to be fewer course corrections.