‘Big Little Lies’ Recap: Mothers’ NatureRolling Stone — Alan Sepinwall
A review of “Tell-Tale Hearts,” this week’s Big Little Lies, coming up just as soon as I invent the nutritional french fry…
The Season Two premiere, “What Have They Done?,” was an at times ungainly creature. It had to expend a lot of effort reopening a story that had been designed to close with Perry‘s death, and to introduce new characters like Mary Louise and her hatred of short people. With this much talent involved — and the Meryl Streep scream that launched a thousand memes — the premiere wasn’t without its charms, but you could feel the strain from the creative team.
“Tell-Tale Hearts” is a much more effective outing, despite that it spends more time on old business regarding Perry’s demise or Madeline‘s affair than on new stories like Renata facing financial ruin. Even as the characters are looking back on the mistakes they made in Season One, it feels more like the show is moving forward, and it offers one dynamite scene after another.
The emotional fallout of Perry’s death is much more interesting than the legal ramifications. So far, thankfully, that’s what the new season is focusing on. Celeste is a wreck — literally and figuratively — as she crashes her car during a bout of Ambien-induced sleep-driving. Dr. Reisman grows exasperated that Celeste is so willing to give Perry a pass on his abuse, and forces her to substitute Madeline for herself in her memory of one of his beatings. Seeing her best friend get choked and punched by her monstrous late husband shatters Celeste, who snaps out of the vision with repeated primal screams of “NO!” as she bangs on Reisman’s table. That exercise is clearly still on her mind a few scenes later when she tries to break up a fight between the twins. Max curses her out and hits her, and Celeste responds with animalistic rage and protectiveness, shoving him to the ground as she screams, “No! You will not be like him!”
(Cue Nicole Kidman clearing a space on the mantle for her next Emmy. She has to display some huge emotions in this role, but the reactions always feel genuine rather than an actor showing off for the camera.)
Mary Louise, who is witness to this ugly mother-son incident, continues to have blinkers on about her own offspring. She learns — courtesy of Chloe and the elementary school grapevine — that Ziggy is also Perry’s son. When Celeste tries to enlighten her about Perry’s violent behavior with both her and Jane, Mary Louise retorts with a marvelously smug and indignant “I don’t belieeeeeeeeve you.” Worse, Celeste’s attempts to explain who and what Perry really was only give Mary Louise more context about what happened on Trivia Night and why she believes he really tumbled down those steps.
The discovery that the three boys all know they’re related is, of course, unsettling to both of their moms. The relationship between Jane and Celeste is one of the best and most nuanced parts of Big Little Lies. It would be so easy for the discovery that Perry was Ziggy’s father to drive a wedge between these new friends. But Celeste never blames Jane for what happened, never gets standoffish with her. When Jane says that she had to tell Ziggy the whole truth about how he was conceived — “He salted you” is how Ziggy heartbreakingly describes the version Chloe told him — Celeste is displeased but also understands where she’s coming from. The whole thing’s unbelievably fraught, but both women mean well and empathize with each other enough to make it work, and to generate drama without cheaply-generated conflict.
Madeline’s propensity for blabbing deeply private information in front of her daughters winds up biting her, too, when Ed overhears her and Abigail discussing her affair with the theater director. Ed is, predictably, devastated. (And Adam Scott is, predictably, great at playing a fundamentally low-key guy struggling to contain his anger and hurt over this news.) Like a lot of Season Two so far, Ed finding out the truth isn’t something we needed to see happen if this had just stayed a miniseries, but it’s a dramatically fertile area to explore, and this is a promising, if uncomfortable, start to that.
On the flip side, the season is struggling to find much compelling in Bonnie‘s mental retreat because she can’t tell Nathan or anyone else what she did to Perry. It’s a more prominent showcase for the character than anything that happened in Season One, but it’s an interior struggle in a way that doesn’t seem to play to Zoë Kravitz’s strength. It’s a story that’s about her feeling isolated from everyone else, but the arc itself (even with the arrival of her parents, played by Crystal Fox and Martin Donovan) is so far removed from the rest of the show at the moment that it could easily be excised.
And “Tell-Tale Hearts” also establishes that there’s entirely new territory to cover with these characters, with the cracklingly hilarious subplot about Gordon being arrested for securities fraud. Bringing Renata into the fold of Madeline’s group risked defanging the show’s fiercest, funniest character. In putting her fortune and reputation at risk, this story gives her new targets to rage against, not least of which is her idiot man-child husband, who ruined them both because he really wanted his own Gulfstream. We get some peak Laura Dern rage in this one, between the way her finger bangs on the glass after each syllable of the sentence, “I will not not be rich!” and the foul-mouthed tantrum she throws at Gordon, the other drivers and eventually herself when she leaves him by the side of the road for a minute. This show is overflowing with terrific performances, but if HBO wanted to retitle it Renata Klein Yells At Morons, I’m not sure I’d object.
The Meryl Streep quotient was the main thing buoying the premiere. The number of secrets that come out this week, coupled with how well the actors play those moments of revelation, suggests there are more reasons for the show’s continued existence.