Rating: 3 out of 5
HBO has made a bad habit of rustling critics and audiences feathers this year. The universally derided conclusion to Game of Thrones was a brutal pill to swallow for fans who had stuck around for seven seasons. By the finale of Big Little Lies, the second season had upset more viewers than it had satisfied. Which is totally understandable. Season two was nothing but a delay until the inevitable conclusion, the ride getting there just could’ve been more fun. This does not mean, however, that this season is not purely enjoyable and incredibly acted television.
(I have already reviewed the first season, and the first six episodes in two different segments; as a result, there will be little mention of the past six episodes, this review will only cover the final episode and the overall viewing experience of the season in retrospect. The score above reflects my thoughts on the season as a whole.)
The climax of Big Little Lies season two is arguably more satisfying than the first. The first season relied on the outcome of a central mystery but this season functioned on the dread of what was to come. The toe-to-toe fight between Mary-Louise Wright (Meryll Streep) and Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) for custody of Celeste’s children. The courtroom confrontation could not have been more satisfying. Streep relishes every second of exposing Mary-Louise’s damaged character, her self professed role as a moral pariah corroding before her eyes recognizing the lies she has told herself in order to survive. Kidman on the opposite side must stay calm even in moments of deep anger. There are slight gestures where she wishes to erupt in the courtroom, to explode on Mary-Louise, but she must keep her composure while whittling this woman to a nub for the benefit of her children. The expertly crafted tension is staggering, there are not many scenes in television history quite as singularly electric as this one (with the exceptions being the puking-zombie person in episode 11 of Twin Peaks: The Return or maybe the showdown of the McGill’s on Better Call Saul’s “Chicanery”).
Not every big emotional swing the writers take has a pay-off. Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) still felt cruelly underwritten even in some of her more vulnerable scenes. When she confesses to her husband that she’s certain she has never been in love with him, she has a similar revelation as Mary-Louise, in order to free herself she will need to stop lying to not only those around her but herself. The writers just do not spend enough time with Bonnie to make her progression feel worthwhile, she never got the attention her character deserved, despite this, Kravitz does great work here. She has to express more than her counterparts because she is given less lines, so much of her acting is visual, emotive expressions, she’s not given scene-stealing lines, yet manages to be compelling nonetheless, perhaps it’s Bonnie, maybe it’s Kravitz, but she finished the season as one of the strongest and most resonant characters despite her minimized screen time.
Jane Chapman (Shailene Woody) could’ve been written out after the third episode. While it was wonderful to see her reclaim her sexuality, she felt like a side-character that the writers felt obligated too only because of her important role in the first season, her plot-line either needed more intrigue or more risks, the most interesting aspect was questioning Cory’s interest in her, which the audience felt themselves doing alongside Jane, but even that reveal was happily underwhelming. The writers clearly wanted to take things easy on Jane this season after her harrowing ordeal in the first but she is almost never bothered by the lie in the way the women around her. This angle would’ve been an awesome way to develop her character, her affection for Cory could’ve added an extra party in upholding the lie, his reaction to this information whether negative, positive or neutral would have profound ramifications for everyone involved.
Profound ramifications were ultimately what this season was missing, even Renata Klein’s (Laura Dern) financial and marital troubles feel like a completely isolated plotline. While I would be happy to watch Laura Dern 1%-out for two or three more seasons, she doesn’t feel like an essential part of the drama that viewers are actually interested in which is the relationship between these five women how it’s evolving, deteriorating and growing. Madeline suffers similarly, she was given very few big moments to genuinely react. There is a great dialogue between her and Celeste about Celeste’s abuse in the front seat of a car, post-trial. The shows most massive reveals often revolve around personal presuppositions being shattered, Renata and Jane’s confrontation/apology in season one is particularly notable, for this reason, the finale-courtroom-scene is a huge narrative victory for anyone still sticking around to watch. This season was a wild, crazy, hot mess that took less risks than it should have with it’s characters, almost like the writers were trying to protect them from the ending for as long as possible. There probably aren’t many fans demanding a season three but I want to see this fallout, these characters deserved so much more and they can still have it.