Big Little Lies, "What Have They Done?"

By Phillip MaciakJune 10, 2019

Big Little Lies, "What Have They Done?"
This week on Dear Television:

Phil Maciak starts off our coverage of the second season of HBO's Big Little Lies. He'll be joined by various guest stars over the next few weeks. There are spoilers below, so if you fainted the second Meryl Streep spoke (because she's too good for this earth) in the first episode, "What Have They Done?" then wake up and finish watching before you read this.


The following episode: Season two, episode two, "Tell-Tale Hearts"


Beach Views: Kravitz / Arnold / Streep

Dear Television,

It’s a relief that the second season isn’t a mystery. I mean, really. Given the initial disbelief that a second season of this show could even exist at all, followed by the announcement of one powered exclusively by the force of Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman’s positive visualizations combined, it was very easy to imagine Big Little Lies season two, even three and four, spiraling and compounding and getting more and more ludicrous, more and more an exercise of reunion than narrative momentum or urgency. Let’s get the band back together and figure out what kind of scrape to put them in later. Maybe they kill a different husband? Maybe they’re stranded on a desert island? Maybe they have to go back in time to secure the Infinity Stones before Meryl Streep slots them into her gauntlet of false teeth and instantly vaporizes half of next year’s Emmy nominees? But eventually, Danny Ocean runs out of heists, Rocky runs out of feasible opponents, Reese & Co. would have run out of people to kill.

But it doesn’t look like anyone’s getting killed! (Except beautiful, brutal Alexander Skarsgård, over and over again.) Instead, this season is taking those famous, jumpy, jump-cut flash-forwards and turning them all into flashbacks. They’re no longer scattered pieces of a mystery; they’re remnants of it. In the first season, the blinking glimpses of a Hepburnian future were leavened with flashbacks to the lead-up and aftermath of Jane’s rape and her shadowy rapist. The commingling of murderous intrigue and past trauma was not an innovation of the show or its writers and director, but it was a good and moving — in more ways than one — deployment of Jean-Marc Vallée’s signature editorial style. This time, it’s trauma backwards and forwards.

This second season is setting itself up to be a season about re-watching the first, whether that’s through the prismatic recollections of the Monterey Five or through the eyes of a three-time Oscar-winning newcomer who’s just starting with season two, trying to catch up. Because the show hasn’t re-booted, because it hasn’t created a new puzzle to solve or proposed a new set of secrets to emplot, the intimate and tender sense of point-of-view that organized and disorganized the first season has become even more centrally important. And because of that, what matters is not necessarily the introduction of a new crime or the opening of a new puzzle box, but, rather, the introduction of new points of view, new ways of seeing old things. Vallée’s structural gimmick gains poignancy when there’s nothing plot-related to learn from it, when it solely mirrors the re-experiencing of traumatic pasts, the binging of bad memories. The sufficiency of the show’s approach to trauma — whether this architectural feature allows us access to any meaningful spaces — is another question. But the fact of having done this at all suggests that new rooms are opening up.

So, in that light, I think it makes sense to take the measure of this first episode by way of the new points of view it introduces. Fittingly, the first of those perspectives isn’t so much new to the show as to the interest of the show’s writers and producers. We can now see this world through Bonnie’s eyes.

It’s one of the new season’s most admirably self-reflective moves to acknowledge that, of the Monterey Five — within the diegetic world of the series, and within our own experience of it as viewers at home — the first season was least interested in Zoë Kravitz’s Bonnie. She was alternately villainized, left-critiqued, and ignored until hers became the hand of vengeance and justice and solidarity. But the solidarity it forged, as we see right away this season, and as the saying goes, turns out only to be for white women. The first season ended with the narratively satisfying, deeply meme-able image of the five women sitting on the beach, their children playing together, as they looked out hopefully, mournfully, upon the ocean. The togetherness of that moment is immediately destabilized in the first images of the new season, and its destabilized by returning to it via Bonnie’s point-of-view of it. We pan up to Bonnie on the nighttime beach in the present day, cut to the recognizable, now-flashback image of the children running on the daytime beach in the final sequence of the first season, and then a conspicuous zoom-in on Bonnie, staring at the children, separated from the other five. Bonnie’s simultaneous centrality and marginality are the new season’s opening notes.

This is a bold move, and one I hope we see pay off narratively. There are maybe no new murders this season — or at least season-long mystery ones — but, within the show’s existing narrative economy, the fact that we are now apparently paying attention to the interior life of the only main character of color might qualify as a twist. Even so, even given that we now have flashbacks and memories that we can ascribe directly to her, she still remains outside, other. Aside from her brief moment with Madeline, we still primarily know things about Bonnie because of the testimony of women who testify to being unable to know things about her. Her husband has more lines than usual this week if only because he has to personally tell so many people about how withdrawn and unknowable she is. Who is this mysterious beauty?! Like any good comedy of manners, this show isn’t particularly subtle. Sometimes, that can be head-smacking — did you know that octopi are beautiful AND dangerous? — but, more often than not, the show’s constant layering and repeating of its preoccupations is useful. I was struck particularly about the brazenness of the eyeline match after the first-day assembly as Madeline, Celeste, and Jane discuss Bonnie’s state of mind. Madeline, aggressively holding two Red Velvet cupcakes, tells the other two women — convinces them, almost — of Bonnie’s withdrawal. The confusion on her faces smoothly transmogrifies into disgust, and it catches. Soon, all three women adopt her gaze and turn it to Bonnie. But, when we cut, we can only see a glimpse of Bonnie from behind, lost — getting lost — in the crowd. Is she that hard to know? An elusive subject? Or is the power of that gaze chasing her away? Again, I don’t know how much to trust the things this show seems to have on its agenda to do this season, but the violence of those looks — and the vicious indictment of their lookers — was striking and promising.

The show has banked hard from using Bonnie as an avatar for the anxieties and desires of the main characters to explicitly meditating on how much of an avatar she is for those anxieties and desires. This is, of course, a deeply realistic narrative turn, but it’s also my hope that the show aims to transcend it. There are answers only she can give that long pre-date her fateful act. Why, and under what circumstances did she come to be married to this jean-jacketed, Jaime Lannister knock-off? What does it feel like to be an outsider in the Otter Creek PTA for reasons other than internecine palace intrigue? What does her relationship with Madeline’s daughter look like if not seen through a lens colored by jealousy and heartbreak and caricature? Why was she the one to push? What was she pushing down those stairs? “You can talk to us. We’re here for you, all of us,” Madeline says, seemingly recalling how lovely that beach scene at the end of season one looked. “It hasn’t really felt like that,” Bonnie replies. So, how does it feel?

It is, obviously, very possible that the second season means only to reposition, and not fundamentally change, our instrumental reading of Bonnie, but I bet it isn’t. And I bet that because of the second new set of eyeballs we have this season: Andrea Arnold.

Arnold, the brilliant British director of psychosexual kitchen-sink dramas Red Road, Fish Tank, and American Honey, as well as the dampest adaptation of Wuthering Heights yet attempted, was brought in to replace Jean-Marc Vallée and direct all seven episodes of the second season. As a few writers have already noted, it’s strange that a director with such particular visual perspective has, so far, seemed to hew so closely to the style guide set up by Vallée in the first season. (And, for what it’s worth, Vallée’s style is remarkably consistent, not just in Big Little Lies, but in his film work, as well.) Why hire Arnold at all, if she’s not going to have the leeway to make the series her own?

My suspicion is that Arnold’s influence on the show is something we’ll begin to notice by accretion. A female filmmaker whose catalogue includes films that are almost universally obsessed with childhood, motherhood, class, revenge, and sexual violence, it seems impossible that we wouldn't find her stamp in this series; but where to look? One of the distinguishing features of Arnold’s directorial work has been her interest, visually and intellectually, in the way physical bodies move — especially dance — in space. That’s most apparent in the ferocious, headphoned dancing of Fish Tank and in the dangerous, fleshy entanglements of American Honey. But it’s also there in Arnold’s first feature, Red Road, about a CCTV operator who uses her panoptic vision to enact vengeance; it’s a film about the difference between the mediated image and bodies themselves, about crossing the boundary from watching to touching to hurting. In that way, I think Renata’s poolside angling and Jane’s, um, Shailening on the beach already feel like Arnoldian touches, or at least points of emphasis.

But Arnold is also a director who, almost exclusively until this point, has trained her camera on poverty. All of her films, even and especially Wuthering Heights, are about class tension, about life at economic extremes. She claims American Honey, her most recent film, was inspired by her shock at what poverty looked like in the U.S., and so it’s telling, from this perspective, that her follow up would be the sequel to a show that is most crucially interested in what wealth looks like in the U.S. Part of the dynamic at the end of last season — the dynamic that gets washed away immediately in this episode — was rooted in the audience’s new good-feeling toward the Monterey Five, a good-feeling emanating from a sense of protection, justice, even sisterhood. We were not asked to like these characters so much as to recognize the value and strength in their coming together against the men who judge them, constrain them, lust after them, violate them. I think Arnold’s new involvement might suggest that that feeling will not hold. It’s hard to imagine that people with kitchens like these will remain the heroes of an Andrea Arnold production for very long.

And, aside from Bonnie, perhaps the new medium of that dissection will be the universe’s only Meryl Streep. We’ll have more to say here over the next weeks about the performance Streep is turning in here: the teeth, the slurry devastating line-readings, that fucking scream! There hasn’t been such an unnecessary overkill of talent in Northern California since Kevin Durant joined the Golden State Warriors. (In this analogy, Streep is Durant, Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman are Steph Curry and Klay Thompson — the Splash Brothers — and I guess Laura Dern is Draymond Green? Does Dear TV have a lot of NBA fans? I guess we’ll find out!)

But, in any case, the role Streep’s being asked to play — the viewer who hasn’t seen the first season — is a useful one. Already, her performance and her lines are marked by the sense that she sees everything: Madeline’s soul, her grandsons’ pain, even Celeste’s dreams. If the general sense of the second season is a revisiting of the show’s past, Mary Louise’s presence suggests it might be more of a scouring. She's the mother of a monster, and Moriarty and Kelley even go out of their way to flag her class position — she’s not an outsider in the upper crust. But if there is heroism to be found this season — if it isn’t found in Bonnie’s assertion of her own self, or even Arnold's camera — it might just be in the relentless, unsparing, unsentimental gaze of Mary Louise. Unlike us, she doesn’t give a shit about any of these people.

She should just get a proper housekeeper you're very short,



The following episode: Season two, episode two, "Tell-Tale Hearts"


LARB Contributor

Phillip Maciak (@pjmaciak) is the TV editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. His essays have appeared in SlateThe New Republic, and other venues, and he's co-founder of the Dear Television column. He's the author of The Disappearing Christ: Secularism in the Silent Era (Columbia University Press, 2019) and Avidly Reads Screen Time (New York University Press, 2023). He teaches at Washington University in St. Louis.


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