JUNE 17, 2019
This week on Dear Television:
Jane Hu and Phil Maciak sit down with the second episode of the second season of Big Little Lies. There are lots of spoilers below, so if you haven’t seen “Tell-Tale Hearts,” watch the GIF of Laura Dern shouting about not being rich forty-five times, then watch the GIF of Meryl Streep doing that thing with her necklace on her chin seventy-five times, and you oughtta be okay to read.
Previously: Season Two, Episode One, “What Have They Done?”
The Enigma Machine
by Jane Hu
How many people is too many people to keep a secret? Three? Maybe even sometimes two? In the case of this episode of Big Little Lies, definitely five. Phil, you beautifully laid out in your review of last week’s premiere how Big Little Lies seems — rather miraculously — not interested in creating “a new set of secrets to emplot.” Instead of producing additional and wilder mysteries upon which the show’s departure from Liane Moriarty’s novel might gain traction, “the second season is setting itself up,” as you put it, “to be a season about re-watching the first.”
How I hoped this to be true. For, indeed, what a novel twist that would be — to not introduce any novel twists! To instead stay with these traumatized female characters in and inside their trauma — to bear the unbearable burden of resettling, re-piecing together, and, yes, re-watching. A truly radical TV adaptation of Moriarty’s plot-driven mystery novel would, in fact, be one that did the book’s literary dramatization of interiority one better. To take the exploration of domestic female life accessed through Moriarty’s omniscient free indirect discourse and to reexamine it through TV’s at once highly visual and narrative medium.
After all, Moriarty’s novel left the HBO show plenty of emotional fodder to work through. As with the show’s first season, the novel concludes in the immediate aftermath of Perry Wright’s death. Unlike the novel, however, the show does not have the ultimate agent of that death — Bonnie — confess to her “crime” of pushing him down the stairs. In doing so, Big Little Lies The TV Show created even more narrative tension (also known in this case as “secrets”) for its sophomore season to deal with. The novel shows Ed and Nathan present at the scene of Perry’s death, but the show reduces the witnesses to the “Monterey Five” women. It’s a perfect set-up for a season 2 characterological deep-dive of female networks, interiority, and trauma. There is so much that the show could simply sit with; and for the first episode, as you point out, it actually does.
As you’ve examined, the new season shows Bonnie notably moving from the role of minor to major character: it even opens by following her melancholically wandering alone on the beach. (A nice twist from its season 1 focus on Jane, who also spends a lot of time rehashing her trauma by the ocean.) The suggestion that the show might now turn to explore the inner workings and motivations behind the notably single black character of the Monterey Five couldn’t be clearer. Season 1 Bonnie was, as you noted, an avatar for the anxieties of others and a foil for their respective character developments, but this season might have actually found a way to re-center a prestige drama starring wealthy, rich white Californians into a serious look at what it might feel like to be racially out of place in such a world.
What happened last night, however, felt like something of a backslide. And it pains me to say that the ideological backslide here coincides with the characterological introduction of Bonnie’s mother. What is up with the new mothers in this season?! Are they all meant to be somewhat monstrous? Are all mothers just pushy? Bonnie’s mother Elizabeth (played by Crystal Fox) arrives on the scene after lunkhead husband Nathan — frustrated at his wife’s inexplicably newfound detachment — invites her to help him through to Bonnie. (This is after Nathan’s request for his ex-wife’s husband to do the same fails.) Nathan is obviously struggling, and not just because he has the general emotional intelligence of a log, but also because his plan for Elizabeth to pull Bonnie out of her malaise goes, well, sort of sour. Elizabeth doesn’t really come to assuage any of her daughter’s anxieties, so much as point them out more sharply both to Bonnie and Nathan. This is, on one hand, good. After all, last season showed us where repression gets you in a town like Monterey. But on the other hand, Elizabeth’s way of doing so — through what looks like some combination of mystical awareness and alternate healing — also works to deflect from any direct examination of what Bonnie feels, thinks, and wants. Instead, Bonnie is once again made to react to and against the will of those around her. By the end of the episode, Bonnie asks Nathan to ask Elizabeth to go, and does so while in the arms of Nathan, simultaneously asking him to “be patient.” Maybe…in a way…this was progress? But it’s hard to say at this point. Especially since we view this scene of marital semi-reunion through the uncertain eyes of their daughter.
Which brings me to my second concern about this show, and this episode in particular — which is how it trades the exploration of character interiority for, instead, the visual technologies of surveillance. Season 1 concluded with, as you mentioned, an almost idyllic scene of female bonding at the beachside, in which cinematographer Yves Bélanger’s washed-out palette and the soundtrack cover of “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” suggested that the women were finally experiencing a reprieve outside of traditional TV narrative time. That is, of course, until that final shot:
The cliffhanger of season 1 is the hovering presence of state surveillance, registered here both visually through the binocular lens and also aurally through Detective Adrienne Quinlan’s (played by Merrin Dungey) penchant for lighting her zippo. Seen as a continuation from this final shot, the opening scene of Season 2, where Bonnie wanders alone on the beach, feels slightly different — not simply an unmediated gaze upon lyrical personhood, but one filled with the uncertain vectors of suspicion.
And while Bonnie might not actually, in this moment, be under the actual gaze of anyone else, the show nonetheless frames her solo nighttime beach stroll as freighted with the ongoing awareness of possible surveillance. For, as a flashback quickly reveals, the moment that Bonnie is currently contemplating is precisely that beach scene upon which the first season concluded — and one that looks, if we gaze up into the shot’s upper edges, less reparative than paranoid in retrospect.
The framing of Bonnie’s contemplative gazes on the beach — both then and now — mirror each other, as each looks askance to the left side of the screen. Both avoid direct contact with the camera and imply that what lurks in the seemingly unreachable corners of Bonnie’s mind are also what lurk outside of traditional narrative camera framing. The only black woman of the Monterey Five, Bonnie is indeed a striking anomaly — one that both raises and skews the stakes of her culpability as the specific agent of Perry’s death. Or, as her mother points out to Bonnie in last night’s episode: “You are out here surrounded by people who don’t even get you. They don’t look like you. I haven’t seen one other black person since I’ve been out here.” One might be reminded here that the only other black person viewers of the show have encountered so far is Detective Quinlan.
Perhaps the other women here can afford to enjoy the beach, which has at least historically represented the sublime expression of Romantic white interiority. But, for Bonnie, the beach has become just another setting upon which she might be caught under the scrutiny of FBI surveillance. That that scrutiny comes from another black woman — hyper-suspicious by trade, if not also as a result of her racial context — only frames the axes of watching and being watched in this season as all the more fraught.
My fear, then, is that rather than turning this season into a vehicle for centering Bonnie’s complex character, Big Little Lies will instead turn her to the punishing and paranoid gaze of world that almost willfully seems either to misunderstand or overlook her. The show is filled with scenes of watching: men watching women who remain “enigmas”; women watching each other; parents watching their children; and, more recently, a growing awareness that children are watching their parents back. But the kind of lens with which Big Little Lies turns upon its black female characters feels necessarily freighted with different political consequences. That the show seems both aware of this, and yet uncertain how properly to tease it out, might be its greatest struggle — and its most daring endeavor — this season.
Perhaps we just need to trust Bonnie, then, when she tells Nathan that what she needs right now is some patience.
Something’s in the air, and I don’t like it,