I am the author of three middle-grade children's books, and I blog on the side. My favorite topics are movies, writing, and pop culture.
Season 1 of HBO’s Big Little Lies left a lot of unanswered questions on the table. So, when season 2 was announced, fans expected answers to those questions. Did Madeline ever tell Ed about her affair? Did Jane ever tell Ziggy about his father? Did the police ever find out that Bonnie pushed Perry down the stairs? Who was watching them at the beach? And most importantly, did they get away with it?
But in life, we don’t always get the full story. We’re always left with open-ended questions as to what happened next or what details were never filled in. Big Little Lies was supposed to be a one off mini-series that left the audience to decide what happened next, much in the vein of the gossipy nature of the small town in which these characters live.
Modern audiences are always craving unique content, yet we’re quick to put on our producing caps, point out all of our grievances, and offer corrections that we’re in no position to make. While I had my issues with season 2, at the end of the day, I had to ask, was I entertained? Did I look forward to the next episode from week to week? The answer is yes. So, here is my spoiler-filled review of season 2 of Big Little Lies and how I took the same approach to the show as the show takes to portraying its characters and their situations.
Big Little Lies season 2 trailer
Season 2 plot summary
Season 2 of Big Little Lies picks up on the first day of second grade for the children of Monterey. As Madeline notes, the first day of school is just as big a deal for the moms as the kids, and this year, the “Monterey Five” have an extra target on their back after the sketchy events surrounding the accident that killed Celeste’s husband. Even the school principal has some harsh words for Madeline before the first bell even rings.
Luckily, the five of them have each other to lean on, but life is different in many ways at the start of this school year. The bickering, biting, and censorship battles from season 1 now seem trivial compared to what’s about to boil over. Tom and his coffee shop where the women used to congregate and chat while waiting to pick up their kids from school have inexplicably vanished. But the women have more to do now than just sit around and wait for school to let out.
Catching up with the characters.
Madeline is now working as realtor and trying to find a way to confess her past infidelity to her husband, Ed.
Jane is fully acclimated to her new home and works at the local aquarium.
Renata is still the ball-busting career woman but is now a welcome ally to the gang.
Bonnie is struggling with the guilt over having been the one to push Perry to his death on the night of the fundraiser, causing the others to lie in order to protect her.
Celeste is torn between grieving for her husband and getting over the trauma of his abuse. Her mother-in-law, Mary Louise, appears to be a big help, but she also has a very sinister undertone rooted in her demanding answers for Perry’s death.
As the season progresses, each woman’s life unravels as the result of trying to maintain their lies or having them unwillingly exposed by others.
Bonnie’s abusive mother has a stroke, causing her to stall her attempts to turn herself into the police and end her guilt once and for all.
Ed overhears Madeline and Abigail talking about her affair which put their marriage in a state of limbo for most of the season.
Renata and her husband, Gordon, end up filing for bankruptcy after he is caught making shady business deals.
Chloe tells Ziggy that he is related to the twins, Max and Josh, after overhearing her mother talking about it on the phone, prompting Jane to reveal Ziggy’s father’s identity to her son.
And after several attempts to get the truth out of Celeste, Mary Louise files for custody of the boys until, as she puts it, Celeste recovers from her grief.
Celeste, Max, and Josh in court.
A strong beginning and ending to the season
Episode 1 sets the story off and running, depicting how the “Monterey Five” as they are called have remained close friends as the result of their shared lie. It’s a strong start to the season that, in 40 short minutes, makes smart use of its time in catching up the audience and setting up the individual character conflicts that are to follow.
Then, enter Mary Louise, the seemingly helpful, grief-stricken grandmother who has a biting undertone to her innocent exterior. She unleashes deep but subtle insults at Madeline, choosing a strong opponent to square off against in the first round, yet she takes her down easily while retaining that, “Was it something I said?” demeanor.
Celeste's complex feelings
From then on, you fear for Celeste who has always played the pacifying victim and who is already living in a foggy state due to her conflicting feelings about Perry’s death. Here, we are presented with the part of an abused woman’s story that we don’t usually see: the recovery.
Human psychology is so complex that even after a person is out of danger, they still linger in it and even may crave it because it grew to become a part of their everyday normalcy. Not having that constant threat to contend with causes them to manifest at night in violent dreams that she uses Ambien and alcohol to curb.
This leads to some reckless behavior, including unknowingly driving while under the influence, engaging in one night stands that she barely remembers, and acting out violently while reprimanding her boys or confronting Mary Louise. It’s an interesting aspect of Celeste’s mindset which shows her continued reliance on Perry in order to function.
It's not until her motherhood is threatened that Celeste is able to clear away the fog and fight for her kids. After a brutal questioning during her hearing, she regroups at the last minute and pulls out her bag of lawyer tricks in order to cross-examine her mother-in-law and point the finger back at her. In this way, she reclaims her family, her self-respect, and the court's opinion of her as a mother.
The courtroom scenes are some of the best scenes of the season, despite four of the six main characters literally sitting on the sidelines during the proceedings. Here, Celeste finally gets her mother-in-law on the ropes and is able to get the upper hand and save her family, a feat that until now, Madeline, Jane, and even Celeste herself have repeatedly failed at in their interactions with Mary Louise.
Standout: Laura Dern
The only other worthy opponent for Mary Louise is Renata, who is rearing for a fight after her husband’s immature and destructive actions leave her broke and humiliated. As someone who prides herself on her material accomplishments and the sacrifices that she made for them, she is dealt the ultimate blow between bankruptcy and the victim of infidelity.
Laura Dern is given the best material to play off of this season, and in return, she dials it up to a ten at every opportunity, producing at least one meme-worthy moment in every episode, from temporarily leaving Gordon on the side of the road in season 2 to taking a baseball bat to his toys in retaliation for trying to get out of his mistakes with no consequences. However, she is still a very vulnerable character, one who lays out her weaknesses along with her strengths, allowing Mary Louise to crawl under her skin and bury herself in there so that she had to tear herself apart to get her out.
What is she thinking?
That leads me to my biggest question of the season: Is Mary Louise really the villain?
Mary Louise is such an interestingly written and performed character. If she is the villain, we never once see her break her innocent persona. We never see her true colors without the façade.
If the show were from her perspective, the story would be about a grieving mother trying to find out what really happened on the night her son died. Her eagle-eyed sharp judge of character leads her to question the testimony given by the five women who were there at the moment of his death, including her daughter-in-law. We as the audience don’t like her because of her sneaky methods and thinly-veiled insults, characteristics that irk all women yet are methods that we know to be familiar and sometimes even necessary in order to assert yourself and uncover the truth.
Also, is Mary Louise genuinely concerned about Celeste’s mental health, or is this punishment for not telling her more than she lets on? Would she be the better guardian for Max and Josh, or is she as dangerous as Perry? Is she responsible for Perry turning out the way he did, or did he make her out to be the villain to cover up his own naturally evil ways?
You never do get to the core of Mary Louise. Even the story that Celeste tells about Mary Louise’s questionable parenting skills and the circumstances that led to the car accident that killed one son and mentally scarred another to become an abusive husband and violent rapist is never verified as the truth.
Are Perry’s lies now haunting his faithful mother, or is Mary Louise really as devious as we are meant to let on? The open-ended questions that remain with her story line seem intentionally left up to interpretation. That uncertain speculation can be a lot of fun to explore.
Open-ended questions tend to be a recurring theme in this series. Bonnie’s past is one example of another side plot that is never clearly defined. When she reads her confession to her mother in her hospital bed, it leaves more questions than answers, yet it justifies Bonnie’s fear and anger towards her mother.
We know that her abuse was both mental and physical. However, there are glimpses of her mother’s psychic perspective that lead us to question if her mother’s abuse was the result of trying to protect her daughter from a fate of drowning, either metaphorically or literally.
It’s the metaphorical drowning that comes to light, though, as Bonnie is able to make peace with her mother before her death, admit to Nathan out of the blue that she doesn’t, and has never, loved him, and finally go into the police station to confess the truth, accompanied by the other women. The revelation about her feelings towards her husband is the most shocking element to Bonnie’s story, having never been hinted at before.
Her hands-on, do-gooder persona in season 1 made her seem like a wife committed not only to her family but also to Abigail which became the root of her tension with Madeline. But after Perry's accident, she loses any desire to co-parent Abigail. She's also distant with Nathan at the beginning of season 2, assumed to be attributed toward protecting him from the secret she was keeping about Perry’s death.
The guilt that was consuming her because of it, turns out to be a revelation about her feelings towards her marriage in general. This gives Zoe Kravitz a lot to do as Bonnie, and she plays it so well, but it's presented as forced and rushed rather than organic and smooth.
Ed and Madeline
A slow middle
The many flashbacks, premonitions, and vague dreams sprinkled throughout each episode tend to lead nowhere while other plot twists come without warning. This includes the reveal of Celeste’s collection of one night stands, Gordon’s affair with the nanny, and Ed’s suggestion of renewing their vows in order to make a fresh start.
All of these side plots tend to bog down the middle of the season. Entire scenes lead to dead ends or are never addressed again. The same conversations are held by the same two characters over and over again (Ed and Madeline, Bonnie and her Dad, Nathan and Ed, etc.) but do nothing to further the plot or resolve the conflicts. Other conversations are cut off just as they are getting juicy.
Sometimes it culminates in a delightful outburst by Renata or one of Mary Louise’s subtle but sharp jabs at another character’s ego. But usually, scenes just fall flat.
Detective Quinlan waiting for something to do.
Many have criticized this season for being too choppy, and I agree. A few weeks into the season, the press was beginning to reveal a power struggle in the creative control of this season which led to too many hands in the pot and too many compromises in which the editing and storytelling suffered most.
Fans were highly disappointed that the big ice cream moment between a furious Madeline and the irritating Mary Louise was continuously teased on social media only to be removed from the final cut. It's a modern problem of knowing too much ahead of time and then not getting what we expected.
An investigation that goes nowhere
Detective Quinlan is probably the biggest victim of this weakness in the plot. She’s always lingering in the background as if expecting one of the women to slip up within earshot, yet she takes no active role in the story. You don’t even get to see the payoff of the women finally telling the truth at the end of the final episode, making her character an unnecessary waste of time.
Ed and Tori
Another side plot involved Ed being propositioned by Tori as her husband lurks in the background. She means to get revenge on their spouses for their affair by having one herself, particularly with the husband of her husband’s mistress.
But Joseph never confronts Ed, Ed is never seen mulling over this offer, and even after he turns her down, Tori acts as though she’s not going to let up. We never see how this plays into Ed’s final decision to stay with Madeline. It really only serves to leave episode 5 on a cliffhanger.
Jane and Corey
This event coincides with the reveal of Jane’s new boyfriend, Corey, seen leaving the police station, insinuating that he is working with the police to try to get Jane to talk. This turns out to be a misunderstanding, showing Jane that some men can be trusted. He also reveals that the first one of the Monterey Five to break to the police gets a more lenient charge.
As a single parent, this could have tempted Jane to throw the other four under the bus in order to ensure that Ziggy is taken care of. But if season 1 taught any lesson, it was that it is more important for women to be allies than enemies. She takes the high road, though, choosing to stay silent until all five decide to confess together.
While I was fine with not knowing the outcome of their confession, further relief could have been given by showing how each woman takes to the news that Bonnie is going to confess. Was there any hesitation? Was any spouse or family member notified in advance? Did Jane tell them what Corey told her? The already short season, mixed with a massive number of side plots and unnecessary flashbacks caused the cathartic ending to be rushed.
It’s not just about fan service. If the fans had had their way, Mary Louise would have been pushed down the steps in the final minutes of the show. This is about servicing the story and wrapping up anything that was earlier addressed. More often than not, there was no payoff to these set ups.
Jane and Ziggy
Characters who didn't get much to do.
While some of these conflicts allowed for some great acting moments, some got a lot more to do than others. Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline ended up taking a back seat to the story after episode 2. The brutal reveal of her affair left both she and Ed wrecked, leading to a waiting game in which Ed held all of the chips in terms of the fate of their marriage.
While his initial reaction and lingering uncertainty was totally justified, the previously likable Ed became cruel and bitter, stringing Madeline along for way longer than was necessary while he attempted to figure out his next move. The fact that he didn’t leave right away should have answered his own question about what to do, but he delayed the healing process by teeter-tottering on the possibility of leaving Madeline.
Jane is another one who gets less to do this season after being the trigger that launched the events of season 1. Her conflicts are resolved relatively smoothly this season, starting with her coming clean to Ziggy about her history with Perry. After the cat is out of the bag about Ziggy’s father, she and Ziggy have a conversation about the circumstances that led to his conception.
This leads to an instant bond with his half-brothers, Max and Josh, Max seeming to have been miraculously cured of his bullying nature from season 1, using violence only in defensive situations. They have the most screen time of all of the kids this season. After the first two episodes, the rest of the young characters, including Abigail, are relatively absent from this season.
Abigail’s story arc initially picks up where it left off last season with her butting heads with her mom about going to college. The verdict on this decision is never decided as it gets pushed aside once Madeline and Ed’s marriage ends up on the rocks, and Madeline realizes that the college issue stems from her own feelings of inadequacy for not going herself which relates to her later perceived failures as a wife and mother.
Chloe too is largely absent from the storyline which could have benefitted from her tension-breaking (and sometimes inducing) wit and humor. Ziggy gets a few hard-hitting scenes with his mom, and Ammabella’s panic attack as the result of learning about global warming is about all that she is given to do.
Mary Louise's ending
Even Mary Louise, whose blood-curdling scream in episode one kicked off Meryl Streep’s Emmy buzz, is given an unremarkable ending, seen simply driving home after receiving cold hard evidence that her son was sometimes the monster that Celeste had warned her about. Perhaps she is going home to ponder the role she played in his fate.
Also, the fact that she lets the custody battle go may mean that she has also let go of her suspicions as to his death. When the Monterey Five’s confessions come to light, it would be interesting to know if Mary Louise finally received the peace of mind that she had been craving or if she is truly out for revenge.
Renata and Mary Louise square off
Overall a thumbs up
I went into episode one of the first season fully expecting one or more of the women to kill one of the others, either after finding out about an affair, having an argument that spins out of control, or any other reason that would cause women to be pitted against each other. I was sure that I would end up hating all of them by the season's end, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that, though someone does die, there's a sense of justice to who it is and how it plays out.
So, it was interesting to go into season 2 already liking the characters, knowing them, and watching the events of last season spill into this one while new conflicts pile on top of it. It allowed for great moments of comedy, drama, and action, and there are plenty of good scenes to revisit in subsequent viewings.
Despite its issues, there was enough going on this season that made it worth making time for over the past seven weeks. This is a story that felt unfinished, even as a novel. So, there was a lot more to explore and add to it. I'm on board for a season 3 should it ever come to fruition. The performances are some of the best of the year. The situation is still captivating, and the themes are universally interesting to all women, mothers or not.
What did you think of season 2 of Big Little Lies? Take my poll, and leave your answers in the comments below!