Ten minutes into the second season of Big Little Lies, it’s clear that Meryl Streep was going to shake things up.
Sixteen minutes in, you realize Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise Wright is a seismic force that will shift the entire show to center around her instantly iconic presence.
A second season for HBO’s surprise hit was a dodgy premise. The first season fully adapted its source novel, and a follow-up set of episodes would find showrunner Jean-Marc Vallée and his roster of A-list talent without a blueprint. Game of Thrones taught us this year how tricky that can be, but Benioff and Weiss didn’t have a character like Mary Louise Wright, or an actress like Meryl Streep playing her. Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgaard, appearing in flashbacks this season) was such an abusive monster that seeing him receive comeuppance seemed like enough to close out this story of coastal California privilege and artifice. But evil doesn’t just manifest itself from thin air; there is a source, and if the first forty minutes of this season are any indication, Mary Louise is it.
Like her son, Mary Louise is a master of appearances. On the surface, she is a grieving mother of a perfect son murdered under dubious circumstances. Beneath the maternal veneer, made of Streep’s soft-but-clipped speaking voice and unassumingly mild gestures, Mary Louise can cut down to the bone. In her two brutal takedowns of Madeleine (Reese Witherspoon) this episode, she doesn’t raise her voice, but every word, couched within grief, drips with disgust and disapproval. Even when Madeleine confronts Mary Louise about her very-thinly-veiled insults, Mary Louise lobs another straight at her face, somehow even worse than the first. If leaving Madeleine, resident fast-talker and shade-thrower, speechless was the net sum of her contributions, her presence would still be worth it. But Streep unveils Mary Louise’s menacing undercurrent with her standard laser-sharp precision. Mary Louise’s frustration practically sizzles as she’s stonewalled about Perry’s death, and her grandsons exhibit the violent behavior that Celeste’s therapist warned of last season. Streep creates a deeply unnerving, intensely domineering woman, who can snap her grandson into line with one stern statement, and screams with such anguished fury that it leaves the dinner table shell-shocked. That scene alone, and how Streep expertly modulates between reservation, devastation, primal anger, and disappointment in those few minutes, is one of the best on television this year. If Mary Louise can do all of that in just the first episode, imagine the hellfire she will rain on the Monterrey Five over the course of nine more, especially as she approaches the truth about who Perry really was, and how he died?
The non-Meryl scenes of the episode deal with the lingering effects of that murder, and its impact on the Monterrey Five. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is suffering not just from Mary Louise’, but Perry’s insistent presence in nightmares that cycle between idyll and horror. Madeleine is even more intense and high-strung as she battles her daughter over her post-high school plans (Witherspoon screaming that she “doesn’t give a fuck” about the homeless in non-Meryl highlight number-one). Jane (Shailene Woodley) has a new job and new bangs, and is refusing to take “rape money” from Perry’s estate, now that the truth about her son’s paternity is out. The most carefree of them all is Renata (Laura Dern). The power mom is living her best life, with an outdoor photoshoot set to Diana Ross’ “In My House” that is non-Meryl highlight number two and deserves to be enshrined in a museum. The woman struggling the most besides Celeste is Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), who actually pushed Perry down those stairs. She’s withdrawn completely into her guilt, and suggests multiple times throughout the episode that she is willing to break with the women’s pact for the sake of her sanity.
Outside of the murder, the premiere wastes no time situating us back into the quirky absurdities of Monterrey. The citizens are still politely snarky and deeply involved in themselves and their children, like Renata accosting her daughter’s new teacher about her genius IQ, or Ed’s (Adam Scott) bizarre encounter with a surgically-enhanced neighbor in the supermarket. The town antics feel very familiar, but the absence of the central murder mystery has heightened the slice-of-life soapiness to fill the gap. The show’s celebrated music direction also makes a welcome return, with wonderful choices like the aforementioned Diana Ross and the Oscar-nominated “Mystery of Love” from Call Me By Your Name soundtracking Jane’s dance on the beach.
And yet with all of the beach dancing, home photoshoots and haunting nightmares, the true value of Big Little Lies’second season lies with one quietly furious grieving mother. From first glance, the show appears to be fine without a pre-set plot, as watchable and intriguing and beautifully shot as it was two years ago. However, the addition of Meryl Streep has charged it with new purpose. Mary Louise poses a chaotic risk to the perfect little lives these five women attempt to project to their worlds, and how she’ll choose to destroy them, through a soft-spoken knife in the back or a full-throated atomic bomb, is more than half the suspense and the fun. Assuming Jean-Marc Vallée fully utilizes Streep at the height of her powers, this season is poised to side-step the sophomore slump to deliver another summer of thoroughly enjoyable, thoughtful television.
And another armful of Emmys, especially for Streep; they can start engraving hers right now.