Why season two of Big Little Lies was such a hot mess
After a near-perfect first season of television, Big Little Lies returned for a much anticipated second season this year but brought a whole lot of disappointment with it. Thanmaya Navada examines where it went wrong.
CW: Sexual assault
ICYMI: Big Little Lies follows the lives of a group of fairly affluent mothers brought together through the shared anxiety of sending their children off to first grade. The first season cuts back and forth between their daily lives and an impending police investigation. The initial wedge in the relationship between the mothers is the fact that Renata’s (Laura Dern) daughter is being bullied and has accused Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) son. Through this conflict – which Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) tries to keep at bay – we see the growth of the painfully abusive relationship between Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). In the final episode, it is revealed that one of Celeste’s sons is the real bully, that Jane’s son is the result of a rape at the hands of Perry, and that all of this tension culminates with Perry’s death, which we see was caused by Bonnie’s (Zoe Kravitz) fatal push.
If you’ve seen the second season of Big Little Lies and have paid any attention to the news surrounding the internal conflict between season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallée and season 2 director Andrea Arnold, you’ll be aware of why this season was so disappointing. But if you’re not all caught up, fear not, I’ll delve into all that drama. But first, I want to examine what exactly about the season caused viewers worldwide to sigh in dissatisfaction every week.
My biggest gripe with the show’s second season is the fact that it felt so empty. Sure, a lot happened, but simultaneously it felt like nothing actually ... did. Not only did each episode feel empty until the final ten minutes, but the entire season lacked action until the final two episodes. The end of the first season was fairly satisfying, and it also left the future of all our main characters open-ended. Their arcs were clear. The second season’s mission was to explore season one's fall-out, which – after following very similar character arcs and coming to the same point of closure after coming to the same conclusion for our characters – felt all the more unnecessary. The season wasn’t driven by a particularly interesting plot and nor did it really delve into each of the characters in a new way. So why, exactly, were we watching?
The best thing about the season was undoubtedly the introduction of Meryl Streep, who plays the ever-elusive mother of Perry. The show handled her character in just the right way, making her actions and motivations believable and somewhat understandable until the very end (even though we still wanted Madeline to throw that ice-cream at her!)
Now, I think we can all agree that the editing of the first season was incredible. Each scene and each cut felt purposeful, adding to the meaning rather than taking us away. Flashbacks strategically increased mystery and further intrigued us viewers. But this season lacked this same purpose in its writing and editing. The transition from one useless scene to the next felt choppy and disjointed. Certain flashbacks were so quick and subtle that they conveyed no information or meaning at all. We were left feeling like we blinked and missed something.
Disappointingly, quite a few plot points were revealed but not followed through with. For example, Ed and Bonnie seemed to be developing a friendship that seemed suspicious to Madeline but didn’t end up amounting to anything. Abigail’s college ventures – or lack thereof – opened up an interesting possibility to explore Madeline’s character deeper but was dropped after just 2 episodes.
Similarly, the show hinted at a deeper exploration of Bonnie’s character through the arrival of her parents but failed to provide anything of substance. Bonnie’s narrative seemed to be oversimplified despite the fact that it was her actions that were the most pivotal at the end of the first season. Bonnie's backstory was also problematic, largely due to the fact she is the only person of colour in the main cast. The book version of Big Little Lies reveals that Bonnie’s father had been abusive towards her mother. However, in the show, Bonnie’s mother – a Black woman – is made to be the abusive parent while her white father is portrayed as being helpless. The way this storyline was handled perpetuates the harmful stereotype of angry Black women and of violent Black people or mothers.
One of the most intriguing things of season one was the parallels between the children and the main characters. The concurrence of the children’s playground troubles and traumas with that of their mothers was something that I rarely see on television and was excited to get back into. But in the second season, the children were hardly present. The first few episodes set up storylines that are either quickly resolved or don’t go anywhere. This again begs the question: why are we watching?
Now, all of these could be seen as issues stemming from the internal conflicts of the production where Andrea Arnold was brought on as director because Jean-Marc Vallée had already committed to another project. It is understood that Arnold was expected to match Vallée’s style and if you’ve seen either American Honey (2016) or Fish Tank (2009), you’ll understand why this was a peculiar decision. Big Little Lies’ fast pace and snappy editing is just not Arnold’s style where she tends to linger on characters and observe reactions more than the show allowed for. But because Arnold was not aware that this was the overall intention, the original team took over in post-production, rewriting and reshooting several scenes to fit writer David E. Kelley’s vision, resulting in the disjointed season we were left with.
It is possible that the second season's problems are a result of this conflict, but some of the decisions made early on – perhaps even the decision to have a second season – were probably major factors in its ultimately unsatisfying and incoherent outcome.
Thanmaya Navada is a second-year Journalism/International Studies student at UTS. She describes herself as a film-buff and bookworm, when she's not napping during literally every spare minute she gets. Also cheese. She loves cheese.