Big Little Lies is Back! It Continues to Ask Difficult Questions about Sexual Abuse & Trauma

Pop Culture

Big Little Lies is Back! It Continues to Ask Difficult Questions about Sexual Abuse & Trauma

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

What fills up the space vacated by the accidental death of a physically abusive husband and rapist? Is it relief that seeps into the sudden vacuum? Or do you find yourself warring with shock? The second season of the phenomenally successful Big Little Lies dives straight into the deep end within the first episode itself, nudging the audience to engage with this all-important question. It’s a question that has taken on an added urgency and a sharpened edge in a post-#MeToo world, with many of us still struggling for answers and explanations as we expand our collective understanding and finally, at long last, rewrite the rules around consent and sexual violence.

The answer, as it happens, depends on the vantage point from which you’re observing the messy goings-on, or, worse, the plane from which you’re participating in them. And thankfully, if the first episode is an indication of things to come, BLL2 is all set to continue its tradition of leading viewers down a meandering path, whispering in their ears, but also allowing them the breathing space to take what they will from among all that is on offer. The best answers, after all, are the ones that tiptoe on you from within.

I’m still not sure which character’s arc reached an inflection point with the murder-accident that killed the vicious Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). It could be about finally unlocking the prison that Jane (Shailene Woodley) had spent her entire motherhood in after being raped and impregnated by Perry, loving the son who was a living-breathing reminder of it while also secretly worrying if he might be cut from the same grisly cloth as his father. And it could just as easily be about a shuddering end to his wife Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) nightmare, after the increasing levels of violence he had unleashed on her in their picture-perfect, ideal marriage that made others turn green with envy. Then there was the delicate irony of seeing the two Alphas of the five — Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Renata (Laura Dern) — finding themselves rendered mostly useless by shock and fear; while the sweet, non-threatening, peace-loving Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), comes charging at Perry like a panic-stricken bull, her anger giving her wiry body the strength to strike the fatal blow that shoved him down the stairs and to his death.

As delightful as it was to hear that the poignant miniseries had been revived for a second outing, there was also a grain of doubt — the show had ended on such a beautiful note. The dreadful secret regarding Perry’s death became the foundation for a fragile friendship between five women who had spent a large part of the school year at loggerheads with one another. I wasn’t sure there was something worthwhile or poignant enough to say to force the now nicknamed “Monterey Five” out of their reveries as they stared into the horizon, as all around them waves crashed against the beautiful California coastline.

Season 2 of Big Little Lies captures the messiness of sudden death, no matter how richly deserved it may have been, in all its unflattering glory.

But my fears were unfounded. There is still so much left to say, and director Andrea Arnold (an Oscar winner), who took over the reins from Jean-Marc Vallée (of Dallas Buyers Club and Sharp Objects fame) makes her talented cast sing from every frame. Literally, she makes them scream — with anger, confusion, frustration, and sometimes fear.

Season 2 of Big Little Lies captures the messiness of sudden death, no matter how richly deserved it may have been, in all its unflattering glory. Watching Celeste struggle with her sense of loss — and yes, it was a loss. Perry might have been her abuser but he was also a doting father to her two young, confused sons who she now has to raise on her own —  under the watchful eye of a mother-in-law who materialises at the most inopportune moments is heartbreaking. Is she still a prisoner in her own home, forced to wear the heavy cloak of grief expected of a widow, especially by Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) the mother of her monster husband? Everything about Celeste’s situation is deeply uncomfortable to behold — from the unguarded moments in which she misses the man she had once loved, to her increasing dependence and gratitude for a mother-in-law she, in all likelihood, wants to run away as far as possible from in the interest of her own sanity.

Equally heartbreaking is the way in which Bonnie withdraws into herself, alone and crumbling under the weight of her guilt. She was always a bit of an “outsider” — partly as the only woman of colour in a very white, shiny, and mostly blonde group of women, and partly because of her position as the incredibly hot, young wife to Madeline’s ex-husband — but the sense of isolation she now exudes almost feels like an eerie presence in the room.

The second season of the phenomenally successful Big Little Lies dives straight into the deep end within the first episode itself.

HBO

While the most important takeaway from the opening episode is establishing Mary Louise’s quiet but hawk-eyed presence in the Monterey Five’s lives — she’s on a mission to find the truth about the night, and there’s no stopping her — it also lays the groundwork for some potentially explosive future arcs. I can’t wait to see what happens if/when Jane and Mary Louise come face to face. Will Jane’s new sense of freedom evaporate as Mary Louise senses her discomfort, like a predator smells its prey’s fear? What would happen if Mary Louise was to accidentally meet Jane’s son Ziggy (Iain Armitage), her third, unknown grandchild — would there be a glimmer of recognition? More importantly still, what effect would meeting Mary Louise have on Bonnie’s volatile mental state? There has to be an explanation for Renata’s almost ruthless persistence that life is happy and wonderful, and that she’s still very much in the driver’s seat of her life’s car. We’ll probably find the answers in the coming weeks.

It was an almost prophetic twist of fate that Big Little Lies came out just months before the #MeToo storm, shattering many of our assumptions about what victims and abusers look like, or behave like. It’s only fitting that with its second season, it helps answer some of the questions left on the shore once the storm receded. The sudden vacuum that is left behind when an abuser dies — it is filled with meltdowns and memories, confusion and contradictions, longing and loneliness, grief, and all the big little lies we tell ourselves to be able to go on.

Comments