Big Little Lies Season 2: Come for Meryl Streep, Stay for Her Scream

Pop Culture

Big Little Lies Season 2: Come for Meryl Streep, Stay for Her Scream

Illustration: Arati Gujar

Every generation is defined by a great tragedy. For our internet-addled generation that wakes up to the persistent hype of a new TV series every other morning, that tragedy is the fact that our shows don’t know when to end anymore. Most of them (The Handmaid’s Tale, Big Bang Theory, Game Of Thrones) almost always overstay their welcome. Every time, a beloved drama announces its return, the joy is naturally marked by a nagging doubt: Will the creators be able to justify another season?

In that sense, the multiple Golden Globe and Emmy-winning Big Little Lies – adapted from the eponymous novel by Liane Moriarty – occupies a peculiar position. Originally intended to be a seven-episode mini-series, Big Little Lies technically had no business being renewed for a second season, at least from the perspective of the self-contained narrative that had culminated into a sensational climax. The puzzle really didn’t have any missing pieces. And yet, that very complaint vanished the minute it was announced that Meryl Streep was slated to join the second season. After all, one doesn’t need to have a missing piece to justify creating a role for Streep, frequently dubbed the “best actress of her generation”.

If the news of Streep’s addition to Big Little Lies influenced our perception of whether the makers would succeed in delivering a season without diluting the cachet of the show, then Season 2’s opening episode, is a resounding confirmation. Meryl Streep single-handedly makes the case for it in under 44 minutes. Streep plays Mary Louise (which incidentally, is also the actress’ birth name), the grieving mother of Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), the abusive husband and rapist whose death – a strangely satisfying mix of murder and accident – capped off the tension in the previous season.

This ability to make what could be an inconsequential character utterly unforgettable is classic Meryl Streep.

On paper, the desperation of a heartbroken mother searching for answers to the sudden demise of her blue-eyed-boy, can easily be rendered laborious, especially when squared off against the intensity and moral transgressions of the show’s five central women. But on screen and when essayed by Meryl Streep, it becomes impossible to read Mary Louise (and the star casting) as anything other than the manifestation of a perfect television marriage.

Naturally, it has everything to do with how arrestingly Streep brings Mary Louise to life: Her performance is at once sinister, seething, calculated, and genuine. Clad in long cardigans, round spectacles, prosthetic teeth (Streep’s idea, so that her smile mirrors that of her onscreen son), and a polite bob, a socially awkward yet cruelly adamant Mary Louise proves to be the difference between letting go and moving on.

The second season of Big Little Lies opens presumably, a few months after Perry’s death. It’s the beginning of another school year and we learn that Mary Louise has arrived in Monterey to offer Celeste a helping hand to navigate life with her twin sons. She first makes an appearance in the initial seconds of the episode: It’s early morning and Celeste wakes up sweaty and screaming, haunted by yet another nightmare of her life with Perry. Before she can process the length and breadth of her frenzied emotions, Mary Louise jumps into bed – almost as if she was waiting for this moment – to comfort her but also to prod her. “You said rape,” she immediately reminds Celeste, half-accusingly and half-knowingly.

It’s a look designed to introduced a spine-chilling thought in your head: Could Mary Louise have known? There’s no way to tell yet. But it’s not an actuality that you can discount either. Streep plays Mary Louise’s inquisitiveness with a precision that guarantees that she doesn’t have to explicitly word it for the audience to figure that she, unconvinced about the version of her son’s death, figures that something is amiss. That she is in Monterey, not out of grandmotherly devotion, but out of blinded maternal rage.

It’s only when we meet Mary Louise next, a few minutes later, that she reveals the rage directly, instead of carefully disguising it under a superficial mousiness. In a passive-aggressive, emotionally-charged conversation with Madeline (a scene-stealing Reese Witherspoon), she slyly performs the grief of outliving her son (“My son is dead,” she says matter-of-factly): Streep looks down while saying something harsh, brushes off a tear instinctively as if expecting it, and presses Madeline’s buttons in a way that is terrifying and manipulative. The meek smile that she sports at home with Celeste is replaced with righteous anger that demands answers instead of quietly searching for it.

Meryl Streep

Meryl Streep’s performance is at once sinister, seething, calculated, and genuine.

Image credit: HBO

This superficiality of Mary Louise, where she at once comes across as harmless and harmful, is informed by the tiniest of details that Streep bestows on her character: a brush of a hand, a knowing gaze, and a scream, that is alone worth the price of admission (or in this case, a Hotstar subscription). This ability to make what could be an inconsequential character utterly unforgettable is classic Meryl Streep.

But the pinnacle of Mary Louise’s unhingedness unfolds at a confrontational dinner-table sequence where she ends up becoming a living, breathing reminder of Perry. Just like her late son, she flits between two moods (it might not be entirely inaccurate to assume that Perry’s toxicity might have been borrowed from her). Mary Louise utters snide, biting words before transforming into a howling, helpless woman pleading with her son’s wife to be angry about his unfair absence. “Their father’s death is not something to be recovered from, like a cold,” Mary Louise delivers icily, the moment Celeste suggests that the kids take Perry’s death in their stride and try moving on with their lives without him.

The chemistry between Celeste and Mary Louise plays out in a vein not dissimiliar to the conflict between the older and the younger feminist. Streep then, doesn’t just bring forth a curious tension to the show’s proceedings, but also represents an antithetical worldview that is wired to willingly look the other way and often, blame women. It superbly falls in line with the very essence of Big Little Lies’s dissection of how money and privilege can hardly shelter an upper-class woman’s inner life from abuse or from being expected to quietly tolerate it. Rest assured, Meryl Streep will see to it that unspooling the layers to Mary Louise is as rewarding as the big little lies of the Monterey Five.

At one point in the episode, Mary Louise nonchalantly tells Madeline that she strikes her as a “wanter” but before she can protest, also admits, “I’m a wanter myself..” as of to lessen the cruelty of the blow. Streep delivers that jibe in a way that elevates it to a statement; a war-cry. And after these 44 minutes, I’m a wanter too. I want more Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies.