Warning: This contains spoilers for Season 1 of Big Little Lies. Not caught up? Read our spoiler-free review of the first season here.
When Big Little Lies premiered in 2017, it was an instant hit, garnering critical acclaim, eight Emmys, four Golden Globes, and a loyal fanbase. Adapted from the novel by Liane Moriarty, directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, and with a winning combo of big-hitters Reece Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, it’s difficult to see in hindsight how it could have failed.
Walking a tightrope of fancy, glass-fronted houses and dark, hardcore violence is no mean feat, and the juxtaposition of aspirational lives on the California coast with the pitch-blackness at the show’s heart could easily have gone horribly wrong. But the sensitive way the story’s spousal abuse was handled struck a chord with viewers.
That success is something of a double-edged sword as far as a second season is concerned – fans reacted to Season 2’s announcement with very cautious optimism. Wasn’t the story already wrapped up perfectly? Where could the characters possibly go from here? Rest assured: that caution was ill-placed, as Season 2 has so much to work with it seems inconceivable we would have left the story after a mere seven episodes. David E. Kelly is back on writing duty, drawing from the core material of a 50,000 word novella by Moriarty. Directing has been taken on by Andrea Arnold, while Vallée remains on board as executive producer, and the series retains its dreamy atmosphere, as an abundance of lies are exposed over gleaming kitchen islands and on the decking of the magnificent beach houses.
We return to the “Monterey Five”, as they are now known locally, as they deal with the fallout of the death of Perry, Celeste’s abusive husband. The aftershocks from the first season come in a tsunami of waves, threatening to pull the women under. Ever-perky Madeleine (Witherspoon) finds her marriage on the rocks; hippy Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) is suffering from guilt and PTSD; self-reliant Jane (Shailene Woodley) is tentatively dating again, although finding it hard after her experience with Perry; and the brittle Renata (Laura Dern), initially riding high, suffers a blow.
Fragile, vulnerable Celeste (Nicole Kidman), meanwhile, is dealing with a maelstrom of emotions following Perry’s demise, the monster who even death cannot banish. His shadow still looms large – via dreams and nightmares, as well as flashbacks and family video – and Celeste is trying to come to terms with her ambivalent feelings towards him with her therapist, Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert). Their scenes crackle with depth and an intense humanity; a study in grief, guilt, trauma and repression, the programme asks almost unthinkable questions in these sessions. Celeste’s recovery isn’t helped much by the fact her mother-in-law, Mary Louise Wright (Meryl Streep), has moved in with her to “help out”. Streep plays her character with a stinging viciousness, taking passive aggression to whole new levels, and her scenes with Witherspoon are pure gold.
As these personal issues rumble on, the outside world is slowly but surely making itself known. The police are an ever-present threat to the women, but it’s through their children that the impact of their actions in Season 1 start to exert their grip. It’s hard to conceal secrets in airy open plan living spaces, it seems. The truth of Ziggy’s parentage is increasingly difficult to suppress. Celeste’s children have, of course, lost their father, and are acting out in ways that prove hard to deal with. Madeline’s eldest is refusing to go to college, instead wanting to get involved in helping the homeless – appalling Madeline in the process. And Amabella, absorbing her parents’ difficulties, has also taken climate change very much to heart. The mothers deal with their never-ending issues by going on hikes in the sun-dappled forests, or by contemplatively sipping glasses of crisp chardonnay while staring over the Pacific, filmed in a palette that can best be described as “California sunset”.
All this to the background of school runs and morning coffee-and-cupcakes, spirited arguments with the principal of the primary and raucous parent/teacher assemblies. In lesser hands, this might be more soapy, but Big Little Lies is sharp and caustic, while being simultaneously emotive and psychologically astute, with the actors delivering career-best performances. It’s also very funny, with one-liners and quips that are so effortlessly delivered they become almost imperceptible. On the evidence of the first three episodes, you’ll not only be not be wondering if a second season could work – you’ll be begging for a third.
Big Little Lies Season 2 premieres at 2am weekly from Monday 10th June on Sky Atlantic, with Season 1 also available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it legally on NOW TV, for £7.99 a month, with no contract and a 7-day free trial.