On Friday, IndieWire dropped an enlightening behind-the-scenes report that detailed the disarray in the director’s chair and writers’ room of Big Little Lies as the show transitioned to a new director and then back to the original during the production of the (mercifully) nearly finished season two. Watching the penultimate episode of season two, it was hard not to see the paragraphs detailing a messy vision and reshoots flash sporadically in my mind, a la the show’s signature style.
The IndieWire report made plain what BLL viewers have been deluding themselves about all season: Nobody running the show has any real idea where any of [gestures around to nothing in particular] this should go. We’ve followed the lives of these women for 13 episodes in total now, and while much has happened in the past six following Perry’s “fall,” it could also be argued that nothing has.
Among the many problems with this season—and episode six, “A Bad Mother,” in particular—is that the goal of each Big Little Lies episode this season appears to be to make the viewer completely forget The Big Twist at the end of the previous episode for the sake of dangling yet another at the end of the current one.
Near the end of episode five, Bonnie’s mom, hospitalized by a stroke, says to her, “Kill me.” Yet after Sunday night’s episode, she’s still alive, still laid up in that hospital bed, still driving a wedge between Bonnie and her father. We get more flashbacks of abuse, a few tense moments in the hospital room, and one extremely good “I resent you” speech from Zoë Kravitz that has been a long time coming. But ultimately, aside from a single passing line to the doctor about euthanasia and a brief, misdirecting figment of Bonnie’s imagination, her mother remains very much alive.
Also at the end of episode five, Bonnie sees Corey—Jane’s new friendly friend—walking out of the police station. This is a massive reveal! Corey is vaguely coded as neuroatypical, so it did kind of suck that the show would possibly use that as an explanation for him being undercover, but after five episodes of a lot of boring shit, it was still a breath of fresh air. Ahh, finally, something is happening, shit is going to pop off next episode, I convinced myself last Sunday night. After a long weekend of apartment hunting, I plopped down on my couch and mashed that play button, ready for the messiest of messiness. And, to what should not have been my surprise but still was, “A Bad Mother” plays off this seemingly enormous and actually intriguing development by...immediately solving it and moving on.
Jane goes over and talks to Corey, who says he’s nawt a cahp, and then we spend the rest of the episode watching Corey beg her not to ghost him and then call her “prickly” at work at the aquarium in front of a bunch of kids. Cool.
The backbone of this episode very quickly becomes Celeste’s testimony, and folks, it’s bad! Celeste is slut-shamed again and again and again in court, which feels like a realistic depiction of how ugly such proceedings can be but does not make for particularly riveting television. For my money, the best scene in the entire process was the 20-second shot of Celeste silently preparing herself in the mirror and letting loose a pained exhale before immediately cutting to her on the witness stand. It gave us a moment away from the Bad Lawyer asking mean questions and trying to get her to admit to killing Perry, leaving us only to fill in the gaps of what must be racing through her mind. It’s effective filmmaking and underscores what a real shame it is that the rest of the episode hinged so much on Nicole Kidman acting her way through a court scene we probably didn’t really need to see that much of.
Speaking of shame, Renata’s storyline has, to me, been the clear weak link this season, even including Ed and Nathan’s incessant bickering. Here we have a woman that characterizes her life and the relationships she keeps by the power she wields, which is directly derived from a vast fortune spent on very nice outfits and borderline-insane themed children’s parties. The concept at its core—to strip her of the source of said power—is a good one, the beginning of a plot that might actually explore the insane wealth the show expects us to be drawn to and Renata’s past as A Poor. Instead, we’re treated only to morsels like “I will NOT not be rich” and her passing Bonnie, the only black lead on the show, after being stopped yet again by courthouse security and commenting, “I know how you feel, it’s like they put us on a list.”
She’s supposed to be this easy-to-hate rich person who wrongfully (though somewhat understandably) came after Ziggy and Jane last season and slowly thawed as she got to know them. There really is not much more from her character that was needed or required last season, let alone this season, aside from the very important fact that she was present for Perry’s fatal tumble. Instead, because she’s played by Laura Dern, we’re forced to follow her story and, allegedly, supposed to care about what happens to her. But why, I ask? Her journey this season has been wholly dictated by the actions of her dipshit husband, Gordon, who, at this point, has bankrupted them and received a steady dose of “stress management” handies from their nanny. That is...maybe the laziest writing ever? Not just because the whole shady-investment-turns-sour plot line is played out beyond belief, but because we are not granted any sort of nuanced or intimate character moments with her. There’s just screaming about not being rich, thinly veiled racist comments, and glorious dresses. It’s fine if you’re seeking wafer-hollow, low-engagement entertainment. But the first season of this show built expectations a little too high for this repetitious shit, so the less Renata we see in the finale, the better.
A few random notes:
- The single tear trickling down the cheek of Bonnie’s mother was a nice, if excessive, touch. But, if I was in the writing room, I’d have panned down from the cheek....to her right hand, hidden from Bonnie...to reveal a TAPE RECORDER. Click. Got your ass, Bonnie! Your mom was a P.I. the whole time! HBO, you can send the check to wherever I end up moving.
- Madeline is so clearly going to tell Ed. What Ed does with that information, who knows? But she’s going to tell him. The wedding dress scene was on the nose and, honestly, not acted all that well by Adam Scott or Reese Witherspoon, and yet I still found myself a little happy to finally see these two get along a little.
- So we got an answer to that weird meet-up with Tori, the wife of the theater director that Madeline cheated on Ed with—she wants to sex up Ed for payback against both her husband and Madeline, but also because she finds him hot. I’m still not sure why the husband was at the bar, but he was. So, maybe Madeline tells Ed, Ed freaks out and flees to be with Tori? Or maybe he hears the truth and decides to stay with her and tells her about the offer. We’ll see!
One Last Thought
I am not offering anything fresh or new here; more, I am just repeating what bears repeating after every episode: What the fuck is up with the constant sidelining of Detective Adrienne Quinlan? She has been lurking at the edges of the Monterrey Five’s lives throughout the entire season. All of her seven lines have been the slightly tweaked renditions of “I’ll be watching you,” and she’s clearly teamed up with Mary Louise. (It was unclear to me if Quinlan is the private investigator working with Mary Louise or if it was someone else.) But we have been granted practically zero screen time with them, in favor of the wheel-spinning plots of Renata-Gordon and Jane-Corey. This has zapped any possible tension from the show and left us simply watching a faux-reality TV show following these five women who are, plainly, not that interesting when they’re all getting along and working together to conceal this massive secret.
Big Little Lies is a cat-and-mouse game with no interest in the cat. It keeps Quinlan, and even Mary Louise, largely on the outside, not giving us any inkling as to what kind of facets of parental misguidance could have lended themselves to the production of an abuser such as Perry, and not providing viewers with any sort of notion of what kind of dirt Quinlan purportedly has. There are flashes where this dedication to telling only the stories of the Monterrey Five makes it worth it—Bonnie’s speech, for instance—but the majority of the time, I find myself bored, tired, and praying for the end of the episode so we can finally get to the goddamn point. Next week is the end of the season, and if all we’re going to get is Mary Louise taking the stand and Ed finding out, you can count this season as a Big Little waste of my time.