HBO’s acclaimed fantasy series about betrayal, fighting families, abuse, an extremely fierce mother, death, an illegitimate son, and a wicked, wine-sipping queen has returned. Big Little Lies’ second season debuts Sunday, June 9, at 9 pm.
After its debut in 2017, the show — which boasts a superstar cast featuring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz — swiftly became a phenomenon. Equal parts wish fulfillment and savage drama, season one brought viewers into the seemingly perfect lives (and truly stunning homes) of Monterey’s very rich families, only to then take a sledgehammer to their facade.
Based on the novel of the same name by Liane Moriarty, Big Little Lies was initially going to be an open-and-shut miniseries. It covered the entire novel — including its heart-stopping ending — in seven episodes. But even though the show had exhausted its source material, HBO understandably wanted to capitalize on its popularity and ordered, with some scrutiny from critics, a second season.
The new season feels a bit different, at least in its early episodes (only the first three were sent to critics for review). And that’s not just because Big Little Lies has progressed beyond its source material, or because the deity known as Meryl Streep is joining the cast. It’s also a bit lighter in tone, and simultaneously more grounded. This time around, it seems to be focusing less on shocking turns and mean-girl moments, and more on the interior lives of its characters.
But “different” doesn’t mean worse, or less entertaining. The focus of Big Little Lies has merely shifted; there’s now more texture and more complications to these women’s lives. Here are three things to know about season two.
1) Big Little Lies’ central mystery is still about Perry … and his mom
The stakes in Big Little Lies’ second season are little smaller and a little lighter compared to season one’s “Who killed Perry Wright?” mystery and Perry’s history of domestic abuse. Now, the “Monterey 5” — as Celeste, Renata, Madeline, Jane, and Bonnie have been nicknamed because they were all present at the Audrey and Elvis-themed fundraiser when Perry died in the season one finale — have to weather the fallout. They’re trying to move forward from the trauma of what happened while preserving the little white lie that Perry fell to his death accidentally after attacking Celeste.
Barring a swerve, it doesn’t seem like there will be a gigantic death in season two. But there is still a central mystery: Mary Louise Wright (Streep, who is fantastic) has come to Monterey from San Francisco to help take care of her grandchildren, Celeste and Perry’s now-fatherless twin boys. The role sees Streep meekly prodding and sometimes clumsily poking at Celeste and the rest of the Monterey 5 for answers about her dead son, but there’s something clearly nefarious lurking beneath Mary Louise’s innocent facade.
Big Little Lies has continually suggested that monsters aren’t born but created, and that parents shape their kids whether they intend to or not (see: one of Celeste and Perry’s sons hurting Amabella in season one, an apparent extension of his dad’s abuse of his mom). And with everything we know about Perry, it would stand to reason that Mary Louise has some skeletons in her closet.
2) The show still has plenty of saucy moments in season two, thanks to Renata Klein (and Laura Dern)
Big Little Lies’ first season operated on a few different levels. At the heart of the show was a murder mystery. Layered on top of that were the pained private lives of outwardly flawless Monterey moms. And on top of that were the superficial grudges that these elegant, affluent women held against one another, which provided an entertaining counter to the show’s darker, more caustic moments.
In the first few episodes of season two, Big Little Lies turns the pettiness up a notch. Instead of pitting Renata and Madeline against each other, the show has them team up against the administration of Otter Bay Elementary School, where their second-graders are inexplicably being taught that Charlotte’s Web is really about environmental sustainability.
I’m fully aware of the ridiculousness of that scenario.
And yet I found myself shrieking with laughter when Renata Klein (Dern gloriously goes all-in on Renata’s indomitable self-importance this season), who is dealing with some private financial turmoil, realizes that all this talk of climate change is really stressing out Amabella. Anyone who watched Renata breathe fire in season one knows that the staff of Otter Bay has something coming to them.
“You deconstructed my little girl into a coma,” Renata hisses, in an absurd and hilarious line.
There’s also a hint that we’ll eventually see Renata, dubbed the “Medusa of Monterey,” move on from Otter Bay’s principal to Mary Louise — who appears to be quite capable, despite her meek demeanor, of holding her own.
3) The show’s greatest strength has always been its actresses, and they’re even better in season two
Perhaps the most exciting development in Big Little Lies’ second season is that there’s more depth to each of the characters, allowing Witherspoon, Dern, and Kravitz in particular to give even more impressive performances.
Don’t get me wrong: I absolutely lived for the bickering and dueling children’s birthday parties between Witherspoon’s Madeline and Dern’s Renata in season one. But it was often Nicole Kidman (playing Celeste) and Shailene Woodley (playing Jane) who anchored the show’s heavier moments.
That emotional core of the story shifts in season two, as the women are forced to accept, internalize, and deal with the repercussions of Perry’s death. Kidman’s and Woodley’s characters interacted with the monster the most in season one, but now Kravitz’s Bonnie has to reckon with being the person who actually pushed him down the steps. She needs to trust Madeline and Renata and Celeste and Jane, women she’s hardly interacted with in the past.
And Madeline, who once loathed Bonnie, has to keep her secret while also providing a soft surface for Bonnie, who’s dealing with a lot of trauma, to land. Adding to that challenge is Madeline having to navigate marital problems stemming from her infidelity.
Witherspoon’s wicked interpretation of Madeline was memeable in season one, but her performance is a lot more nuanced and thoughtful in season two. The mean-girl moments are still present, but there’s also more humanity and vulnerability in the mix. And so far, the same could be said of Big Little Lies season two overall: The show appears to be exchanging an all-consuming, incendiary mystery for a tale that’s less mercurial but no less hearty, and it’s still an absolute pleasure to watch.
Big Little Lies season two premieres Sunday, June 9, at 9 pm Eastern on HBO.