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Big Little Lies season 2, episode 1: “What Have They Done?” They’d prefer to forget.

The season premiere sees the past gunning for the five friends, whether they’re ready or not.

Big Little Lies season 2 Jennifer Clasen/HBO
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Big Little Lies season two premiere, “What Have They Done?”, had a lot of work to do to silence skeptics and lure fans of the show back into the world of the “Monterey Five” — the name residents of the California town have given to the women at the story’s center who are suspected of being involved in a murder.

Fortunately, for fans of this tale of intrigue and secrets among a cadre of wealthy suburban moms, there’s good news to be had: Episode one not only delivers a fresh crop of storylines but also establishes a largely lighthearted, even cheeky tone for the rest of the season. Even better, it unearths all kinds of new drama, as its scheming socialites try to resume their lives after the events of season one, while evading the scrutiny of the cops, the town, and the mother of the man they may have killed.

The season’s first episode dives back into the drama of the lives of the Monterey Five after Perry’s death

When news of the second season was announced, we at Vox had our doubts about how much story the show could sustain after its cataclysmic season one finale. Even season one’s director Jean-Marc Vallée wasn’t on board with the idea. But now with director Andrea Arnold (American Honey) at the helm, season two kicks back and has fun with itself while taking a gently probing look at the aftermath of season one.

Episode one picks up after a long summer, dropping back in on Madeline, Celeste, Jane, Bonnie, and Renata as they endure the gossip of parents at their kids’ elementary school on the first day of classes. The whole town is talking about them, in fact, as Jane (Shailene Woodley) learns later from a cute coworker at her new job at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. He informs her that they’ve all become known as the “Monterey Five” because they were all together and present at the scene on the night Celeste’s husband, Perry Wright, “accidentally” fell to his death.

The five of them, following the lead of Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), gave police a modified version of the story where no one was to blame. But the truth about that night — when Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) pushed Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) to his death while trying to help stop his violent assault on his wife, Celeste (Nicole Kidman) — has been haunting several of them ever since.

Bonnie in particular has become withdrawn and taciturn since the incident, much to the consternation of Nathan (James Tupper), her husband and Madeline’s ex-husband. Nathan is so frustrated by the situation that he even seeks out Madeline’s current husband, Ed (Adam Scott), and asks him if he can have a heart-to-heart with Bonnie. Ed, however, derides the idea that talking to his wife’s ex’s new wife would create anything but drama, and tensions between the two men, who were never exactly friendly to begin with, deepen. Bonnie stonewalls Madeline’s attempts to get her to confide in her, but she makes it clear that she’s having major guilt over her part in Perry’s death and especially the subsequent cover-up.

Equally guilt-ridden is Celeste, who’s grappling with a complicated mix of grief for the husband she loved, anger at his abuse, and trauma from her experience. Even worse, she’s doing it all under the laser focus of her mother-in-law, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), who swings from making polite but cold sympathetic gestures to insinuating what role Celeste played in her son’s death to unleashing carefully controlled rage.

Mary Louise’s presence in the household also makes it more difficult for Celeste to move on from Perry’s violence, especially because her two sons, Josh and Max (real-life twins Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti), have picked up some of their father’s abusive habits. We saw glimpses of this in season one, but it seems to have worsened — but with Mary Louise around, it’s not easy for Celeste to warn her boys about being too much like their father.

It also makes it harder for Celeste to keep another secret she’s been sharing — that Perry raped Jane and is the father of her son, Ziggy. Jane receives regular payouts from Perry’s estate after his death, but she hasn’t been cashing the checks because of her own complicated feelings about the assault.

The one woman who’s primarily unbothered by all of this, so far, is Renata (Laura Dern). She’s busy expanding her entrepreneurial pursuits and doing photo shoots for magazine covers. But all is not well in Renata’s immaculate seaside mansion, if her husband’s heavy drinking and depressive behavior is any indication. And if there’s one thing this episode makes clear, it’s that changes are on the way for all of the Five, whether they’re ready for them or not.

“What Have They Done?” arrives at the end of a lull before a deluge of consequences

I initially felt like “What Have They Done?” was deliberately motionless; it reads like the calm before the storm. But in recounting all that happens in it, I realized that this episode is actually full of subtle ebb and flow between characters, all of whom are concentrating their energy on the past — on alternately trying to forget it and making sure it can’t be forgotten. Series creator David E. Kelley, the writer for this episode, emphasizes characters interacting through deflection: again and again, they attempt to communicate or share things with one another, only to be brushed aside or gently rejected.

You’d think this might be frustrating to watch, but Arnold directs these scenes with a touch of poignancy. At the beginning of season one, nearly all of these women hated each other; by the end, they’d formed deeper bonds of friendship out of necessity and collective secrecy. Now, it’s as if the events of season one have left them unable to fully communicate because of their common desire to leave the past behind. What Big Little Lies coheres on now is a kind of paradoxical intimacy: a feeling of mutual protectiveness, expressed while keeping careful distances from each other. Even when Nathan and Ed are getting hostile over their rivalry, you get the sense that they’re still operating under this new community code: a strange dance that allows Nathan to attempt a game of trust and Ed to say no thanks.

In the middle of all of this denial and avoidance, Meryl Streep is, obviously, brilliantly methodical as the kind of nightmarish mother-in-law who meddles in everyone’s lives without a trace. What she does is so much worse than dramatic scheming: She watches, listens, and waits for her prey to become so unnerved by her that they reveal too much. Streep plays Mary Louise as possessing a strain of grief-driven, myopic self-regard that hovers between tragic and comic; she’s ever so slightly unhinged, and it’s a delight to watch.

Even more delightful is whatever is going on with Renata this season, because even though Laura Dern is barely in this episode, she owns it. Her two-second speech about how she’s not going to pose like a demure prude for a cover story about empowered women is still giving me life, and I can’t wait to see what the show does with her next.

This episode as a whole, in fact, breathes new life into a series that seemed to have well and truly concluded. Instead, the cast and creative team have made the resuscitation feel effortless, probing each of its intricate relationships with frequent humor and a gently wry perspective. The season’s central theme — that the secrets of the past have a way of resurfacing — isn’t by any means a new one; but Big Little Lies has never been predictable, and this go-round feels fresh and engrossing. Who knew there was so much story left to tell?