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Big Little Lies’ season 2 finale ends on a lackluster, disappointing note

“I Want to Know” left us with nothing new to know about the characters. By now, do we even want to?

Merie W. Wallace/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 capped off a controversial second season with a self-destructive finale that ripped apart the tenuous bonds of the “Monterey Five,” as the city has dubbed its conspiratorial suburban moms.

Throughout season two, the show has never seemed to know exactly what its theme really was or, more crucially, how that theme might relate to its ensemble of characters. With Meryl Streep joining the cast, all other characters — with the meme-able exception of Laura Dern’s Renata — seemed to be pushed aside for her character Mary Louise’s personal battle with her ex-daughter-in-law Celeste (Nicole Kidman).

That lack of attention elsewhere meant the drama lagged so badly in spots that it seemed to mirror the ways in which the production itself reportedly suffered behind the scenes; the season’s directionless writing was unable to be salvaged by a strong directorial hand. Ironically, director Andrea Arnold may have been subjected to the same kind of male interference, in this case from her producers, that the show’s women characters have spent most of their time trying to escape. And in the last episode, boy, it showed.

The custody battle took up too much focal time and left the show struggling to remember what it was doing with the rest of its characters

Because the secret of season one’s sorta-murder is extremely flimsy, this season has tried — and mostly failed — to build tension through the custody battle between Celeste and Mary Louise. But the last-minute gambit of “I Want To Know,” in which Celeste decided to turn the tables and personally interrogate Mary Louise, was flat-out ridiculous. The much-threatened courtroom drama over Celeste’s husband’s death never fully materialized, and the reveal of the oft-hinted-at details behind the death of Mary Louise’s other son turned the in-court boxing match between the two women into the kind of over-the-top soap opera theatrics this show has never quite learned how to balance with its straight-faced tone and deeply earnest acting.

As for the other members of the Five, the episode seemed to hand-wave their storylines into the sunset. Renata continued to get mad at her horrible husband without actually leaving him. Madeline’s storyline got a nonchalant resolution. Jane finally had sex with her new boyfriend, Corey — and the less said about that plot point, the better. Bonnie, who was stuck most of the season in the hospital staring at the walls, was the one member of the Five with the most to lose and the least support. This episode saw her lackluster, whatever-ish storyline simply dissipate, all of the strange symbolic foreshadowing that’s accompanied her throughout the season completely abandoned in the end.

And as for the titular Big Little Lie? It, too, is resolved without much fanfare — which means it also carries no emotional weight as a season-ender.

While the performances were as solid as ever, the writing in this finale continually turned into a slog that often seemed like self-congratulatory circle-jerking on Kelley’s part. The writing overall has been this season’s biggest weakness — tied with the apparent clash in vision between this season’s director, Andrea Arnold, and last season’s director, Jean-Marc Vallée.

Arnold reportedly lost her authorial stamp over the season after Vallée allegedly took over the show’s direction and overwrote much of her work without her knowledge. To a large degree, the lost dramatic threads of this season, particularly where characters like Jane and Bonnie are concerned, have felt like casualties of Arnold’s sidelining — as though somewhere in between Vallée’s choppy editing and jump cuts are scenes where we could have gotten a richer sense of each character’s internal stakes.

By this final episode, it certainly seemed that season two had spent more time romantically remembering and humanizing Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), Celeste’s abusive and violent late husband, than it had spent with most of the other women in the ensemble. We’ve inexplicably followed the men of the show around as they navigated their rocky relationships with their wives and each other more than we engaged with the erratic trajectories of these women and their friendships.

The irony of Bonnie declaring in this episode that her mother, who’s spent the last half of the season in a coma, “is a good listener now” would be funny if it weren’t so painfully obvious that Kelley hadn’t been listening to the elements that made its first season so successful. Even Celeste’s ultimate courtroom victory feels perfunctory, its moments of poignance and dramatic irony weighted down by the season’s palpable disinterest in its own characters.

“The lie is the friendship,” Celeste tells Madeline, regarding the five-way friendship formed out of Perry’s death. But the real lie seems to be that Big Little Lies was ever really committed to exploring those friendships meaningfully for longer than a single season to begin with.

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