In a spectacular display of acting talent and the most gorgeously filmed elementary school fundraiser possibly ever, HBO’s Big Little Lies aired its gripping final episode on April 2 — or did it?
“You Get What You Need” has (rightfully) received stellar reviews across the board for how well it wrapped up seven episodes’ worth of dark and tangled suburban webs. But the finale’s brilliance has also inspired demands for another season of Big Little Lies, even though it was never intended to be anything more than a miniseries, and even though its season covered just about everything that happened in the Liane Moriarty novel that inspired it. Big Little Lies was so good, the argument goes, that it would be a shame not to let it continue.
But maybe the real shame would be to drag out Big Little Lies’ story when it already gave us such a satisfying ending.
There’s a case to be made on both sides. Even the people who worked on Big Little Lies seem split, with Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern egging on fans who are clamoring to see more of their whip-smart characters Madeline and Renata, while director Jean-Marc Vallée insists that another season would “break that beautiful thing and spoil it.”
We love Witherspoon and Dern to distraction (seriously; try to get us to talk about anything else this week). But when it comes to the question of whether or not Big Little Lies should continue, we’re going to go on record as agreeing with Vallée.
(Reader beware: This discussion contains major spoilers for all of Big Little Lies’ seven episodes.)
Big Little Lies wasn’t a perfect show, but it had the perfect ending
Alex Abad-Santos: There were a lot of times throughout Big Little Lies’ season that I found myself liking and appreciating the show, in spite of some jangling, tinny writing. During the season finale, I groaned when Shailene Woodley’s Jane says she fears Ziggy might be violent because violence could be in his DNA. It was an example of telling, not showing, and it betrayed Vallée’s deft storytelling over the previous six episodes.
But even with that line, the season and its finale were still so damn good.
My favorite thing about the finale was that it got out of its own way. Vallée cranked up the tension throughout, and unleashed the release in a scene that took your breath away, even to people who correctly predicted all the answers.
The ending, with all of the women and their children frolicking near the ocean — while clad in amazing beachwear and being watched by the detective — was my favorite part of the finale. You can’t tell if they’re really friends, or if they’re just being nice because they know they’re being watched. It’s a reminder that Big Little Lies was really about that ambiguity, and a reflection on appearances, rather than figuring out who killed whom.
Caroline Framke: That deceptively precise conclusion was everything I ended up loving about Big Little Lies. On the surface, it’s all benevolent smiles and fabulous, windswept hair. And yet — as always seems to be the case in Big Little Lies’ version of Monterey, California — someone’s still watching the characters’ every move. Hearing that final click of the detective’s lighter gave me chills.
But there’s something else that’s crucial to what the finale does so well. Perry being confirmed as both Jane’s rapist and the person who died was the most obvious answer to those two questions, but the reveal itself barely mattered. I wasn’t surprised, but I wasn’t disappointed. The way Big Little Lies unspooled its endgame in bursts of wicked horror was all I needed.
And that’s why I’m so unnerved by the talk of a second season of this show. I don’t need to find out what happens to these characters going forward — even though I understand, after getting so invested in them, why other people do.
The season finale was the best argument for a second season
Alex: With the way the season ended, I don’t blame anyone for wanting more. Big Little Lies, around its fifth episode, transitioned from a sudsy, pulpy melodrama into something more serious. Two episodes later, we got the climactic peak and the comedown all at once.
I understand that people might want to see the fallout. What happens to Celeste and her kids now that the monster has been vanquished? Can Jane rent the apartment that Celeste got for herself? Is Madeline still willing to wreck her marriage now that she’s seen what hell looks like? Will Renata have another child and not give it a ridiculous name?
What’s the best (bad) argument you’ve heard as to why Big Little Lies should get a second season?
Caroline: The only argument I’ve heard that makes any sense to me is that no one wants to let go of this cast, which is phenomenal.
Even when the script had them say the most obvious things, everyone was playing at the top of their game. A huge reason why Big Little Lies worked is that its cast was pitch perfect (and I’d give Alexander Skarsgård’s chilling performance some of the credit for that, though he’s not part of the season two conversation, for obvious reasons). And yes, okay, I personally would follow a drunken Madeline McKenzie to the ends of the earth and back, bless her sodden heart.
So I get why people want to see more of Witherspoon’s sparking anger (and surprising vulnerability), Nicole Kidman’s frayed sadness (and capacity for quiet rage), and Dern’s simmering fury. I understand the longing to stay on that beach with the fierce and fantastic moms of Monterey, or to retire to their sprawling porches at dusk and eavesdrop while they swish wine and gossip.
But for as much as I loved watching all these actors get to work, Big Little Lies became special to me over time because I knew its run was limited. I knew I’d get to spend seven hours with these women, their flop husbands, and their unnervingly precocious kids. By the end of the finale, I was totally satisfied with what Big Little Lies had given me — and based on the many, many other TV shows that have long overstayed their welcome on the air, I don’t want that fate to even be a possibility for Big Little Lies.
TV shows — and stories in general — sometimes need an expiration date
Alex: You make an interesting point about shows “that have long overstayed their welcome.” I can’t help but think of The Walking Dead, which coincidentally aired its season seven finale on the same night Big Little Lies concluded.
That show feels like it would benefit from an end date.
This past season ended in the same place it was in at the beginning: with the threat of Negan looming. Not only that, but Negan’s storyline is really similar to that of the Governor, who was defeated in season three and then returned for a full reckoning in season four. Everything The Walking Dead has done lately is been there, done that, gone back again. Further, each of the show’s recent season premieres and finales has been punctuated by a major or semi-major character death (or deaths), and killing off characters to open and close each season is beginning to feel like a routine more than a surprise.
And it’s not just The Walking Dead. Grey’s Anatomy, which I love to death, could have ended after five seasons; it’s currently in its 13th. The Good Wife could have ended with season five; it ran for seven. Glee should have ended when everyone went to college, at the end of season three. True Detective — oh, man, remember True Detective? That show would have been better off if it’d never tried to do a season two.
Caroline: LOL, True Detective. (Though to your point, it looks like season three is on its way anyway.)
To use your (correct) Glee example: I loved the idea of Santana Lopez Takes Manhattan, but when the show left high school, it left a huge part of its heart behind. And that’s kind of the problem with a lot of these shows that drag on beyond their natural expiration dates. They usually end up scrambling to figure out a new story direction and, more often than not, forcing themselves into something that doesn’t fit.
Extending a show doesn’t always come down to a creative decision, either. As the number of TV series keeps exploding, networks are less willing to let go of shows that manage to break through and become bona fide hits. If a show has viewers, someone will want to keep it around no matter what. (See: Supernatural going into its 13th season, good god.)
And you can really apply that same approach to a whole mess of Hollywood’s current film sequels and reboots, as franchises insist on clinging to audiences as long as those audiences can possibly exist. (See: a fifth Pirates of the Caribbean movie, coming to a theater near you in May!)
Maybe this is why I’ve come to love the recent anthology trend in TV, with shows like American Horror Story, American Crime Story, Feud, and Fargo. Even aside from having the flexibility to grab actors who maybe couldn’t usually commit to five seasons of a TV show, anthology series limit themselves to a single season to tell a story. And when they do use the same casts, every season starts fresh with a new idea. If the result ends up being messy, there’s at least a definite end — which used to be a given in storytelling, but not so much anymore.
So, okay, I’ll throw in a caveat: I would take another season of Big Little Lies, but only if it’s the same core cast playing different people in a different location as part of a whole different story.
Alex: Big Little Lies: Highland Park.
Caroline: Big Little Lies: Montauk. Big Little Lies: Florida Keys. Basically, just give us a scripted Real Housewives anthology series starring the Big Little Lies cast, and we’ll have ourselves a deal.