No TV show addresses pain in all its forms quite like HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” In fact, deep physical and emotional distress plays such a large part in the show that it’s almost its own character. In Monterey, California, pain permeates. It lingers. It digs deep into the skin of the women it afflicts, making itself known in every aspect of their lives.
As we come to understand in Season 1, our five main characters, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon, “Wild”), Celeste (Nicole Kidman, “Lion”), Renata (Laura Dern, “The Tale”), Jane (Shailene Woodley, “The Spectacular Now”) and Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz, “Mad Max: Fury Road”) are no strangers to suffering. What on the surface was a generic whodunit crime story was elevated to a refreshingly empathetic examination of sexual assault, domestic abuse and many other ways people hurt each other, largely due to the talent of its cast and the excellence of its writing.
Season 1 pretty much covered the gist of the Liane Moriarty novel the show is based on, culminating in the murder of Celeste’s abusive husband and Jane’s rapist Perry (Alexander Skarsgård, “True Blood”), a murder that was for the most part a group effort performed by all five central women. “Big Little Lies” could have easily concluded here — that was the original plan, after all.
Nevertheless, we’ve been given a second season. After watching its first episode, I’m so grateful we have. It turns out that, at least under the supervision of the geniuses behind the first season, the aftermath of the central drama is equally, if not even more compelling than the central drama itself.
This “aftermath” manifests itself in Season 2 through the grief and guilt the Monterey Five are experiencing following Perry’s death, a death they’ve told the authorities was a complete accident. They’re all trying their hardest to move on, some doing a better job than others, but none of them actually can — at least not completely.
Each woman has her own reasons for her inability to move on from the past. Celeste, while partially grateful to have an abuser out of her and her sons’ lives, is also struggling to part with the man she once loved so entirely and so passionately. The fact that her mother-in-law Mary Louise, played by the beloved Meryl Streep (“The Post”), has established herself in Monterey to look for answers regarding her son’s death certainly doesn’t help.
Bonnie, a woman characterized in Season 1 by her seeming perfection and perpetual vitality, is in a similar state of ruin. In an intentional allusion to Jane’s angst-filled jogs from Season 1, we see Bonnie on a run, looking more miserable than ever. If any of the Monterey women seems to have healed the most it’s Jane, but by the end of the episode we come to know that even she hasn’t quite forgotten about Perry. We’re shown a portrait of him she finds herself drawing, the face of her rapist, a face that can never be erased from her memory.
Clearly, “Big Little Lies” wants us to know that all five women are in distress, just as they were in Season 1. However, the Season 2 premiere adds an entirely new dimension to their pain by letting us observe how it travels between them. The distribution of pain has shifted, with Bonnie and Mary Louise now here to take a large portion of it away from Jane. In a particularly moving sequence, we see Jane dancing next to the ocean to Sufjan Stevens’s “Mystery of Love,” a song which could not be more different from the angry, heartbreaking Martha Wainwright song she so frequently listened to back in Season 1. With the burden of Perry’s existence off her chest, Jane is practically floating, in a beautiful moment of reprieve from the pain she has endured for so long.
Season 2 of “Big Little Lies” adds to the emotional depth of Season 1 by exploring not only how pain and trauma affect women, but how pain in many ways is a collective experience that bounces back and forth between its characters. It understands that shared trauma is something that bonds people together, but at the same time can also tear them apart.