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Big Little Lies Season 2 Premiere Review: ‘What Have They Done’ is a Vote of Confidence for Viewers

Big Little Lies Season 2 Premiere Photo
Photo Credit: Jennifer Clasen/HBO

Big Little Lies was a television phenomenon in a way that felt decidedly modern and all too rare. Audiences tuned in to the premiere because of the A-list talent that HBO had procured, and the promise of soapy thrills in a gorgeous beach setting. But, over the course of seven weeks, we collectively realized just how special this show was. Part melodrama, part mystery, part character study — this was a decidedly complicated portrait of misogyny, abuse, and the power of women. It raised the bar of what we expect from a miniseries, and left behind a legacy of award show speeches (and memes).

We didn’t need Big Little Lies Season 2… but HBO certainly bought our confidence quickly. Casting Meryl Streep and bringing on indie auteur Andrea Arnold to direct would certainly do that. But, of course, it’s easy to worry about the show’s legacy. The first season is so perfect, partially because the creators didn’t realize it was a first season. It was a perfectly self-contained limited series.

The biggest surprise of the premiere, however, is how seamless the transition from limited series to full-fledged ongoing drama is. As every one of the Monterey Five are re-introduced, along with their husbands and children, we realize how perfectly detailed their world was, and how much we missed having them on our TV screen. While the ultimate decision to greenlight Big Little Lies Season 2 may have been a financial one, it certainly feels like a creative choice onscreen, and a wise one at that.

Picking up on the first day of the next school year, the Monterey Five are slowly returning to their normal lives after successfully covering up their involvement in Perry’s death (Alexander Skarsgaard, who appears in flashbacks and dream sequences). Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) has seemingly moved on and is now concerned with making sure her rebellious daughter (Kathryn Newton) attends college. Renata (Laura Dern) is seemingly unphased, and is back to fighting to make sure her daughter gets the best treatment at their local elementary school. And Jane (Shailene Woodley) has a new job at a local aquarium, and seems at peace now that her former rapist has died.

But it’s not all sunshine. Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) is distraught and shut down, feeling guilty for lying to the police and wondering if she can truly trust the other four to keep her out of jail. And Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is haunted by nightmares about her former husband, and is still left processing the years of abuse she suffered at his hand … a situation made more complicated when her former mother-in-law (Streep) moves in to help raise her grandsons.

Streep’s arc with Kidman gets the most attention in the premiere, and is easily the biggest highlight so far. It feels like a waste of text to remind readers that Streep is a brilliant actress, but … she is brilliant here. It’s such a finely tuned performance that makes it clear that Streep fully understands how the show functions in popular culture. There are elements of camp here, from the way she relishes every syllable of her long monologues, or how she flashes the fake teeth she wore for the part. But she’s also creating a fascinating potential villain for the season, and the threat seems palpable.

Outside of Streep, the best thing about this premiere is the way it helps Monterey, and the characters that inhabit it, feel so lived in. While characters like Renata and Jane don’t get much screentime, the brief flashes we see of their characters feel like really interesting snapshots into their worlds that perfectly inform their characters. The dream-like editing keeps things moving and inserts some imagery that doesn’t exactly further the plot, but draws out the themes about abuse and its effects. By the time the premiere ends, we don’t exactly know where the story is heading, but we know that spending time in Monterey will be a lot of fun and thematically rewarding.

At only 48 minutes, “What Have They Done?” feels short for a modern episode of television. In an age where episodes balloon up to 90 minutes, this feels brief. But it’s deeply rewarding, and ends on a perfect note: we’re satisfied, but also want more. So, while Big Little Lies sophomore season may no be the phenomenon that season one turned in to, it doesn’t have to be. This show knows its strengths, and plays to them. This season should be an absolute blast.

Big Little Lies Season 2 Premiere is now streaming on HBO Now and HBO Go.


Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor
Matt Taylor is the TV editor at The Pop Break, along with being one of the site's awards show experts. When he's not at the nearest movie theater, he can be found bingeing the latest Netflix series, listening to synth pop, or updating his Oscar predictions. A Rutgers grad, he also works in academic publishing. Follow him on Twitter @MattNotMatthew1.

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