Welcome back to Monterey, everyone. Big Little Lies is finally, finally back, and to celebrate our favorite women returning to television, we'll be recapping it each week with our new Misery Index, ranking the Monterey Five—Madeline, Celeste, Jane, Bonnie, and Renta—(plus Meryl Streep, of course) from least to most tragic every week. So everybody let out your inner otter, put on some yoga pants and false teeth, and stroll sadly by the roiling waves of the Pacific. It's time to dive into episode one.
Big Little Lies opens on the first day of second grade, just a few months after Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) met a deserved end on a heavily foreshadowed staircase at the improbably themed (Elvis and Audrey? Why?) fundraiser for Otter Bay Elementary. And Jane (Shailene Woodley), tortured for so long by the memory of her violent assault, seems to be doing great! She and her sweet son Young Sheldon have kicky new haircuts and an airy apartment, and she has a cool job at the famously spectacular Monterey Aquarium. She lectures young children about how female octopi can kill males after they mate (symbolism!), and flirts with a cute new co-worker, Corey (Douglas Smith). If this guy turns out to be a nightmare, our cold little hearts will not be able to take it.
Jane is, if not unburdened, freer and happier than she was throughout the entirety of the first season. In a gorgeous sequence (thank you, new director Andrea Arnold), she joyously dances on the beach to Sufjan Stevens’s Call Me By Your Name song, a marked contrast to when she raged to the B52s and fantasized about launching herself off cliffs. She runs into Cute Co-Worker, a surfer who tells her that the women present when Perry took a tumble have been christened “The Monterey Five,” implying that gossip about his death has yet to die down. And then that night she meets Celeste for a glass of wine, and asks if her friend hates her for sleeping with her husband. Jane doesn’t blame herself for the rape, but admits culpability in flirting with a married man. It is a deeply generous, complicated scene that doesn’t shy from ugly truths or hidden prejudices. This show is so good.
When Jane gets home she sketches Perry’s face, surrounded by octopus tentacles.
Long live the Laura Dernaissance. The actress plays Renata with the anxiety of an unfilled Klonopin prescription, all little gasps of frustration and elastic frowns. Renata tortures Amabella’s new teacher at school, bragging about her daughter’s IQ (152 is rather high). “Life’s about give and take,” she says to this cursed man, unaware that his life is about to be ruined. “I expect you to take care of my daughter.” She tries to make a strong exit, and promptly gets swallowed into a band of children with brass instruments.
But Renata’s big scene comes later, in a moment that is sure to be GIF’d until the end of time. She power poses for a photoshoot in her glass ‘80s-style mansion, mouthing the words to “It’s My House” by Diana Ross (HBO’s music licensing budget continues to be out of control). We eagerly await the memes.
Madeline Martha Mackenzie
Is there any greater pleasure than watching Madeline Martha Mackenzie, now a real estate agent, “tend to her grudges like little pets?” Reese Witherspoon imbues the character with such glorious Tracy Flick energy. And while Madeline and Renata are close now (Renata has yet to passive aggressively mispronounce her name), she still has numerous enemies to plot against: the guy who runs drop-off at Otter Bay; her ex-husband Nathan; Warren, the principal, who rudely points out that Madeline sings the school song off-key.
And she’s not happy with her nightmare daughter Abigail (Kathryn Newton), a high school senior who refuses to apply to college. In a college counseling session, Madeleine pushes for Stanford, which seems like quite a stretch for a girl who thought it wise to auction off her virginity on the internet. Abigail says she doesn’t want to go to school (“the planet is dying Mom, but God forbid I don’t study Lysistrata”), and says that all kids do at college is “drink and fuck and mull over a sex change,” which sounds more like something a 63-year-old television writer would say rather than a supposedly woke 17-year-old.
In a later confrontation, Abigail tells Madeline that she’s received a job offer to work at a startup that provides for-profit housing for homeless people. What a little neoliberal! Madeline doesn’t take the news well, and proceeds to scream that she doesn’t “care about fucking homeless people.”
At the college counselor’s office, Madeline tells Abigail that “I know how to make any situation about me. This is about you and your future.” But of course it is about Madeline, who didn’t go to college and is desperately insecure about it. It’s a good set-up for a season-long conflict about Madeline’s self-worth. But it sort of pales in comparison with her sparring with a new enemy: Mary Louise Wright, aka Meryl Streep.
Mary Louise Wright
Mary Louise Wright, Perry’s grieving mother, has made the trip from San Francisco to Monterey, and she is pissed. Meryl Streep plays the character so sharply, with a rattling mouth of false teeth that makes her voice sound mushy. She’s ominously suspicious about the circumstances of her son’s death, and while she helps Celeste with her twin boys (who, in the spirit of their father, have started having aggressive physical fights), she judges the way her daughter-in-law expresses grief. At dinner with Celeste and the kids, Mary Louise says she is angry that her friends’ “pudgy, balding, middle-management” sons are still alive while Perry is dead, that it made her want to scream. And so she lets out a long, merciless shriek.
Mary Louise gets all her best lines at Madeline’s expense (perhaps an ice cream-throwing preview?). When they run into each other at a new coffee stand (where is Tom?!), Mary Louise proceeds to call Madeline short and says that she “finds little people untrustworthy.” She calls Madeline a “wanter, someone who just wants,” which is a pretty accurate read. And when they run into each at Madeline’s real estate office, Mary Louise delivers a masterclass in non-apologies, saying Madeline reminds her of a “treacherous” friend from boarding school. “She was just an itty bitty little thing with a big bubbly personality that was designed to hide that she was utterly vapid inside,” she says. “You remind me so much of her.”
Celeste is haunted by memories of Perry. She has nightmares about him, dreaming of a gentle moment in an IVF clinic (in which Perry bears telltale scratches on his cheekbone), followed by swift shift when she strangles him, lifting him high off the ground. She tells her champion therapist, Dr. Reisman (Robin Weigert), that she feels “responsible” for Perry’s death, that she should have left him sooner. “Even in death his message lives on,” the doctor replies. “That you’re to blame. Always to blame. You’re not.”
Nicole Kidman telegraphs so much with just her face: grief, relief, fear, love. Flashbacks are included throughout the episode–clips of Perry playing with the kids and dancing tenderly. They’re intercut with memories of sex and violence, inextricably tangled up together. She ends the episode screaming from another nightmare, one in which Perry lunges towards all five of the women, trapped in the police station. Mary Louise holds her. “So,” she says. “Who are we planning to kill?”
Poor Bonnie. Of all the misery in Monterey, her’s is surely the most… miserable. She wanders through the episode like a ghost, taking long walks and winding up outside the police station (which is labeled as the police station in Carmel! Where do these people live?). Everyone notices (to quote Madeline, “unplugged is one thing, but unhinged is a total other thing”)–even her dolt of a husband, who calls her “little Miss Sunshine” behind her back and asks Ed (Adam Scott) to connect with his wife for him, as he’s clearly not up to the task.
Bonnie goes on long runs through the redwoods, tortured by the night she killed Perry. She’s angry with the other women for lying and saying that he slipped; she’s now alone, unable to confide in anyone. “I killed someone, remember?” she tells Madeline. “That’s heavy.” It is very heavy! But we’re relieved that Zoë Kravitz is finally getting a meaty storyline.
Honorable Mention: Detective Quinlan’s Lighter
In every police station shot, Detective Quinlan incessantly plays with her lighter. She won’t stop flicking it! How often is she stocking up on lighter fluid? It must get expensive!