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Monday, 22 July 2019

REVIEW: Big Little Lies delivers conflicting finale to an uneven season.


When the credits rolled on the finale of this season of Big Little Lies I found myself a little unsure of how I felt about its closing moments. The episode, entitled I Want to Know, (the title comes from a lyric of a Willy Nelson song which plays over a long montage catching up with all the characters) had quite the job to do. Were 'The Monteray Five' going to be caught out and face their punishment? Would Celeste lose custody of her boys to possessive grandmother Mary Louise? Would Bonnie, who pushed to Perry to his death at the end of the first season, crack under the pressure of the lie?

We got SOME questions answered. The courtroom scenes which saw Celeste interrogate her mother-in-law with stories from her past and accusing her of turning her beloved son Perry into the abuser he became were particularly good. Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep both bouncing off of another with ease. I hadn't expected the show, which began life as a murder mystery to morph into a guardianship law drama in its second season but creator David E. Kelley has proven time and time again he's confident in this space. Perhaps with lesser performances, the scenes may have come across as silly or melodramatic but as Celeste played mobile phone footage of Perry dragging her across the room to a horrified courtroom I found myself completely hooked.


The problem with putting Celeste and Mary Louise front and centre in the last few episodes is that other characters were given less to do. Reece Witherspoon and Adam Scott did well the few scenes they were given in this finale, but the truth is that the characters felt as if they'd been written into the corner this season with Scott's Ed struggling to come to terms with Wetherspoons' Madelaine infidelity in the first season. The bitchy socialite Madelaine we met in the first season had been slowly withering this season, not really given the opportunity to shine as bright as once did.

Then there's Jane Chapman - Perry's rape victim and father to her son Ziggy. Shailene Woodley always brought an incredible likeability and vulnerability to the role. Her relationship with aquarium colleague Corey (Douglas Smith) was one of this seasons' most interesting threads. It saw Jane wrestling with the idea of an ordinary relationship whilst still healing from the effects of her rape and Perry's death. Their relationship was sweet and believable and a welcome gear change from the rest of the show, which revels in the worst of relationships.


There's an argument to be made that Laura Dern's Renata actually went the biggest journey in this final season. Her descent into bankruptcy was as hilarious as it was difficult to watch. Her screaming the words, "I WILL NOT NOT BE RICH" might be my TV highlight of the year, but the character and her realisation that the life that she'd worked so hard, and lauded over people for years was disintegrating was yet another reason I found this season so incredibly watchable.

Zoë Kravitz's' Bonnie had more of a background role in the first season. Married to Madeline's ex, Bonnie was often on the receiving end of one of  Madelaine's sharp-tongued insults. It was obvious that Bonnie would be more in the foreground this season, after all, she did send Perry tumbling to his death, but her backstory felt more shoehorned in for convenience rather than feeling true to the story. Bonnie had herself been a victim of abuse. Her mother, who dies in this finale, was tough on her and the pair rekindle their mother-daughter-bond with Bonnie softly whispering that she loves her as she lays beside her in her hospital bed. Whilst Kravitz is very good in the role, the story was harder to take to. This is partly down to the fact that David E. Kelley and his team don't tell you much about Bonnie until her mother's stroke.


Finally, there's Celeste and Mary Louise. Perhaps unsurprisingly this season has been dominated by Meryl Streep. Her performance as Perry's protective mother, who is instantly suspicious of her daughter-in-law and her close circle of friends stole the show almost entirely. Her performance was captivating and eerie. Mary Louise has her son on a pedestal, completely unwilling to accept he was capable of abusing Celeste or raping Jane. Upon learning early in the season that Jane's Ziggy is the product of her son's act of abuse, she defiantly avoids the 'r' word and latches onto Ziggy as ' a new grandchild.' There have been many things to like about this second season but Streep has elevated it to greatness. That's not to downplay Kidman's performance who is struggling with losing the husband she had such a complicated relationship with and keeping details of his death from seeping out. 

When it was first announced I was dead against a second season. Liane Moriarty's source material had been exhausted but with its huge star names, award wins and public success a second season was inevitable. The final moments of the finale are interesting and frustrating. Willie Nelson provides the soundtrack of a long montage. In it we see Madelaine and Ed renewing their wedding vows on the beach, Jane enjoying an intimate moment with Corey, Renata snuggling in bed with Amabella and Mary Louise leaving Monteray for San Fransisco. It's a long montage that is there to explain to us where the characters are at the end of the story. Bonnie, who has lost her mother and told her husband she has never really loved him, leaves a note for her daughter Skye and drives off. With the music still playing, it becomes clear that Bonnie has convinced all of the group to meet her at the police station and the five women walk into the police station as the screen fades to black.

I suppose we are to take that to mean that they are going to come clean about what happened on the night of Perry's death. They'll all be accessories and that'll be that, but as the credits started to roll, I did, just for a minute, question the point of this second instalment.  Whilst the whodunnit was the hook of season one it wasn't really what kept me coming back week after week. I enjoyed peering into the lives of these women and spending time with them, regardless of how monstrous the majority of them were. Whilst I enjoyed the majority of the second season, looking it back now, it lacked a sense of narrative direction. The courtroom scenes at the end didn't feel like they came from the show that delivered an exciting and awkward disco-themed birthday party a few episodes prior. This might have something to do with the fact that new director  Andrea Arnold was whitewashed out of her own project by Kelley and first season director Jean-Marc ValléeIndieWire reported, recently, on the creative controversies. Andrea Arnold was brought on to direct, but some of her scenes were allegedly reshot or recut by Vallée, to unify the styles of the first and second seasons. “Sources describe dailies filled with Arnold’s trademark restless camera searching for grace notes—those gestures, movements, and poetic frames of natural light that added another layer to what is not being said,” according to IndieWire. The rest of us couldn’t see Arnold’s raw footage, but we could detect a palpable sense of interference.

It could also be attributed to the fact that the first used Moriarty's novel as a guide and this second had to been developed and slightly contrived. For whatever reason this second season of Big Little Lies, though still very watchable, felt a little off. The cast elevated the material and the finale had its edge of the seat moments, but when I look back on this season in a few years time I'm not sure I'll remember it as fondly.

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