Renata was a supporting character last season, on the fringes of the show’s core friend group — Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Jane (Shailene Woodley) — but was brought deeper into the circle (along with Zoe Kravitz’s Bonnie) after the death of Celeste’s abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard). The women are bonded by a dark secret: that Perry died not from a fall, as they let detectives believe, but from a fatal push delivered by Bonnie after she witnessed him viciously attack Celeste.
Dern commanded attention in the first season, winning a Golden Globe and an Emmy for best supporting actress. Renata’s daughter, Amabella, was bullied at her elementary school, and Renata spent much of the season trying to get her child to open up about who was hurting her. The writers have given Dern even more to do in Season 2, which finds Renata’s husband, Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling), under investigation for insider trading. His crimes, which put his wife’s hard-earned fortune at risk, are kindling on top of the secret Renata must keep as part of the Monterey Five.
Renata is cutthroat and exacting, but Dern gets below the surface to explore what’s lingering behind her character’s ever-accessible wrath. Last season, we saw that Renata’s high-powered career often set her apart from many of the women in her luxurious, beachside community, a disconnect that caused rifts between her and several of the women with whom she now shares an uneasy, but treasured, alliance. As Renata continues her perpetual battle to be seen and heard, she fights, ferociously, for her young daughter to be seen and heard. Meanwhile, Gordon’s legal troubles have exposed one of Renata’s deepest fears — that she will end up reliving the poverty of her childhood. “I will NOT not be rich,” she screamed at her husband, through a jail speakerphone, in last week’s episode.
In some ways, Renata evokes the clumsily heroic protagonist of “Enlightened,” the critically acclaimed HBO drama Dern led for two seasons before its untimely cancellation in 2013. Dern played Amy Jellicoe, an executive whose on-the-job meltdown lands her in rehab and, upon her return to work, a low-level position that leads her to a more promising calling: whistleblower. The show’s tagline — “a woman on the verge of a nervous breakthrough” — is the perfect description of what Dern does best. Her characters may be prone to intense emotions, but they are never unwarranted. To write these women off as crazy is to miss the point.
Renata has emerged a definitive fan favorite this season, particularly after last week’s episode, when she confronted Gordon about endangering their wealthy lifestyle as the couple drove down the highway. “Did I ever explain to you that I wanted more?” she asks Gordon, who tries to dismiss her concerns with ill-advised humor. Renata reminds him that the Tesla is her car — before promptly kicking him out.
Renata’s meme-worthy roadside freakout concluded with her putting her middle finger up through the Tesla’s sunroof and screaming: “Will somebody give a woman a moment?!” She drove a short distance before grudgingly pulling a U-turn and letting her husband back into the car. That doesn’t mean she has let him off the hook.
In the most recent episode, which aired Sunday, Renata reiterated her intention to never not be rich. After a second-grade lesson on climate change sends an anxiety-ridden Amabella to the hospital, Renata explodes at her daughter’s teacher and principal, who reminds her that the school exists to serve all students, not just her daughter.
"You think because of this whole bankruptcy thing that the school thinks I don’t matter?” she seethes. “Please. I will be rich again. I will rise up. I will buy a … polar bear for every kid in this school. And then, I will squish you like the bug that you are.” A few scenes later, she demands Gordon “sell his toys” when she finds him sitting in a room filled with video games and model trains. She appears to soften a bit when Gordon tells her she has recently been emotionally unavailable to him and their young daughter. “There’s something going on with you,” he says.
“Correct, my husband put us in the poor house,” she retorts, before reminding him to sell his stuff.
Sunday’s episode also marked Renata’s brief but memorable on-screen introduction to the show’s newest character: Perry’s grieving mother, Mary Louise, played by none other than Meryl Streep. Dern’s ability to stand out is particularly impressive considering there’s no shortage of talent among her castmates. That’s a credit to Dern — and the complicated woman she plays on “Big Little Lies.”
“I think there’s a lot of room to really have deep empathy for her in moments where you really don’t expect to,” Dern recently told Vogue. “And that’s what I love to do as an actor. It’s such a delicious opportunity.”