This piece includes many details from both seasons of “Big Little Lies.”
The second season of “Big Little Lies” is, from a plot perspective, not exactly essential, which is not to deny its essential deliciousness. Gorgeous, foreboding landscapes; gorgeous, foreboding women; lavish houses and the reassurance that the people who occupy them are actually miserable — who could ask for anything more in a summer entertainment?
And yet, the show has sunk its well-manicured claws in my brain and managed to keep them there for reasons that go beyond soap opera dramatics and the lure of lifestyle porn. If the first season of “Big Little Lies” was dedicated to the initial revelation of the #MeToo movement — that seemingly upstanding, even feminist men could actually be rapists and batterers — the second is concerned with the messy aftermath of that political cataclysm. What happens when the wife who was battered by a man misses him? What happens when someone who loved and admired that man simply refuses to believe that he was violent and that violence has consequences? Who controls a person’s reputation? Who decides when a person gets to be forgiven, and under what circumstances? These are crucial conversations, and yet, nearly two years after the New Yorker published its blockbuster exposé on now-disgraced super-producer Harvey Weinstein, we’ve barely begun them, much less determined some agreed-upon answers.
For all its soapy plot twists, “Big Little Lies” is simpler than many #MeToo stories in one respect: Its Bad Man, Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard), is dead, having taken a header down a flight of stairs at the hands of Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), who intervened to stop Perry from kicking his wife Celeste (Nicole Kidman) to death. But while Perry isn’t around anymore, his reputation hangs around “Big Little Lies” like an insistent ghost, provoking the characters to behave in revealing and disconcerting ways.
Perry was a terrible husband when he was alive: He beat Celeste; turned domestic violence into a kind of foreplay; left much of the responsibility of parenting to her and then battered her when she did it wrong, according to his standards; and raped and impregnated Jane (Shailene Woodley). We might expect that Celeste, as the person most intimately affected by Perry’s violence, has the easiest time drawing sharp moral conclusions about him. She is, after all, the person best suited to testify that his compulsion to destroy her eclipsed all his other qualities. Instead, the second season of “Big Little Lies” suggests, the reverse is true: Celeste’s proximity to Perry becomes a distorting mirror, enlarging his good qualities and making the bad ones seem strangely desirable.
At a political moment when many people are trying to prioritize the experiences of victims in new ways, Celeste’s relationship to Perry’s memory is disconcerting. Are those of us who would condemn Perry most strongly seeing him more clearly? Or is Celeste herself? It may be easier to issue a cancellation notice from a distance. But “Big Little Lies” is a warning against being too certain that your moral judgment aligns neatly with the desires of victims who, like Celeste, are allowed to be complicated and even unlikable people.
Celeste’s story alone would be enough to make a second season of “Big Little Lies” feel rich and unsettling; it’s decidedly impolitic to show a widow masturbating to video of her late abusive husband, but that’s the sort of moment art can show us even as our politics struggle to accommodate the emotions that motivate it. But where the second season of “Big Little Lies” becomes really artistically and politically essential is in the contrast between Celeste’s attempts to see Perry and herself clearly through the fog of his abuse, and Mary Louise Wright’s (Meryl Streep) refusal to see her son clearly at all.
That denial, and Mary Louise’s ability to reshape the world around her central belief in her son’s goodness, is what makes the character a remarkable and timely villain. We in the audience know who Perry was, so Mary Louise’s persistence in denying it makes her an enemy to both Celeste and to our sense of our own narrative omniscience. And yet, what makes Mary Louise memorable is that she doesn’t seem merely crazy. Rather, she provides a powerful articulation of the reasons people might refuse to believe all the monstrous and mundane stories that have been a part of #MeToo.
“I’m presented with the idea that my son was both an adulterer and a rapist, and I am desperate to squash that idea,” Mary Louise tells Jane early in the show. Later, during their brief rapprochement, she acknowledges to the younger woman: “I can’t surrender to this notion that he was evil. I just do so want to believe there was good in him.”
This is the power — and the threat — of a moment like #MeToo: If we accept that these stories of rape are true, it can upend everything else we believe about the world. It’s easy to be repulsed by recently revealed comments from New Jersey Judge James Troiano, that a 16-year-old accused of rape deserved lenient treatment because he was from “a good family,” but the idea that good parenting will produce good children is an essential element of our national fixation on child-rearing. Acknowledging that an “exemplary” medical student can rape an unconscious woman also requires us to acknowledge that academic and professional success have no inherent relationship to the quality of a person’s morals. Mary Louise is acting in defense of her idea of her family. The collective denial about the prevalence of sexual misconduct is in part a psychological defense of a set of assumptions that are far more costly to abandon.
And while it might be soothing to think that those who deny the truth about sexual violence are on their way to being marginalized, the second season of “Big Little Lies” is a warning. Mary Louise may be odd and lonely, but she’s also successfully managed to impugn Celeste’s reputation; to put Celeste at serious risk of losing custody of her twin boys; and to gather the evidence she could use to try to gain control of Jane’s son as well. Her refusal to allow Perry to be the villain is so strong that Mary Louise has literally shaped reality to accommodate her memories of him as a sweet, gentle little boy. Celeste may equate sex with violence because of Perry, but in Mary Louise’s narrative, Celeste is the source of a sickness that infected her husband. Jane may be clear that Perry violently raped her, but in Mary Louise’s retelling, Jane is an unstable temptress.
Being wrong, “Big Little Lies” cautions, doesn’t prevent you from talking, and it doesn’t prevent other people from listening. The characters on “Big Little Lies” just have to figure out how to remember Perry White. The rest of us are a long way from sorting out what to actually do with the bad men who still walk among us.