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Wednesday
Jun122019

Big Little Lies MVPs: Episode 2.1 "What Have They Done?"

by Nathaniel R

The first season of Big Little Lies won 8 Emmys, 4 Golden Globes, and 2 SAG Awards and, most importantly, the hearts of actressexuals everywhere. It would be foolish to expect the possibly unneccessary Season 2 to deliver at quite the same level. But for now, just one episode in, it more than satisfied, if only for the chance to see these exceptionally well-drawn characters again. 

The first episode begins with the new school year and charts the after-effects of Perry's (Alexander Skarsgård) death. The death has (mostly) been deemed an accident  but "the Monterey 5" (Kidman, Witherspoon, Woodley, Dern and Kravitz aka Celeste, Madeline, Jane, Renata and Bonnie) are still the talk of the town. To add to the combustible mix of those five strong personalities, now closer friends due to their shared tragedy/lies, Perry's mother Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) is making everyone uncomfortable not just with her questions about the death of her son, but the brusque manner in which she delivers them.  As with season 1, we'll conquer each episode in list format. Herewith...

Top 10 MVPs of Big Little Lies. Episode 2.1 "What Have They Done?" 

10 The title shot
The editing of Big Little Lies has always been one of its moodiest signature strengths and near the beginning of the episode we move from the first narrative scene and line "I was having a nightmare" to this out of context shot of police footage of Celeste, tear-stained and flustered, but then the direct-to-camera and thus guilty-looking freeze frame and the title. Very impactful.

09 Mary Louise's scream
The clip of Meryl Streep screaming at the top of her lungs felt out in promos, but it makes more sense within the actual show. Grandmother Mary Louise (allow us to freak out a bit that Meryl is playing someone with her actual birth name, Mary Louise, for the first time) is telling her now fatherless grandchildren that they should scream if they feel like it over their grief about their dad. The best part of the scene is not quite the scream (sorry Meryl) but Celeste's inability to deal with it, quickly shutting the advice down. 

08a Jane's dancing
But not everyone is feeling down. One of the most interesting acting/scripting choices in the opening episode is the new lightness in Shailene Woodley's performance. It ballsily suggests that the Perry's violent end set her free, because we don't see her dancing just one but twice in the episode, a physically consistent (Jane is always moving) but emotional inverse of her characterization in the first season where she was always despair-jogging. 

08b Jane's sketch
... but that new turn in her character is complicated a bit by a follow up scene where she's looking troubled and sketching. Artist name please? We like it. It's maybe a little on the nose, symbolically (since there's an earlier scene involving an octopus about beauty being dangerous and who is more beautiful than Alexander Skarsgård?) but deliciously so. It also ties in with the feeling that Perry is still the monster in the room, only in ghost form now, as we learn in Celeste's therapy session and through her nightmares.

07 Two cupcakes
"One for each thigh." After Reese's perfectly dumb mom-joke, she bitchily flips the joke to essentially tell the Principal just where her can shove it. Madeline can even weaponize pastries! Reese is so entertaining with the cupcakes that the continuity people/prop teams totally forgot when she'd already eaten one of them and in the next scene she has two new cupcakes again. Or maybe Madeline went back for more. She is a "wanter" 

05 The look on that new teacher's face when meeting Renata
She's a handful, poor guy.  (We believe that's Mo MacRae who had a bit part in Wild but not totally sure since the character isn't named.)

And speaking of...

05 "It's my house and I live here! 🎵"
Renata is still insufferable... but Dern makes sure she's insufferable in a super entertaining way. 

04 The Befuddlement of The Husbands
The husbands get little attention in the Big Little Lies raves, primarily because the men have been demoted to "the husbands" just like actresses are often demoted to "the wives" in mainstream narratives. The difference here is that these roles have actual personality, because the scripts are so good. Was trying to decide between the "Snide Fuck!" scene and this image above to personify what's happening with the husbands but I went with this enigmatic one, sans dialogue. Why is Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling)  holding a baseball bat and drinking whiskey and zoning out with his train set all at the same time in the middle of the day. Is Renata making him that crazy? 

03 Zoe Kravitz needs some space! And camera time. 
The most promising piece of episode 1 is the new focus on Bonnie, who was inarguably given short-shrift last season as the outlier among the five major female characters. Bonnie, having been the one that pushed Perry to his death, is feeling the guiltiest and Kravitz is incorporating her "I need some space" line into the performance everyway which way she can. Whether she's evading people's eyes or sitting in crowded rooms, she's not quite there. Hopefully this season gives Kravitz opportunity to really develop this character. 

02 Celeste's dream
"In your own time. Take a good look" We finally have an explanation for that promotional shot above and this nightmare is smashingly creepy, with Skarsgård cameo'ing as wronged victim though he's the monster the women escaped. This time Celeste does the screaming. 

01 Meryl vs Reese, Round Two
Big Little Lies delivered consistently last season as not just a great actor's showcase but a great showcase of different acting personas and female stars actually interacting in long scenes with each other, that were about their feelings about one another (men were sometimes the topic but never the subject, if you catch me). Though we went into season 2 expecting it to be the Nicole vs Meryl showdown (given their relation onscreen:  daughter/mother-in-law), the early fireworks are between that tetchy huge personality in a tiny package Madeline and the grieving mother-in-law of her best friend. Streep and Witherspoon have two big scenes together in "What Have They Done?". The first is juicier for its bizarre cut-to-the-chase animosity, Mary Louise telling Madeline she doesn't like short people (wtf?). Still, I actually prefer meeting number two in Madeline's realtor's office. We argued last season that Reese Witherspoon was giving the performance of her life as Madeline and that hasn't changed. Note how many things she's juggling in that second scene, not just the minutae of Madeline trying to read Mary Louise and her pronouncements (which are both telling and hopelessly vague), but her doing that while she's balancing her own guilt, the stack of lies she's already told. And she's filtering it all through a more confident battle-ready register than in their first round, given that they're suddenly on Madeline's turf, instead of out for coffee on neutral ground.

Reese is magic. If Season 2 can keep up with her, it'll be something special. 

 

 

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Reader Comments (66)

Laura Dern does insufferable incredibly well. See also: Year of the Dog.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash

Can you guys believe that Douglas Smith, the actor who plays Jane's new surfer dude, is 33?! He looks maybe 19 to me.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTyler

This was the best thing that I have seen in a long time. Streep fits in perfectly and actually moves the show forward in an unexpected way. Her character is very unusual but instantly familiar through her consistency and craft at creating a whole new person. I still don't know how she does this. The writing by David E. Kelly is top notch along with the directing by Andrea Arnold. It is a welcome gift to see something very well done and I look forward to the rest.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterTom Ford

Loved it so, so much. Watched the episode three times already!

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

Meryl is coming for that 4th Emmy.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

STREEP'S CHARACTER IS ACTUALLY CALLED MARY LOUISE. Jesus Christ, I fucking love it.

I am so on board with this season. Between the two Madeline vs Mary scenes, Dern giving us face face face, and a possible showdown between Kidman and Woodley I don't know how I'm gonna take the rest of it! But I am ecstatic, gays.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterChris

Meryl's scream.... FUCK!!!!!! She is scary. Goddamnit!!!! Someone put her in an action movie or a franchise like The Fast & Furious as Paul Walker's mom or have her part of the MCU!!!!! She needs to fucking cash in!!!!!!!

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

I'm still laughing just thinking about Mary Louise's little laugh at the end of round two with Madeline. And I just love all the reaction shots of whoever in the scene with Meryl. This show is heaven!

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJack for Streep

I think the lack of commentary on Meryl's performance on the first episode of Season 2 is a bit confusing and disappointing. For example, in your No. 1 - there is discussion about Reese's reactions (which are great) but not Meryl's line readings that prompted those reactions? Also, Jane's dancing and sketch (??!?) and some other moments like the look on that new teacher's face when meeting Renata are better than the dinner/ scream scene? Give me a break. I know this is your opinion but I (and the internet) strongly disagree with it.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBecausewhynot

"The best part of the scene is not quite the scream (sorry Meryl) but Celeste's inability to deal with it, quickly shutting the advice down."

Only you, Nathaniel!

If the series and Meryl continue at this pace, it has the potential to be her best work in a decade.

Also, the In My House scene was hilarious. All hail Laura Dern.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

The Scream dominates the Twitter and goes viral. Sorry, haters.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSam

The author’s bias against Meryl is showing.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBecausewhynot

When Nathaniel delayed his review, I had thought to myself he was not gonna single out Meryl in Ep.1 like everyone else. I have never been so right in my life but that's Nathaniel. He is who he is. Respect.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJack for Streep

And thanks God his 01 was not Michelle Pfeiffer at the premiere of Big Little Lies season 2. I'm just kidding.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJack for Streep

The definite MVP in this year's series is Streep ... I also love Reece. I felt she was tons better than Kidman in Season 1 and she continues to dominate The Monterey 5 with Dern right behind her. Kidman does her usual non acting gig!!

I have to agree with other , Nathanaiel, that your bias against Streep really shows. Just look at the reviews on Rotten Tomatoes and see who is the STAR!!

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrdf

Nathaniel, has Meryl done something that might have 'offended' you? Looks pretty obvious to me, sorry Nat!

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterEthan

I’ve been reading this blog for YEARS so I know that Nathaniel loves Meryl Streep. What are you guys talking about?? He has no bias.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBrad

Everyone -- You all take the rankings too seriously. It's just a fun way to write up a show. And the most confusing thing about Streep's ardent fanbase continue to be its insistence that she isn't praised *enough*... this, despite being the most praised actress on the planet for 30+ years now.

it's weird to me but to each their own.

I did love Streep's line reading when Kidman didn't react well to her scream something like 'is my grief too loud for you'. Good stuff.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel - I am not saying that Meryl isn’t praised enough but just give credit where credit is due. The Reese/ Meryl showdown is a two woman show and both of them were outstanding and yet you only focused on Reese when arguably, she is just reacting to Meryl’s savageness. To discount a performance just because she has been praised enough (whether earned or unearned) on previous projects is an extremely weak argument.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBecausewhynot

Now I know what a big-little-lie is. LOL! I really did not think about she was or wasn't praised enough through her lifetime. We're talking about BLL season 2 here which you seemed to not praising her at all. I've said enough.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJack for Streep

Lord, even some of the most loyal Kidman fans on twitter have no problems giving praise to Meryl, I guess this is indeed personal.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSam

If you put things into perspective, the teacher reacting to Renata (nothing against him) has his own solo placement in this list and Meryl doesn’t... just saying. I don’t think Meryl should be in every single list but come on, her performance on the first episode probably was her best since Prada.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBecausewhynot

Jesus Christ, y'all who are laying into Nathaniel for "bias," for having an *opinion* (as if your haranguing doesn't reek of bias itself) need to get a grip/clue. Praise for one actress isn't criticism of another, and he clearly has great affection and admiration for Mary Louise Streep — just look at her nominations and wins at his Film Bitch Awards!

Laura Dern is everything as Renata. So, so, so fun.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Meryl stole the show. It's so obvious. The character she has created and the line reading are sublime. I too believe Nathaniel has some sort of bias against Streep and I've believed that for many years. Just my opinion.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Yes- Meryl does get praise for everything- but here she really deserves it. To read the article one asks- was she even in it? And that is what seems biased. I mean let’s face it- there
IS a second season because of her.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

"I am the expert at making any situation about me, but this is about YOU and YOUR education, Abigail!"

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJakey

Streep us an amazing artist. Up there with Picasso and Callas. This is a celebration with so much hard work and goodwill. Nathaniel loves Michelle even though she was not her husband's first choice. We all have our favorites but A+ debut.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFaye

Mareko - she has no wins or nominations at the FB awards since Prada 13 years ago. Maybe she doesn’t deserve recognition for her post Prada work but she clearly was amazing in BLL. Again, all of Monterey 5 and some others have been featured in this review/ list but not Meryl, who has been singled out by almost every review I’ve read. I may be biased with regards to this performance but so is Nathaniel against Meryl.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBecausewhynot

Only you, Nat—and I mean that in a good way!

I also thought Nicole’s reaction was what made “the scream” shocking and frightening, especially after the wind-up to that moment where Mary Louise spends 30 seconds announcing what she's about to do. How Nicole responds is electric, spontaneous. The scene doesn’t work without it. She acts from her gut in this character in a totally new and fascinating way, for her.

Same with Reese’s scenes opposite Meryl. I actually think some of the writing they gave Streep is really silly but it works because it provokes such fascinating reactions from her scene partners. It doesn't hurt that Meryl's elevating it, either, of course.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterH

And based on the first episode alone, we already know Streep will win the Emmy. Her performance was THAT good. It will be interesting to see how her character develops as the season progresses.

My favorite scene was with Meryl and Reese at the outdoor cafe. Streep dresses-down Witherspoon which such devastating line delivery. Just beautiful.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Is this a parallel universe I'm living in? Isn't Nathaniel like the biggest Meryl stan ever? I literally found this blog from googling information about Meryl.

Also, Reese is doing the best work in this show. The most engaging and interesting character by far. Kidman's character feels the least fleshed out to me. The scenes with the counselor are getting boring.

June 12, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbeyaccount

Reese is good in this series but I see shades of "Election" all the time.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

I liked your N° 9, didn't quite noticed it, and now is Bonnie who's jogging, although she was the least interesting character in this episode for me. Let's see how Bonnie evolves.
I'm not a Meryl fan in all its words but she really nailed it last sunday and there's no question she was the MVP.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJorge

everyone -- I just feel you all are assuming a LOT about a performance from one episode. We dont even know if Mary Louise coheres as a character or how to interpret Meryl's performance yet because it's only the first episode. For example. It wasn't until the back half of the first seeason when Nicole Kidman's brilliance came into focus and we understood that SHE was going to be the one to pick up all the trophies, not Reese. Let's see how Meryl's character develops before we anoint it the greatest performance of all time. I think Reese was the top performance in episode 1. These are opinions. Sorry if its not yours but life would be boring if everyone agreed all the time on art.

The performance i mention the least in this review is actually Nicole Kidman's but none of you seem to believe that because you have these preconceived notions about my agenda ;)

Becausewhynot -- this is not true. If you think I featured Shailene Woodley in the list but not Meryl you didn't actually read it. I mention the character of Jane, yes, but I mention Mary Louise like 3 times! This is what I'm talking about about Meryl stans being so defensive if people aren't falling down and worshipping her at all times.

June 13, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Nathaniel - I am not a Meryl fan in regards to her more recent output (she is not even in my Top 3 actresses working today) but I am a fan in the context of this performance in this episode alone. One can have an opinion on a performance on a single episode without having to see the rest of the series (isn't that what you're doing here - reviewing this episode on a standalone basis?) I did not expect you to put her as MVP of Episode 1 nor am I saying that this is the greatest performance of all time - but at least shine a light on her performance (instead of just casually mentioning her as a side note) in your list which includes not 1, not 5 but 10 placements - that is all.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBecausewhynot

Yeah, I couldn't believe Douglas Jones was 33 when I looked it up. My first thought was, Good that that kid from Big Love got a new gig. Then I realized that show ended 8 years ago.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMarsha Mason

I want to underscore: Half the dialogue they've given Mary Louise is completely unnatural, veering on the absurd.

She comes right out and *accuses* Madeleine of a coverup—not something a person in her position has any tactical reason to do, out of the gate. I also don't understand why that red flag doesn't get brought up in the car huddle, where the women are calculating their legal exposure. Someone very important is on to them and it doesn't come up as an issue?

She announces that she doesn't trust short people—not an attitude you will /ever/ encounter in real life no matter how long you live. From one episode we have no idea if this is earned character development or just ham-handed.

The "wanter" thing was great writing, and the scene would've felt complete if they'd just focused on that. The boarding school anecdote felt authentic, except as pretense to develop a lifelong height phobia.

I'm far from sold on this performance/character, and as Nat notes, maybe we're not supposed to be, yet!

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterH

Yes, by all means, let's give Meryl the Emmy now. Because she so deserves more nominations and awards. <shaking head>

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

Nathaniel seem jealous that his old fave Michelle can't make a comeback.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterDEK

LOL DEK. Seems plausible.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Maybe the people who feel Meryl isn't being praised enough (a laughable thing to even type) should start their own blogs and praise her all they want? It's a list! You're all mad about a list? And what sense does it make to bash Michelle Pfeiffer?

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Nathaniel, what you'd said on twitter, Sorry, not sorry for not worshipful of Streep enough, thanks for showing your true colors. So disappointed. I'll forever miss this site.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJack for Streep

Have to concur. It may be time to leave.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJamie

Meryl Streep having fans this aggressive is...odd.

I love this review format. I'm especially excited to see what they give Bonnie this season. It could be easy to make her the only one who's truly shaken, but I'm hopping they have more in store. I also suspect Madeline is more shaken than she realizes yet.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJoe

I think Nathaniel is just trying to get attention. Streep is always his bestseller. I think everyone had moments on this show but Streep was unusually good, which is exciting. After The Post she is only going up thanks to BLL show creators. Laura Dern and Reese were also stellar.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJono

Jack -- my true colors of standing by a silly list I made? okay. I feel bad that you're so upset but it would defeat the point of having opinions if I checked with everyone else before I voiced any of them, you know?. I'm fully willing to love the performance if the character coheres over the season. IT'S THE FIRST EPISODE PEOPLE. All the other characters are familiar to us and the performances are, thus, easy to judge! I wasn't all that excited by Nicole Kidman this episode for example, so just didn't talk about her much. DOESN'T MEAN I HATE NICOLE KIDMAN.

June 13, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Aren't individual Emmys handed out by individual episodes and NOT an entire season?

It's pretty obvious Streep stole the first episode and will win the Emmy.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterbrandz

Jono -- you're right that Streep is the bestsller. Posts involving her always get the most comments. But that would be true even if I had placed her #1 on this list ... which I actually did 'Meryl vs Reese, Round Two' since it was my favourite scene in the episode. And yet it's still interpreted as me hating Streep!

Brandz -- individual episodes are submitted yes, but you are winning for the show itself, not the episode. And we dont even know that this will be her submission episode. I'd actually bet that it won't be. BET YOU ANYTHING THERE'S TWO OR THREE MEATIER STREEP EPISODES COMING UP.

June 13, 2019 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

Let's not crazy about leaving this site - I have been reading this site for more than a decade and this is THE best film site out there. While I was disappointed about this list, Nathaniel and his group of writers have been amazing through-out the years and let's be honest, there are a lot of reviewers out there but to me, Nathaniel's reviews with regards to films, TV shows and performances are one of the few that really matters - at least to me. Let's just agree to disagree, be kind and move on. Can't wait for episode 2.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBecausewhynot

Don’t worry. Passion is good. These threads are a good chew and endlessly entertaining.

June 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJono

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