Big Little Lies MVPs: Episode 2.3 – “The End of the World”  
Monday, June 24, 2019 at 9:54PM
Lynn Lee in Adam Scott, Big Little Lies, Douglas Smith, HBO, Kerry Kinney, Laura Dern, Meryl Streep, Reese Witherspoon, Reviews, Shailene Woodley, TV

Previously: Episode 1 (Nathaniel) Episode 2 (Spencer)

by Lynn Lee

As someone who loved the first season of Big Little Lies, I have to admit I haven’t been enjoying the show’s sophomore outing as much, in large part because the tone has been so much more subdued, almost dirge-like.  It feels like the fire’s gone out of many of the key characters: Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), of course, but even more so, Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline.  (Not Renata, bless her – yet even her manic aggressiveness seems driven by a desperation that wasn’t there before.)  This isn’t a choice I quarrel with, exactly: it feels like a necessary reckoning as the inexorable aftermath of a violent death, and the cast is beautifully illustrating the strain the “Monterey Five”’s silence is exercising on each of their lives and relationships. 

That said, the moments of humor – mostly courtesy of Laura Dern as Renata, of course – came as an especially welcome break, and figure heavily in this week’s MVPs...

Top Ten MVPs of Big Little Lies, Episode 2.3: “The End of the World”

10.  Climate change & sustainability
Who would have guessed that a classroom discussion of Charlotte’s Web could lead to the moral of the E.B. White classic being…sustainable farming?  What starts off as an amusing curveball quickly shifts into a more serious register with poor Amabella’s anxiety attack…and back again with an enraged Renata vowing to “buy a fucking polar bear for every kid in this school.”  But the ridiculousness underscores a larger point, echoed later in the same episode by Jane (Shailene Woodley)’s new love interest Corey (Douglas Smith) as he lectures her on sustainable fishing.  The human community, as its own symbiotic organism, is a microcosm of the planet.  Every choice, every death, is going to affect the overall balance among the living; the question is whether their course can be corrected or is irreversible.

9.  Dr. Peep
Another wtf comic curveball arrives in the form of a child therapist (Kerry Kinney) dressed up as a not-so-little Bo Peep, who after cooing one moment to Amabella about tea and crumpets, in the next, without missing a beat, drops the act to relay a blunt missive to her parents: “She’s worried about the end of the planet.”  (Also about her parents, poor thing.)  Kinney’s delivery is spot-on from start to finish of her brief appearance, concluding with the killer line: “So there’s you, you, mostly the end of the world.”

8.  Principal Nippal
Up till now I haven’t held the long-suffering school principal in particularly high esteem.  But it’s impossible not to laugh and empathize as he faces down the human hurricane that is Renata Klein.  To his credit, he bends but doesn’t break, even if he immediately needs a smoke afterwards.  Can you blame him?

7.  Perry’s ghost
He’s gone, and yet his presence lingers on, whether in the “memory book” videos that show him at his most affectionate and endearing, Jane’s and Celeste’s own memories of him as anything but, complicated by Celeste’s sexual yearnings, the bruises observed by Dr. Reisman (Robyn Weigert, somewhat limited by weaker writing this season but still making the most of her quiet presence), and, of course, Perry’s sons.  The doctor is right: Perry is Celeste’s drug, and one all the Vicodin in her medicine cabinet can’t supplant.

6. Cruel Ed
It was easy for everyone to take “nice” Ed for granted and assume he’d always be there to support Madeline.  Until, suddenly, he wasn’t.  The streak of cruelty he shows in this episode – freezing his wife out, comforting Bonnie in her presence and then referring to it as a “twofer” (for needling both Maddie and Nathan), abandoning her at her most vulnerable – is painful yet feels pent-up and overdue, and Adam Scott brings the edge that he only hinted at last season.  Despite everyone’s assurances Ed will come back, Madeline finds herself teetering on an abyss of doubt and fear that this time, he might not. 

5.  Water
Brooding Bonnie can’t stop thinking about it – and immersing (drowning?) herself in it; whether that’s a portent of suicide or survival (as her mother tells a young Bonnie, “you need to get your hair wet” even if you hate it), remains to be seen.  Meanwhile, Jane takes a different tack, encouraging Ziggy to ride the ocean, with the assistance of her new surfer beau.  Is this conquest or avoidance?  It’s significant, I think, that it’s at this moment that Bonnie appears to tell Jane she needs to tell Corey everything – only to acknowledge ruefully that she isn't practicing what she preaches.

4.  Madeline’s car
Even last season, some of Madeline’s and Celeste’s best, most intimate interactions were in Maddie’s car – where both women could be entirely, unreservedly themselves.  This episode goes back to that well not once but twice, as we see Celeste providing warm support to her guilt-racked best friend.  Whatever these ladies’ flaws in dealing with their respective marriages and families, there’s no denying that they’ve gotten their friendship exactly right…as the car will bear witness.

3.  Madeline’s meltdown at the school assembly – “We’re not gonna be fine”
Have we ever seen Madeline so publicly unsure of herself, so decentered, so close to breaking?  Called on to give her opinion on the school’s climate change curriculum, she quickly goes off the rails and launches headlong into a nakedly personal cry of anguish.  It’s a tough moment for the woman who prides herself on her ironclad social armor, and Reese nails it.  When she declares “you need to tell them the whole truth,” it resonates as a broader message to all the protagonists.

2.  Queen Renata
Whether she’s demanding an entirely unnecessary hospital transfer to Stanford (“Because it’s Stanford!”), threatening to squish Principal Nippal like a bug, or ordering her bankrupt husband to sell his “toys,” Renata will not be ignored.  The character is verging on caricature this season, and yet Laura Dern’s nervy, enormously entertaining performance makes it impossible to take your eyes off her, and injects much-needed energy into the show.  That sideways glance from Madeline’s real estate colleague – half askance, half terrified – as Renata blows through the office says it all.  Gordon may be right that it’s an act to avoid being truly “present”…but what an act!

1. Jane vs. Mary Louise
aka Most Awkward Coffee Ever.  You can feel poor Jane stiffening as Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) segues from showing pictures of Perry as a young boy (who bears a startling physical resemblance to Ziggy) to reminiscing over how “sweet and gentle he was,” before moving in on her real object: trying to establish that he surely didn’t rape Jane.  Jane, of course, is having none of it and stands her ground admirably (Woodley’s very good in this scene, as she has been opposite the show’s other heavyweights), even as it must have been killing her inside to hear the insinuations that she (Jane) was the one responsible, that Perry might have been “tempted” (as “men can be in a moment of weakness”) and might have “misread a signal” from her.  The insidious slut-shaming is horrible, all the more so for the tone in which it’s framed – not belligerent, not even accusatory, but softly insistent, almost pleading.  Such is Streep’s genius that throughout this painful exchange, you can’t help feeling an undercurrent of pity for a mother who’s straining with all her might to hold on to her image of the perfect son who would never  do anything like this. 

Her final plea – “Did you see good in him?” carries a quiet desperation that’s become the hallmark of the series.  Do we really see good in people, or are we only projecting our own egos?

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