It’s Hard to Keep Deadly Secrets Buried in Riveting Second Season of ‘Big Little Lies’

When HBO’s adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s “Big Little Lies” premiered in 2017, it became an instant hit garnering awards and praise for its potent mixture of drama and dark comedy. And that was supposed to be it. Originally planned as a limited series it covered the entire span of the book. But like all good stories, we were left wanting more. Now we are getting it with a second season that flows out of the original storyline, covering the aftershocks of the bloody events that enveloped our heroines’ lives.

We are back in the sea breeze-kissed neighborhoods of Monterey, California. Friends and accomplices Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), Renata Klein (Laura Dern), Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) and Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz) now walk under the shadow of last season’s events. They are keeping to themselves the truth about the death of Celeste’s abusive, demented husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). Their official version remains that he simply fell down some steps. Celeste is plagued by nightmares in the evenings and flashbacks during the day, making it worse is that Perry’s mother Mary (Meryl Streep) is making herself at home in Celeste’s world, including in the raising of her sons. Mary also makes it clear she doesn’t fully buy Celeste’s version of how Perry died. Bonnie is also haunted by her experiences, to the point of turning her into an introvert backing away from society, to the frustration of husband Nathan (James Tupper). Madeline becomes both a target for Mary’s scoffs and suspicions while discovering that her daughter refuses to go to college. This is still somewhat minute compared to what Renata suddenly goes through when her husband is arrested for shady business practices, threatening her livelihood and status.

This continuation of “Big Little Lies” changes the tone of the story somewhat. The first three episodes, made available for review, are not about any central mystery or crisis, but about how the five women are dealing with keeping a deadly secret and facing local suspicion. A co-worker stuns Jane by informing her that she’s part of the “Monterey Five,” the tag now given to the women for being around the scene of Perry’s strange death. When Renata’s husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) is nabbed by the FBI for a split second she thinks it’s a misunderstanding concerning her. Much of the tension this time around in the storytelling is evoked by the fact that we as the viewers know what the women know, but everyone else in their world don’t. In a sense Celeste is still the true center of the story, no longer dealing with a monstrous husband, but now with a toxic and intrusive mother-in-law. Meryl Streep, who has delivered some amazing performances before on HBO as in “Angels in America,” steals the show as the misleadingly aloof Mary. She’s the kind of person who throws a wounding insult and later pretends she didn’t mean it. During dinner she feigns helping Celeste and the boys cope by showing them how she screams in private when thinking about Perry, when it’s really more of an act to hurt and get information out of Celeste. There’s some truly dark humor in how Celeste awakens at night from her nightmares, screaming cryptic phrases about murder and Mary rushes in to hug her, then asking, “who are we murdering?”

It’s not surprising that this season is so strongly directed. Behind the lens this time around is Andrea Arnold, director of the beautifully gritty “American Honey” and heartbreaking “Fish Tank.” Moving away from the world of the downtrodden, Arnold captures wonderfully how “Big Little Lies” is at heart an acidic take on the rotten truth underneath the façade of suburban Monterey. School assembly meetings with parents feel like absurd rituals, everyone puts on a nice face even when delivering a stabbing comment. When Renata goes to see Gordon in jail she pounds on the glass of the visitor’s booth and yells, “I will not not be rich!” Madeline’s older daughter Kathryn (Kathryn Newton) doesn’t feel college is for her, which of course makes Madeline erupt and wonder if retail will be her offspring’s only viable future. When Kathryn informs her that she’s been offered a job at a startup to help the homeless, Madeline momentarily reveals her true self, yelling “I don’t give a shit about the homeless!” The timing and delivery are masterful, making us grin and also smirk. And yet Arnold keeps these characters likeable. We love them because they are oh so humanly flawed, like Nathan approaching Madeline’s husband Ed (Adam Scott) to see if he can talk to Bonnie and open her up. It’s almost pitiful considering Nathan was once married to Madeline.

Slumbering beneath all this domestic drama is the secret about Perry’s death the five women are hiding. Part of the suspense this season will be in waiting to see for just how long they can keep the truth from coming out. “Big Little Lies” is a deep and absorbing story about people inhabiting a shallow world. But like any cosmetic lifestyle, the gloss only masks what’s truly going on underneath. Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon, who have played roles of such varying degrees in their impressive careers, keep these characters alive with a razor-sharp edge and scorching emotions screaming for release. It’s also fun in its own, wicked sort of way. Some adaptations from strong bestsellers need not go on, because the wealth of the story was mined the first time around. But this new season of “Big Little Lies” proves there are more, dark riches to be had.

Big Little Lies” season two premieres June 9 and airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.