‘Big Little Lies’ Season 2 Finale Settles for a Quiet Climax 

Courtrooms and reckonings is how HBO ended the second and quite possibly final season of “Big Little Lies.” There’s more to it than that of course, but while many viewers were expecting some kind of bombastic, twisty closure what they instead get was something more subtle. It was always going to be a tricky proposition to keep this story going with the full energy of the first season, mostly because all of Liane Moriarty’s novel was covered the first time around. But what this finale might have lacked in thrills it still made up for with heart and performances that elevated the material.

The finale esisode “I Want to Know” brings the story to a climax in that most American of institutions, court. Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is engaged in a custody battle with quietly malevolent mother-in-law Mary (Meryl Streep), who wants to take away Celeste’s boys Josh and Max (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). Despite the danger, it is a chance for Celeste to finally force Mary to face the fact that her dead son Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) was a serial abuser. The other women in this triangle are also reaching key points in their own lives. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is trying to figure out if her marriage with Ed (Adam Scott) is salvageable. At the hospital Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) watches as her mother slips away, after she had previously made some very personal confessions regarding how she felt towards her the night she and the others pushed Perry to his death. Jane (Shailene Woodley) seems to find peace of mind and genuine love with a co-worker. Renata (Laura Dern) is finding her footing again with deadbeat husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling), who left her with nothing following his own arrest for shady business dealings and is trying to sell off his fancy toys. Yet hovering over every conscience in this show is that fateful night, when the women freed Celeste from a terrible man and in doing so have carried the weight of their actions.

The first, quite masterful season of “Big Little Lies” worked like the portrait of a group which then climaxed with a sudden murder. This second season, directed by Andrea Arnold, dealt with much of the psychological aftermath. Writer/producer David E. Kelley, long experienced with sharp, fast-moving TV going back to his days behind “The Practice” and “Ally McBeal,” avoided some real narrative land mines. He could have easily expanded this into an even more bombastic murder thriller, akin to the wild turns still going on in “The Affair.” Instead season two has focused even more on how these women operate in dealing with life’s pressures while keeping their collective secret about Perry’s death. The guilt bleeds into Bonnie dealing with her dying mother, into Madeline’s marital dilemmas and Renata’s own, more cosmetic issues having to do with losing all her millions. The center is Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman with a powerful vulnerability, depending on her friends’ loyalty while expertly caging in Mary in court. 

“I Want to Know” doesn’t become a mere, John Grisham-style battle of lawyers however. It culminates in a scene of emotional nakedness, where Celeste confronts Mary with the reality that Perry was violent with her, and even more piercingly, that his behavior was a result of the way Mary raised him. Streep, demonstrating again why she’s such a legend, shrivels into pathetic defensiveness, calling Celeste a liar. Kidman is up to her level in acting here, raising the stakes as she reveals Perry himself told her about Mary blaming him for the car accident that killed his brother as a child. Streep’s Mary was always a classic profile in the hypocrisy of the self-righteous, and here she is stripped down emotionally. When Celeste plays a video Josh and Max secretly recorded of Perry beating her, it drops like a silent atom bomb. 

The finale has several moments like this, where emotional and personal reckonings take place with a subtle strength. There’s no need for recycling thriller clichés, this show was always noteworthy for the characters it built. Ed re-proposes to Madeline, warning her this isn’t just about letting bygones be bygones, but about completely starting over. Bonnie not only finds peace with her mother, snuggling next to her in her hospital bed, she also tells husband Nathan (James Tupper) that she never really loved him. It’s not said with shallow melodrama, but with the wistful sadness of someone simply and finally telling a necessary truth. The weakest storyline is Jane, possibly because her romance is the one handled the most like regular TV fare, we even get a kiss in front of a grand aquarium. The most fun closure in this episode most definitely belongs to Renata, who earlier in the season caught Gordon seducing the maid and now gets full revenge. He sells his fancy train set and other collectibles to a collector, boasting about the payoff. Renata responds by smashing it all to pieces with a baseball bat, at one point even Gordon gets a much-deserved swipe.

“Big Little Lies” ends with notes both high and haunted. Celeste retains custody of her sons, who also give Mary a hug to show that it needn’t be this way, and the five women decide to make their way to the police station. It is time for them to face together the consequences for covering up that Bonnie killed Perry. This show could have ended conventionally, or it could have expanded its secret to soap opera levels, but it didn’t. It was always about the characters. HBO’s president Casey Bloys has hinted that a third season is unrealistic at the moment. If that’s the case then “Big Little Lies” is ending on just the right note. A quiet final shot makes sense, because that is the nature of secrets, hidden but full of great meaning.

Big Little Lies” season two finale aired July 21 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.