This review contains spoilers for the season finale of “Big Little Lies,” Season Two.
Let’s be honest: Mary Louise was never going to gain custody of Celeste’s twins. Not on “Big Little Lies,” which has thus far proved to dispense feminist fairy tales of empowerment and motherhood like candy, particularly in its predictable, yet aesthetically erratic second season. Approaching the season finale, a few key questions remained among viewers, chief among them the question of just how exceptionally Celeste would put Mary Louise through the ringer on the witness stand (the answer: maybe not RBG level, but pretty damn close).
Why, then, was its season finale so bittersweet? The existence of a second season was already a fraught enterprise. No source material existed for a second season (writer Liane Moriarty penned a novella, on which showrunner David E. Kelley based the teleplays), which meant that an addendum to the canonical narrative was never in the original plan, and it showed. Essentially, Season Two was one long epilogue to an already closed story. Good television can’t run on fan service alone. Add behind-the-scenes directing drama to the mix, and it’s a perfect recipe for HBO’s hottest mess.
As far as season finales go, “I Want to Know” is remarkably anticlimactic. The court case contains the most monumental plot twists, per Kelley’s track record for legal drama. Celeste wins her guardianship case after revealing that Mary Louise’s careless driving resulted in the death of her son, then going on to surprise the court with evidence, a shaky video of her abuse at the hands of her late husband, filmed by one of her sons. It’s fairly incontrovertible evidence, despite Mary Louise’s feeble final monologue, and the judge reasonably grants custody to Celeste; Mary Louise departs the scene, last shown driving back to San Francisco. Last week’s arguments remain: reasonable commentary, enjoyable feminist wish fulfillment, but unscintillating television.
Perhaps the only other subplot worth dissecting resolves itself with a deus ex machina: As Bonnie prepares to euthanize her comatose mother, she suffers another stroke, this one fatal. Other critics have already comprehensively pointed out the foibles of “Big Little Lies”’ characterization of Bonnie — namely the ways in which the show’s writers have fallen short in their depictions of black women — and “I Want to Know” offers little insight or resolution, opting instead to ellide Bonnie’s interiority entirely, save for a few ambiguous flashbacks (editor Jean-Marc Vallée’s signature). Bonnie’s drowning, it turns out, was merely figurative; she “drowns” in her guilt, her outsider status, and so on, while neither dialogue, nor camera ever quite understand her with the sympathy they offer Celeste or even Madeline.
Bonnie ultimately saves herself, both by breaking off her marriage to Nathan and by finally confessing the truth to the police; the final shot sees the five women, united by a sham friendship and a lie, walking determinedly into the station. (Barring the ethical gray area of shoving Perry down the stairs, this means that Celeste committed perjury by lying under oath, which should affect her custody verdict, right?)
Oh, do we even care about the other subplots at this point? Jane forgives Corey for no apparent reason besides general plot resolution, and she finally feels comfortable enough to be intimate again. Madeline and Ed reconcile with a beachside vow renewal, officiated by Chloe and Abigail. Renata goes to town on her husband’s train set with a bat and delivers one final, withering, GIF-able one-liner (“Maybe if you had shown a woman a little respect!”). Each plot-line receives, in Ed’s words, some variety of a “put a ribbon on it, bygones be bygones ending,” which feel less like emotionally satisfying resolutions and more like tidy conclusions for the sake of a season finale.
So where does this leave “Big Little Lies”? Hopefully, without a third season. If anything, Season Two proved how disastrous an extra season can be if it’s unmerited, even with compelling original material and a star-studded cast list. That’s especially disappointing, considering that its first season offered an impressive slate of high-profile actresses a chance to portray some of the most dynamic female characters on-screen. “We aren’t just the wives and the girlfriends,” Reese Witherspoon, credited as a producer, explained her motivation to greenlight the show. “We are living, breathing people.”
Admittedly, it’s a victory that “Big Little Lies” was able to normalize female-driven narratives as an artistically meritorious subject matter. Yet a subpar second season tinges that achievement, at least slightly, with disappointment. If Season One embraced female characters as dimensional, flawed, and human, then Season Two reduced them to incomplete caricatures and revoked their status as “living, breathing people.” Perhaps that’s the most shocking murder of the whole show.
— Staff writer Caroline A. Tsai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.