Big Little Lies Isn’t Going to End Well for Meryl Streep
After six tense weeks filled with secrets and family turmoil, Big Little Lies is set to take its final bow this Sunday night with the appropriately titled episode, “I Want to Know.” The series was generously given a second season and it’s been a doozy. With the addition of Meryl Streep as Mary Louise, the meddling mother of Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), and Laura Dern delivering pure female rage that feels almost too on-the-nose, this season has been, dare I say, better than the first.
While we’ve watched as the newly minted Monterey Five have dealt with the fallout of season one, viewers have becoming antsy anticipating Bonnie’s inevitable breakdown. The Zoe Kravitz character has sure been making it seem like she’s going to create catastrophe by turning herself into the police for pushing Perry down the steps. However, it seems as if the police aren’t who Bonnie needed to confess to.
In episode 6, “The Bad Mother,” we watch as Bonnie struggles to write down exactly what she was feeling as she sits by her mother’s hospital bedside. Throughout the season, we’ve learned more about Bonnie’s troubled past, including the abuse she felt at her mother’s hand, how she found it hard to feel loved and, ultimately, how both lead her to see Perry’s abuse and race to push back not at him, as she explains, but at all that her mother had put her through. Bonnie reads the note to her mother, explaining each of her life’s resentments as well as the confession. Here’s why that’s where Bonnie’s unburdening is going to end.
First, the camera catches her face seeming relieved by the admission and it looks almost immediately like all the catharsis and chest-clearing she needed. For her to take that another step further and turn herself into the police would not be true to the character’s rebellious and self-protective spirit, plus it would be too neat, too easy, for a show built on keeping us guessing. Bonnie’s frequent strolls by the police station make it too easy to assume she’s planning to unravel the big lie — she was really just testing her emotional limits and deciding what truth to tell to whom. Now, she’s done what she needed to.
It won’t be Bonnie that winds up cracking in the end: it’ll be Mary Louise.
“The Bad Mother” focuses primarily on the hearing that happens after Celeste refuses Mary Louise’s terms during mediation in episode 5, “Kill Me.” Celeste takes the stand as the women watch from the gallery. Mary Louise’s lawyer, played by Denis O’Hare, questions her first about the state of their marriage and the abuse. He then quickly asks, “Was it ever thrilling? Did the physical violence ever lead to sex?”
When she answers that it did, he replies back, “You were aroused by the violence.” This line of questioning was obviously discussed beforehand between Mary Louise and her lawyer as a ploy to prove that Celeste somehow gained perverse pleasure from the abuse, and that’s why she never told anyone about it. “Do you miss the violence? Did he beat you up often? Did you ever tell anybody? You never told anybody that your husband was hurting you?” Celeste maintains that she was protecting herself and her children by not reporting the abuse, as she was afraid to see what Perry would do if she had.
He then pulls up a photo asking if she knew the man in it and if she had sex with him. He pulls up another and another. With the photos of the different men Celeste has inevitably slept with, it’s made clear that Mary Louise had hired a private investigator to follow Celeste before she even had had probable cause to suspect her mental health (or parenting) was struggling. Before Mary Louise had confronted Celeste about all of the prescriptions in her bathroom in episode 2, “Tell-Tale Hearts” and before she told her that she seems unwell and is worried for the twins.
This proves just how calculating Mary Louise has been from the very start. Only 15 minutes or so before, after Jane confronts Corey about being at the police station, the scene cut to Celeste’s interrogation tapes and the screen cuts out to reflect Mary Louise with Detective Quinlan. It allows us to deduce that Mary Louise, who lives in the same complex as Jane, had seen her spending more time with Corey and told the detective to call him in for questioning. By bringing Corey in and telling him that whoever cracks first will get a deal while the others are screwed, both Quinlan and Mary Louise are casting more paranoia into the group.
And then there’s the two-sided act she may not be able to uphold. Mary Louise has spent the entire season speaking one way to most people, and a completely different way to Madeline (Reese Witherspoon). In the first two episodes, she tells Madeline that she doesn’t trust short people, that she reminded her of an old schoolmate who had tortured her, and that she was a bully. She echoes these sentiments, in nicer terms, to Celeste later in the episode and reminds Celeste that she’s mistaken in trusting their friendship. It’s an attempt to drive a wedge between the two friends because, similar to what Perry tried to do in season 1, it would isolate Celeste and make her more pliable for Perry or now his mother to get what they want. For Perry, it was to control Celeste. For Mary Louise, it’s been to take the children from her since she arrived in town.
Celeste knows exactly what she’s doing by saying Mary Louise should take the stand — questioned by Celeste herself — in order for the judge to see both sides fairly. She knows that before the abuse, her kids, before she was married, she was a damn good lawyer. We’re only offered a glimpse into this previous version of Celeste in season 1 when she slips back into her skirt suit in order to help Madeline and the community theater with their production of Avenue Q. Of course, Perry raged against her even slipping back into her professional persona temporarily to help a friend, but we also saw a version of Celeste that didn’t cower. She was confident and didn’t allow the mayor or Renata to bulldoze her or Madeline’s requests. Celeste knew she was good at what she did, despite the unsure footing she’s had for all of season 2, and she’s going to draw on that confidence in her capabilities as a lawyer to absolutely destroy Mary Louise on the stand.
That energy is what Celeste intends to bring to the next phase of the hearing. By saying that she needed to be the one to question Mary Louise, she’s claiming the power, and the edge she needs to expose her. She knows Mary Louise in a way that neither lawyers do. She puts together the pieces of what Mary Louise has been doing with the PI and how she provoked her into slapping her in episode 3, and having Corey called in to relay specific information to Jane — and she seems to understand where Perry got his dangerously controlling nature from. Like mother, like son.
The shock on Mary Louise’s face, it’s clear she had no intention of pleading her side. She knew that so long as she remained calm and provided the proper evidence, she was in the clear. But Celeste is a professional and knows that she has to play this right, that she has to phrase the questions correctly in order to expose her. Most importantly, she knows to ask Mary Louise about the fatal accident Perry’s brother faced.
In “Tell-Tale Hearts” Mary Louise discusses how she had already dealt with the loss of her other son Raymond to a fatal accident. It’s said in passing with very little information beyond that. We hear it mentioned again via flashback where Perry says that he lost a brother when he was five. Then, over coffee in “She Knows,” Mary Louise elaborates by discussing the fall out with her husband rather than the incident itself. “Yes, he blamed me, and he left. And I deserved the blame, to be left.”
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As this has been referenced three times, but never fully discussed, we’re left to assume that this will play a larger role in Mary Louise’s questioning. Under oath, she can’t lie, and Celeste knows that. If she believes she deserved the blame for the accident, is it because she knows Perry was the one who did it? Or was she so rough on her children that it was an accident that she caused? Will the clarity surrounding the mysterious accident going to provide vital information into who Perry was and who Mary Louise is?
With the finale looming, it’s safe to say that they didn’t hire the iconic Meryl Streep just to fidget her necklace and then fade into the background with some stolen kids. That would be tying too neat a bow on a second season that was only even created because the surprise ending of the first season was too good for fans to leave behind. Mary Louise lost one son to a mysterious accident and her other son grew up to be abusive and a rapist. What we’ll view on Sunday will be something both explosive and satisfying. Nicole Kidman’s Celeste will claim her power and explode from herself in the courtroom. And when all of Mary Louise’s cards are laid bare, we’ll know exactly why they cast Meryl Streep.