Meryl Streep's emergence in Big Little Lies is a dark omen

by Diana Wichtel / 05 July, 2019
Meryl Streep as Mary Louise: a carnivorous overbite. Photo/Supplied

Meryl Streep as Mary Louise: a carnivorous overbite. Photo/Supplied

RelatedArticlesModule - Big Littles Lies season two

In Big Little Lies, there are so many thin, rich women in so much trouble. And it's only getting worse.

Mothers, again. Still. So much television drama revolves around women who are suboptimal parents. Big Little Lies, back for a schadenfreude-propelled second season – so many thin, rich women in so much trouble. What’s not to like? Monterey’s Otter Bay Elementary School principal fills in the new teacher. He’s black and marooned on a desert island of white privilege, where preposterously entitled Renata outlines his obligations to her child’s IQ. “I told you the second-grade mothers are Shakespearean,” sighs principal Nippal.

Well, the ladies are stressed. Last season, Alexander Skarsgård’s Perry, in a sick sex-and-violence-fuelled marriage with Nicole Kidman’s Celeste, ended up dead at the school fundraiser. Yoga teacher Bonnie pushed him downstairs as he was attacking Celeste, who was about to show some uncharacteristic sense and leave him.

The awful Renata, mixed-up Madeline and solo mum Jane, who last season realised Perry was the rapist who fathered her son, were there. The women agreed to make it seem like an accident. Truth would have sufficed, given that it was an accident, sort of, and Perry was a very bad egg. But would television drama even exist if characters paused to think things through?

This season amps up the camp. Laura Dern’s Renata does an extended mad scene as she learns that her idiot husband is into fraud as well as model trains. He’s lost everything. “I will not not be rich!” she screams, hurling furious double negatives at a universe that clearly owes her. Her friends are more worried about how to live with the big little lie about Perry’s “accident”.

Enter Meryl Streep as Mary Louise, Perry’s mother. She has come to “help” Celeste. Streep sports a false overbite she had made so she looked more like Skarsgård’s mother. On him – he appears in flashback and nightmares – it’s sexy, on her, carnivorous.

Mary Louise is a symphony of passive aggression in a disapproving bob and sensible shoes. See her accelerate smoothly from purring grandmotherly sympathy – “You feel angry,” she says to Celeste’s fatherless twins – to full, wailing banshee. She feels angry, too, she muses, when she sees her friends and their sons. “Mediocre, second rate, pudgy, balding … Still alive and my Perry … I just want to scream.” Streep then emits a possibly career-defining noise that sounds so vocal-cord-shredding you hope she managed it first take. Celeste’s face conveys horror and a startled respect for a superior drama queen. The scene has gone viral.

Yet Streep allows us to glimpse Mary Louise’s grief. Her performance is comic and chilling, with an undertow of anguish. This season is like that, constantly pulling up just short of cartoonish. That it can be this silly and still affecting is down to the children – excellent performances all round. They are the real protagonists, trying to sort big lies from little; struggling to be seen by parents busy self-medicating with money, power and/or toxic relationships. “You will not be like him!” shrieks Celeste – sub-Streep screaming – as she pushes one of her boys, whose aggression reminds her of Perry, to the ground.

Teenage Abigail isn’t taking her mother Madeline’s advice on going to college. Who can blame her? “You were f---ing the theatre director last year,” Abigail points out. Madeline’s put-upon second husband, Ed, overhears. “You misheard,” says Madeline, adding another little lie. Ed picks up his jacket. Madeline: “Where are you going?” Ed: “To get my ears tested.”

But all subplots pale beside the main event. Mary Louise suspects there’s more to her son’s death. She’s got a beady eye on the mothers, especially Celeste. Cracks are beginning to show. The second episode’s title – Tell-Tale Hearts – evokes Edgar Allan Poe’s great story of the destabilising effect on the mind of a guilty secret. Strap yourself in for a bumpy ride.

BIG LITTLE LIES, Soho 2, Monday, 8.30pm.

This article was first published in the July 6, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.


Bruce Springsteen’s cinematic new album heads into cowboy country
108195 2019-07-22 00:00:00Z Music

Bruce Springsteen’s cinematic new album heads into…

by James Belfield

The stars in the title of Bruce Springsteen’s 19th album aren’t just those shining down on the hardscrabble American lives that have long inhabited...

Read more
What you need to know about your vitamin D levels in winter
108187 2019-07-22 00:00:00Z Health

What you need to know about your vitamin D levels…

by Nicky Pellegrino

Vitamin D is essential for bone health, and exposure to winter sun is a good way to maintain it.

Read more
Humans aren't designed to be happy – so stop trying
108639 2019-07-22 00:00:00Z Psychology

Humans aren't designed to be happy – so stop tryin…

by Rafael Euba

Chasing the happiness dream is a very American concept, exported to the rest of the world through popular culture.

Read more
Kiwi pies filling gap in Chinese market
108684 2019-07-22 00:00:00Z Food

Kiwi pies filling gap in Chinese market

by Siobhan Downes

If you’re ever in China and find yourself hankering for a pie, one Kiwi couple has you covered.

Read more
Bill Ralston: We're in for fireworks if John Banks runs for mayor
108531 2019-07-21 00:00:00Z Politics

Bill Ralston: We're in for fireworks if John Banks…

by Bill Ralston

If John Banks joins Auckland’s mayoral race, there's a chance he could rise from the political dead.

Read more
Once were Anzacs: The epic history of Māori soldiers in WWI
108382 2019-07-21 00:00:00Z History

Once were Anzacs: The epic history of Māori soldie…

by Peter Calder

The role of Māori soldiers in World War I has long been relegated to footnotes, but a major new work by historian Monty Soutar re-examines their...

Read more
The new Lion King lacks the original's claws
108533 2019-07-21 00:00:00Z Movies

The new Lion King lacks the original's claws

by Russell Baillie

A naturalistic remake of the 1994 Disney hit cartoon musical will bring in the dough, but it just doesn't quite work.

Read more
50th moon landing anniversary: New Zealand's forgotten Nasa legend
108468 2019-07-20 00:00:00Z History

50th moon landing anniversary: New Zealand's forgo…

by Peter Griffin

Today marks 50 years since humans landed on the Moon, a feat achieved thanks to Kiwi scientist William Pickering and his team.

Read more