The first season of Big Little Lies was a tough, yet addictive watch. The complex lives of five women in Monterrey, California exemplified great drama. Based on the novel by Liane Moriarty, the HBO series featured a strong cast headlined by Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Shailene Woodley, Laura Dern, and Zoe Kravitz. To create a second season, Moriarty had to scrape together a new story beyond her book. The end result was a product that fell short of the first iteration with one exception: newcomer Meryl Streep.
This review contains spoilers of the first two seasons of Big Little Lies.
The story itself was not more than solid. The aftermath of Perry Wright’s death was anti-climatic. Following his “fall,” the Monterrey Five concocted a lie. An overzealous cop badgered the group. The cover-up trickled down into bankruptcy, affairs, and an unrealistic court sequence. Overall, it was not a surprise that drama involving Big Little Lies directors Andrea Arnold and Jean-Marc Vallée tore apart the show’s artistic style.
The implications of the group’s untruths had heavy consequences that were never a real threat. A compelling secondary story distracted from the scant plot: Perry’s mother. The good-intentioned mother-in-law from hell. Meryl Streep entered the show as the grieving Mary Louise Wright.
Writing Big Little Lies For Meryl Streep
The writing of Mary Louise Wright was essential to the continuation of the series. A necessity so critical that the character has Meryl Streep’s birth name (Mary Louise). In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Big Little Lies author Liane Moriarty discussed the character’s conception:
“When I was sort of agonizing over whether or not I should do it, it was actually my sister who said to me, ‘Only do it if it would be fun, and why not create a role for your favorite actor?’
It turns out that thespian is Meryl Streep. In the same piece, Streep admitted that she agreed to the part before reading the script. Moriarty also discussed how the actress adds magic in her roles.
“I’m just amazed that she makes somebody who wasn’t real before become a reality,” Moriarty says. “With her little gestures, there’s a person somehow. I hadn’t thought before about the craft of acting and how strong it really is.”
Meryl Streep: Masterclass
Despite the heavy star power of the returning cast, Meryl Streep’s delivery of Mary Louise Wright kept the show afloat. Mary Louise epitomized passive aggressiveness and decimated strong characters with slights. She especially rescued the back end of Season Two. The finale turned the series into a soap opera: an implausible child custody hearing served as an excuse for one final reunion with the specter of Perry Wright.
Perhaps because of Liane Moriarity’s fascination with the actress, Meryl Streep had a majority of the snappy lines. It was not just the writing. The creation of an intimidating mother-in-law had to be complex and lack an easy Cruella DeVille typecast to remain interesting.
Mary Louise was complicated. There was a lot of natural baggage in being the mother of a murdered rapist. She was not a black-and-white villain. She grieved for her son, denied his crimes, and cared for her grandchildren.
Of course, she stabbed her daughter-in-law in the back, shamed Celeste Wright’s friends, and lurked around her new grandchild without any pretense of permission. Streep’s performance elevated these moments with incredible minutia. Eye glances, diction, scheming, and her feint of innocence added to every scene.
“I will not not be rich.” – Renata Klein
Renata Klein’s line about her potential loss of wealth will go down as the lasting scene in Big Little Lies. Laura Dern, like the ensemble of co-leads, delivered her role with incredible conviction. She not only fleshed out the insecurity of her character, but the status that obscene wealth can provide. More than another other aspect of the show, Renata Klein’s indignation defined the world of Monterrey, California.
Just about every other memorable scene belonged to Meryl Streep.
It is no secret that Meryl Streep can act. The Academy Awards remind us of this every year. The amazing aspect of this performance is that she crafted the most dynamic character on a show with five other outstanding and established leads with a season to establish themselves. This is not a slight against the other actors. It is an acknowledgement of a Hall of Fame performance.
It was the reason to watch. The first season showcased great writing and amazing acting. Her character was the most developed aspect of Season Two of Big Little Lies. The remainder of the show was a bust without Meryl Streep. The little details in her performance made each episode worth tuning in for. Meryl Streep may have spent most of her career in film, but she nailed an all-time character. Apparently, Meryl Streep is good at television too.