“What Have They Done?” gets the second season off to a promising and intriguing start.
This Big Little Lies Season 2 Episode 1 recap for the episode titled “What Have They Done?” contains spoilers.
With the television landscape being what it is, only very rarely can a show be successful and then simply end — even if it feels like it should. Big Little Lies boasted an all-star cast, chewed through the Liane Moriarty novel upon which it was based, ended appropriately and then, it seemed, was content to just be gone. Now, two years later, it’s back. And against all the odds, it’s second season premiere, “What Have They Done?”, managed to convince us — well, me, anyway — that perhaps its return wasn’t an entirely bad idea after all.
Just as you can’t bury a successful show, Big Little Lies season 2 operates on the principle that you can’t bury the truth, either. After causing and then covering up the death of the abusive Perry in the previous season, the Monterey Five — Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley), Renata Klein (Laura Dern), and Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), blimey, that cast! — have more or less gotten away with it. Or have they?
Of course, there wouldn’t be a second season if they had. And since it’s here, we might as well make the most of it. As the liars are reintroduced, recognizable but slightly off-kilter, “What Have They Done?” makes a case for itself; not just as a continuation of the mystery of who’ll take the fall, but as an examination of guilt, particularly among women, who assume complicity of violence not just committed by them but also against them. Celeste is still tellingly haunted not just by her husband’s death but by his abuses when he was alive; Bonnie has withdrawn almost completely, consumed by her guilt.
Perhaps without a catalyst, this would all blow over. After all, the police are at a loss. Lingering suspicions might remain, but without proof, they’re no good. The complication is the new addition to the cast, Celeste’s mother-in-law Mary Louise, played with absolute relish by Meryl Streep, who has here achieved some kind of peak final form version of herself. She’s sitting on a geyser of sass, ready to unleash it in furious torrents at any moment. Her mere presence is enough justification for a second season, and “What Have They Done?” delights in her as a walking, talking fountain of tension.
That and the show’s underlying construction is as top-quality as ever. It knows how to be funny in amongst its seriousness and how to be subtle as well as dramatic. One gets the sense that it’d be entertaining enough to follow these people around even if they weren’t involved in someone’s death. Where it might all go is anyone’s guess. But for now, the journey seems justified.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.