Between HBO’s masterful handling of Barry’s second season and a strong start to Big Little Lies’ sophomore effort, it may be time to retire the old tv cliche of “Sophomore Slumps.”
The first episode of season two of the adaptation of Liane Moriarty’s novel returns with the same brooding mysterious tone as season one and looks to add to the already compelling characters and storylines developed in that first go around. Everything the show did right in 2017, it does right again while adding more to the mix. The performances are still spot on, the direction is still subtly brilliant, and the writing is tight in the best way possible. Very little in this season premiere feels extraneous and very much feels apt to be analyzed over and over again. For example, I could write this entire review on nothing more than the metaphors and not-so-subtle double meanings within the octopus scene alone (e.g. “females contain deadly venom”, “why is it the prettier something is, the more dangerous?”) I will not, but I could. As far as performances go, everyone who was great still is. Reese Witherspoon is still phenomenal as Madeline, and Nicole Kidman is refined but endlessly fascinating as a maybe grieving, maybe haunted Celeste. The whole cast is giving varied and exciting performances, but the one thing they all have in common is that their best moments from the premiere are those in which they are able to share the screen with Meryl Streep. As the newest addition to the cast, Streep plays Mary Louise, mother of the late Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), and is incredible. More cliche than a sophomore slump is a “Meryl Streep is a good actor rant” so I’ll spare you, but her transformation into a grieving mother is something to behold. Her dinner table scream alone will give you chills.
Maybe one of the biggest unsung heroes of the show (if there is such a thing for a show this acclaimed) is Jean-Marc Vallée’s direction. In the same vein as the octopus scene, I could fill up a page discussing all the interesting directing choices in this episode. I do, however, find one scene in particular worthy of a closer look. Celeste’s return to therapy offers an interesting and not so subtle framing of her mindset. The therapist, being shot in a basic medium shot, is juxtaposed with Celeste in an unnecessary wide. The entire couch is in view, and the clever set design features two pillows that push our eyed towards the unnaturally large empty space on the couch. This shot choice pushes us to notice Perry is gone. We feel the hole he has left and then, in a great moment of editing, we get our first close on Nicole Kidman with a match cut on the dialogue line “your husband is dead.”
The debut of season two is packed with subtle nods such as this one. The writing is constantly winking at us in the best kind of way, and there are endless examples of it. Instances like Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) opening up to Madeline about the guilt she feels for killing Perry and the next line being Madeline half-heartedly and disingenuously saying “I’m sorry I pushed you”, Mary Louise basically raising Celeste’s sons (because we all know how well she did the last time she raised a man), and of course the brilliant ending. All the development of Streep’s character through the first episode comes to a head when we realize she got the small little clue she needed and after everything we are told about her, we know she isn’t going to let go. And neither will we.
- The ongoing bit of Mary Louise disapprovingly noticing Madeline’s height is hilariously well done, capped off by Mary Louise pointing out Madeline’s heels and Madeline countering by choosing to stand rather than sit when addressing her.
- Was that kiss on the head intentionally awkward from Celeste to Bonnie? A thanks for killing my abusive husband kiss? Renata’s (Laura Dern) reaction certainly said something about it.
- It seems the writers finally realized they have one of modern comedy’s great straight men in Adam Scott at their disposal and are utilizing him well early on. His conversation with a recently “enhanced” woman at the supermarket is a clinic in getting a laugh with your eyes. It was almost as if someone dropped Ben Wyatt in Monterey Beach.