There was a major occasion of female power here at the mid-season TV critics press Tour. It was cheerful, chatty and some awe was evident from the throng of quizzical journalists. It was the cast of HBO’s Big Little Lies, season two.
That means Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and Meryl Streep were all in attendance. That’s A-list and all women. Writer David E. Kelly who adapted the Lianne Moriarty novel for the sensationally strong first season in 2017, and wrote this new one, coming in June, based on new material provided by Moriarty, sat in the middle. Not forgotten. But certainly not the focal point.
Streep is the newcomer. And why is she in this TV series when she can pick and choose, with a rare kind of power, the work she does? Well, she says, she was part of the audience glued to, and admiring, the first season. “I loved this show,” she said. And she was saying “loved” with a very Streep-esque drawl. “I was addicted to it. I thought it was an amazing exercise in what we know and what we don’t know about people, how it flirted with the mystery of things. I just felt like I had something to give to this piece.”
As viewers will remember, season one ended with the killing of Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), the quietly abusive husband of Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman. Only the five main female characters, all mothers linked by secrets in the posh bourgeois setting, saw what happened. They decided to keep another shared secret about precisely what happened, it seems. And that is the engine of the new episodes. In season two, Streep plays Perry’s grieving and snooping mother, Mary Louise, arriving in the Monterey community to connect the dots and connect with Celeste.
And how might Celeste and Mary Louise connect? Streep hesitated, briefly. “So…the dynamic between Celeste and me? I mean… .” Then Kidman turned to Steep and cooed, “You love me.” Streep smiled. “I do love her,” Streep cooed back directly at Kidman’s face. Pause. “And that’s the only thing I’ll tell you about my character,” she fake-snarled, turning to the critics.
It was one damn fine show, watching these actors interact.
As for the show itself, the first season’s power was anchored in two things. First, the emphatic connectedness of these seemingly elusive women. Second, the magnificent direction of all the episodes by Canadian Jean-Marc Vallée. His stunning visual flair made everything both beautiful and seethingly malevolent. Now the director is English filmmaker Andrea Arnold, famous for the independent movies Red Road and Fish Tank. “It’s interesting having a woman,” Kidman made a point of saying. “You talk about the male gaze and the female gaze; obviously this is the female gaze.”
That is probably unfair to Vallée, whose framing of even banal scenes had a baroque quality, but this is categorically an all-women production and the cast glory in that.
Witherspoon went to some lengths to explain the distinctive female support-system among the cast. “Well, we’re definitely aware of each other’s personal lives. I would say that’s one real difference. I’ve never had this with a cast. Sometimes when I’d be at work and I was a young person with young children, I wouldn’t bring my young children to set, because it made me feel vulnerable. It made me feel like I was exposed and that no one was gonna be supporting me, maybe because I was needing to take care of a sick child. I never had that experience with this group of women. They did everything short of putting on a blonde wig and going out there and doing it for me [taking care of a child]. It was an incredible experience to be able to lean on each other. Even just express the feelings of guilt, or regret, or sadness, or excitement over something that happened in my personal life.”
All the cast nodded along with this sentiment. Streep, however, was more interested in talking about the impact of the series; the story the first season told about ostensibly tough women leading private lives of desperation. It came on the cusp of the #Metoo movement all reverberated with all that movement has revealed and meant.
“I’m not sure if a piece doesn’t meet its moment because there’s an incipient awareness, or a readiness, or the nerve endings are open to explore these issues. That, I’m not sure of,” she said. “This exploration of abuse and its provenance, where it comes from, why it continues, how people survive it, all those questions were in the air and this sort of, well, this piece fed something that was a hunger, that was a ready audience, I would say.”
Only Streep could summarize the impact of the first season with talk about ”incipient awareness.” It was, after all, a mystery story, told backwards, and brilliantly, about a death.
This coming season – the last, swear they all – might yet disappoint in terms of flair and mystery. We’ll see in June. But on this day, the phenomenon of Big Little Lies was all about female power. It was there, raging among the group of female stars talking up the show. And that was powerful enough in itself, for now.