[Editor’s note: The following review contains spoilers for “Big Little Lies” Season 2, Episode 2, “Tell-Tale Hearts.”]
If any scene in the second episode of “Big Little Lies” came close to replicating the peculiar allure of Meryl Streep’s scream from the first episode, it was when Zoe Kravitz name-dropped part of the show’s title. Freaked out and exhausted from trying to cope with it on her own, Bonnie (Kravitz) tells Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) yet again that she’s not OK.
“Sometimes I wake up at night in a sweat with this feeling — it’s going to get us,” Bonnie says.” “It’s going to get us all.”
“What are you talking about?” Madeline asks, already knowing the answer.
Now, is that line a touch heavy-handed? Yes. Is it overtly ominous in the kind of pre-meditated manner of speaking most people don’t actually use? It leans that way, sure. And of all people, would Bonnie — an introverted yoga instructor who thinks walking on the side of the road is the same as going for a hike — drop such a tasty morsel of provocative melodrama? No, I don’t think she would.
But it’s a great line! It’s a great line, in part, because it works in spite of all the reasons it shouldn’t. It’s a great line because the internet should have a bit of fun replacing her two-word response with silly alternatives, and it’s also a great line because it defines the new breed of storytelling at play in “Big Little Lies.” No longer a murder-mystery, Season 2 is a heartbreaking cover-up, intent on watching the Monterey Five wrestle with the lies they’ve told.
Maybe it won’t be the lie Bonnie’s talking about — there are plenty to choose from — but Episode 2, “Tell-Tale Hearts,” makes it very clear their guilty consciences or other distressing emotional issues will manifest in problems both little and big.
Let’s take a look at the lies, shall we? First off, even though she provides no “Scream 2” or instant classic meme, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) remains the critical point of conflict. Just look at how she swings innocent confessions into damaging attacks. First, when Celeste (Nicole Kidman) tries to defend Madeline, Mary manages to spin it into a critique on Celeste’s parenting. “Did I ever tell you she once saved Max from drowning?” she asks. “Really?” Mary replies, in a way that makes you think she’s coming around to Celeste’s point of view. But then she takes a beat: “Huh.” And then… “Where were you?”
Attack! This manipulation of truth sets up a much more critical interpretation later on, when Mary finds out about Ziggy (Iain Armitage), aka her “other grandson,” and is then told of how Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) came to be his father — aka, raping Jane (Shailene Woodley). Any mother would have a hard time believing such atrocities were hidden from her, let alone that her son was capable of them, but Mary has been given enough reason to doubt Celeste already. She knows she was planning to leave Perry. She knows Celeste found out about the affair seconds before Perry “tripped.” For good measure, she applies the ol’ infuriating standby of blaming the victim for not going to the cops “if” she was being physically assaulted.
It’s all too much for Mary Louise to take in, but the big little lies are adding up! Now, with Mary Louise moving to an apartment nearby and establishing residency, she could try to wrestle custody from Celeste. In this episode alone, Mary can testify to Celeste driving under the influence and shoving her son to the ground. She’s a scary opponent, and any more lies — especially the lie — could push her away for good.
But the real heartbreak came elsewhere. First, Jane’s explanation to Ziggy of who his dad was and how he came to be born is incredibly frank and understated. From Woodley turning her face away from her son when she’s forced to tell him the truth, to having to keep going when he misunderstands the word “assaulted,” it all churns forward in a gut-wrenching yet authentic evolution. By the time we see the half-brothers meet for the first time, knowing they’re half-brothers, it’s a tragic kind of bittersweet. Sure, it’s great they’re getting to know each other this early in life, but as the lies keep stacking up, it’s hard to shake the feeling plenty of damage has already been done to these young boys.
Finally, the surprising emotional whopper hit when Ed (Adam Scott) walks in on Madeline talking about her affair. Already steaming from being kept in the dark about Ziggy’s father, Ed explodes, storming out and returning to tell Madeline he thinks they’re done. It’s hard to blame him, given the way he’s been treated, but the tears sneak up on you a bit. Ed and Madeline are far from the ideal couple. They’re not even a couple we’re meant to be rooting for; if anything, their fallout has been set up since her affair in Season 1, and Madeline’s focus has been on her relationship with her daughters more than Ed.
But their fight hits home, and Scott deserves a lot of credit for it. David E. Kelley writes a good speech with a great build, but Scott nails Ed’s tricky shifts in thought — from emphasizing Madeline’s betrayal by keeping secrets from him, specifically, to making sure she knows he considers Abigail (Kathryn Newton) to be his daughter, too — downshifting without sounding recited, and gearing up for that final line, “I think we’re done!” with an authority found within his shaky voice. For all the great cast members leading “Big Little Lies,” the bench is deep, too, and Scott steps up.
By the end of the hour, everyone has seen a lie catch up to them in a big way (including Laura Dern’s Renata, who got dealt a rough fantasy courtroom scene and still managed to make her arc resonate). Now, the only question is when they all get got for good.
“Big Little Lies” airs new episodes Sundays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.