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Big Little Lies, once a show that delved into physical, emotional, and generational trauma of mostly well-off white women through impressionistic flashbacks and near-constant images of crashing waves, has lost its unique ability to tell its story. Coming off the heels of her husband Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgard) death, Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman) and the so-called Monterey Five — the women who witnessed Perry’s fatal fall — must grapple with their roles as wives, mothers, lovers, and career women while harboring a dark secret. As Celeste attempts to move on, her mother-in-law Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), is intent on exposing Celeste as the strumpet she thinks she is. While it’s no great revelation that Big Little Lies has seen better days, I am still unmoored by the ways in which the show all but abandoned one of its most effective cinematic tools: music.
The trouble with the second season ostensibly began when HBO decided to renew a standalone miniseries even though the show itself had run out of both its source material and any sense of narrative propulsion. To add insult to injury, the perception of the series became one akin to wrestling matchups — MERYL vs. NICOLE; LAURA DERN vs. THE WORLD — which aren’t particularly productive when you’re trying to tell a story about the pervasive rot of masculinity, aided by our justice system and even affirmed by some women.
One of the ways that Big Little Lies managed to toe the line between serious drama and soap opera in the original season was its commitment to music. Most film and television relies on a mixed bag of sound techniques to communicate mood, tension, and character traits. Oftentimes film scoring takes the front seat — the audience hears music that the characters cannot — and we’re left with an emotionally manipulative piano solo or an anxiety-inducing violin screech.
In the first season of Big Little Lies, diegetic music took the front seat — meaning we hear what the characters hear. In a show that’s simultaneously features murder, sexual assualt, family drama, and women — the last two of which are often under the purview of less “serious” television because there’s not a lot of room for a typical male anti-hero in those spaces — Big Little Lies understood that its stylistic choices must render these women’s lives palpable. By coercing the viewer into a space where their environment is the same environment as the characters’, music became a world-building tool and a thematic device. Music was the key to unlock a nuanced portrait of women on the brink.
Last season, we were treated with Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) spinning in rage to the B52’s ”Dance this Mess Around;” a melancholic drive with Madeline Martha McKenzie (Reese Witherspoon) along the cliffs of Monterey with Alabama Shakes’s “The Feeling” injecting the gray veneer of the Bay Area with a dose of introspection; Bonnie Carlson (Zoe Kravitz) singing a rendition of Elvis’s “Don’t” in a minor key; Celeste swaying to Charles Bradley’s “Victim of Love,” a dirge that is equal parts maddening in its repetition as it is devastating in its circularity. Each character’s playlist pointed to their worldview as much as it offered us narrative clues about this seemingly perfect world.
Children, in the first season at least, were susceptible to all the contradictions of the world, no matter how hard their helicopter parents tried to shelter them. Madeline’s daughter Chloe (Darby Camp) was the music savant who, at six years old, translated complicated adult psychology into spot-on music choices. Her preternatural ability to read the room was the vehicle by which Big Little Lies’s soundtrack came to life in the first season, but is far less utilized in the second. Chloe, sensing an inability to find words for her mother’s bourgeois malaise, queues Janis Joplin’s “Ball and Chain” in season one, episode five. In an attempt to get two kids (her dueling parents) to kiss and make up in the second season’s finale, Chloe plays “River” by Leon Bridges.
Absent in the new season, apart from a clear reason to exist, is the ability to use music as an anchor to bring the show down to the real world. The emotional core of this season oscillated between two notes — guilt or rage. Guilt at being responsible for someone’s death, for cheating on your spouse, for not being emotionally or physically available. Rage at the prospect of one’s own children turning into monsters, at the prospect of one’s own children being taken away, at a husband who loses his wife’s entire fortune. While these psychological investigations created interesting moments on screen, they simply read as an excuse — which I ate up — for Meryl Streep, Shailene Woodley, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, and Reese Witherspoon to share the screen. Music was tamer and almost too on the nose — after Mary Louise triumphed in court, the song Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” played loudly through her speakers to say what? That Mary Louise is smug?
The flattening of previously full characters may be the biggest loss of this season. We scarcely explored Bonnie’s Blackness, even in relation to music; we never scratched the surface of Celeste’s liaisons; and the downfall of Renata Klein (Laura Dern) veered into a nearly cartoonish sing along to Diana Ross’s “It’s My House.” That’s not to say there haven’t been transcendent moments this season. The best storyline featured Madeline’s fallout from her adultery, as her husband Ed (Adam Scott) grew more embittered as the season went on. In a valiant attempt to remind her husband why he fell in love with her in the first place, Madeline, in a fit of absurdity, dons her wedding dress and prances to the Tears for Fears cover of “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.” The crazed moment said more about Madeline and Ed’s relationship than the rest of the entire season. Their relationship was a fantasy, rooted in the dream that marital bliss would last forever.
The last season ended with a number of ruptured fantasies. The final montage, set against a Creedence Clearwater Revival cover of “Have You Ever Seen the Rain,” cuts between the death of Bonnie’s mother; a renewal of Madeline and Ed’s marriage vows; Jane’s reclamation of her sexual autonomy after a traumatizing assault; Mary Louise returning to San Francisco. The music we hear is playing from Celeste’s speakers as she deletes videos of her abusive husband from her computer, a definitive step toward closure. As the episode winds down, we see Bonnie leading the Monterey Five to confess their cover-up to the police. I suppose the anticlimax of the Monterey Five moving on with their lives, played in tandem with a song that adequately portrays their states of mind, was the end of my fantasy for a propulsive ending.
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