Nothing about “Big Little Lies” demanded an encore, although the casting of Meryl Streep — and reuniting of the big-name cast — provoked understandable excitement about the return of the Emmy-winning limited series.
Yet after a solid start — exploring how the members of the “Monterey Five” would deal, individually and collectively, with the aftermath of those explosive, fatal events — the narrative began feeling a trifle aimless. Controversy about the behind-the-scenes relationships — and specifically, whether the producers undermined the contribution of director Andrea Arnold — only magnified those perceptions.
With all of that as context, expectations for the finale, which aired Sunday night, went from being too high to perhaps unreasonably low. In the final analysis, an episode that spent much of its time in the courtroom yielded a split decision: While the payoff proved anticlimactic in some respects, it finally came around to addressing the core issue — that for the five women connected by the first season’s closing act, as Nicole Kidman’s Celeste put it, “The lie is the friendship.”
The driving force behind the latest season, other than Streep’s suspicious mother-in-law Mary Louise, thus became the daunting challenge of keeping secrets, especially when they involve the guilt associated with a killing, even if it was a righteous one.
In the finale, the cost of that deception motivated each of the characters to advance their individual stories: for Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) to find a way to save her marriage; for Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) and Renata (Laura Dern) to end theirs; and for Jane (Shailene Woodley) to brave embarking on a new romance.
Writer-producer David E. Kelley shared story credit with “Lies” novelist Liane Moriarty, but the narrative arc bore many of his hallmarks, especially in its turn toward courtroom drama, as Celeste battled to maintain custody of her sons. That created a showy platform for Kidman and Streep to face off in court, but it also risked transforming “Big Little Lies” into the equivalent of an NBC procedural, just with an Oscar-quality pedigree.
After those fireworks and others, the low-key finish — as the five marched purposefully into the police station — offered the hope of cleansing, the prospect of everyone putting the lie behind them and moving on. It wasn’t especially satisfying but felt more on point, and true to the characters, than much of what preceded it.
“Big Little Lies” was a big hit for HBO in Season 1, the kind of marquee franchise with which networks are reluctant to part. Yet the track record for extending such shows — basically, attempting to catch lightning in a bottle twice — has been decidedly mixed. (CNN and HBO share parent company WarnerMedia.)
It’s simple enough to write off Season 2 as a novel if unsuccessful experiment — one that was watchable enough and delivered strong moments, without making a convincing case for its own existence.
The stars aligned, literally and figuratively, to make “Big Little Lies” feel like a genuine occasion. But not everything merits a second act, or complete closure.
Besides, times being what they are, it’s somewhat comforting to think — or merely speculate — that the truth, ultimately, will set everyone free.