Sunday night brought the second season of HBO’s Big Little Lies to a much-anticipated end. With no reports of a third season, this ending may deliver fans with their final glimpses at the tension wrought, wealth-obsessed town of Monterey that has captivated them since the series premiere in February 2017.
While the series has performed remarkably well across critical outlets, season two left many critics in want of something more. This is reflected by its score on Rotten Tomatoes. As a whole, Big Little Lies has earned an impressive 91% average score and a 97% audience rating. Unfortunately, this acclaim did not span the breadth of the second season. Its final episode, entitled “I Want to Know,” was certified rotten with a 56% score. Ben Travers from indieWire summarized his disappointment with the following statement: “Ultimately, the contentious follow-up season offered plenty of spectacle, but it couldn’t deliver a cohesive story with believable, compelling development.”
Travers’ concern with the season’s plot is not particularly unique. Everywhere, critics seem to fixate on the excellent season two plotline that Big Little Lies promised but failed to deliver. Aja Romano from Vox acknowledged this, saying, “While the performances were as solid as ever, the writing in this finale continually turned into a slog that often seemed like self-congratulatory circle-jerking on [David E] Kelley’s part.”
Despite the common critical disappointment, “I Want To Know” bookended what is widely ranked amongst the best shows on television. Here’s what happened.
Attention: spoilers ahead.
The face-off between Meryl Streep’s Mary Louise Wright and Nicole Kidman’s Celeste Wright was the centerpiece of this episode, just as it has been for the entire second season. When Celeste confronts her mother-in-law with a risky cross-examination during the custody trial for her two boys, she drives home a truth that has been a mainstay of the Big Little Lies universe: the past will always come back to haunt us. After being torn apart as a defendant, Celeste regains her strength as an attorney. She brings up the car crash that tragically killed her husband’s brother when they were children. She attempts to hold Mary Louise responsible for her son’s death.
Mary Louise’s response was definitive. “You’re a liar,” she said. She stood by this response as Celeste continued to interrogate her on the childhood Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) had described to her. According to her late husband, Mary Louise blamed him for the accident. She beat him for it. As if this was not powerful enough of an exchange, the intensity was further escalated by Celeste’s decision to show a video that she had uncovered on her sons’ tablet the night before. In it, the entire courtroom could see Perry relentlessly beating her while she screamed at him to stop. Although moving, Celeste’s performance during that cross-examination did not guarantee her custody over her two sons. It proved only that Perry was evil, and left the question of whether Celeste herself was fit enough to mother her children up to the judge.
Before the final verdict, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) met with Celeste to discuss the custody case in addition to the titular lie that had been born in the penultimate season’s finale. Madeline described her regret at having suggested the Monterey Five lie about Perry’s death in the first place. She explained how the lie was slowly tearing them all apart. Celeste countered this with a powerful line that in many ways summarizes the entire premise of Big Little Lies: “the lie is the friendship,” she said.
While the lie itself didn’t tear them apart as Madeline had feared, season two was peppered with strife for every member of the Monterey Five. Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) was beginning to unravel at the guilt of having pushed Perry to his death. This was further complicated by the arrival of her mother, with whom she shared a contemptuous relationship. Madeline’s marriage was teetering on failure when her husband, Ed (Adam Scott), found out of her affair. Renata’s (Laura Dern) world fell apart when her selfish and adulterous husband left them bankrupt. Lastly, Jane (Shailene Woodley) struggled to reconcile past trauma with her want of a relationship with a fellow Monterey Bay Aquarium employee.
“I Want To Know” brought this succession of hardship to an end. Following the stroke-related death of her mother, Bonnie confessed to her husband (James Tupper) that she wasn’t actually in love with him. In fact, she didn’t think she had ever been. Meanwhile, Renata finally provided her husband with some well-deserved revenge when she took a baseball bat to the last of his belongings. Madeline renewed her vows with Ed in an intimate, heart-warming ceremony and Jane finally faced the depth of her feelings for her boyfriend. To top everything off, Celeste was awarded custody of her twins.
Although these snippets were triumphant in their own right, they were not enough to end season two of Big Little Lies. Instead, a text message interrupts every seen. This cuts to a moment that the Monterey Five had resisted for the entire season. They are shown together, walking into the police station while Mary Louise drives out of Monterey Bay.
This move, a likely confession, brings an end to the lie and closes what is projected to be the final chapter of a much-celebrated show. HBO executive Casey Bloys has previously addressed the unlikeliness of a third season with The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s hard to imagine aligning everybody’s schedule again. The fact that we were able to get season two together is a small miracle,” he said.
These sentiments are shared by book author Liane Moriarty, who penned a novella that plotted out the second season of Big Little Lies. Despite having claimed she was “done” after season one, she told The Hollywood Reporter that she really means it this time around, explaining, “But I do feel like that for me, that season two will be the end.”
Season two of Big Little Lies is available to stream on HBO.