Big Little Lies had a difficult question to answer when it returned for another season. It was an existential question, less about how affluent women bounce back from tragedy and more to do with why another installment of this seaside soap opera should even exist. The answer? Meryl Streep.
Adding another Hollywood heavyweight to this packed cast of movie stars could’ve spelled disaster for HBO’s breakout drama. Sure, watching Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoe Kravitz chew up some screen time together sounds like a fool-proof formula for more Emmy nods, but season two of Big Little Lies was going off book, trekking uncharted territory as the Monterey Five recoup following the death of Celeste Wright’s abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), and their involvement in his demise. Streep’s presence could’ve easily bogged down what already felt like a heavy-on-the-melodrama premise, and perhaps a few people rolled their eyes at her casting announcement, which may have felt like too much. But now, four episodes in, it’s time we beg forgiveness for our cynicism and pledge allegiance to Streep because the actress has definitively proven that she is the acting equivalent of butter — she makes everything better.
Streep’s Mary Louise is a grieving mother who descends upon Big Sur in a swirl of trench coats and silk scarves to pick at the newly formed scab of her son’s untimely end. Armed with fake teeth that gnaw at each of the show’s leads with increasingly overt malice, Streep makes the most of her limited screen time — popping up to sour the mood of pumpkin carving contests, lurking in outdoor coffee shops, guarding her grandsons, and rifling through her daughter-in-law’s prescription pill drawer. She’s a ball of chaotic energy cloaked in wire-rimmed glasses and a wig worthy of its own SNL skit, and Streep’s having a damn ball playing her. Free of the constraints that hold lesser actors back, Streep is swinging for the fences as Mary Louise, gifting us with a truly groundbreaking performance that will go down as one of the most meme-able characters in TV history. Here, we’ll prove it.
The Dressing Down
One of the first glimpses of Streep comes in the show’s season two premiere. We see her quietly sip her coffee as Witherspoon’s Madeline Mackenzie greets her. She’s meek, mousy compared to Madeline’s Energizer-Bunny-on-speed persona, but a flip seems to quickly switch as the two women trade barbs over (smiling) bared teeth and controlled pleasantries. At one point, Mary Louise pointedly observes Madeline, scanning her small frame before declaring her “very short.” She quickly follows up with a well-meaning explanation, an “I don’t mean that in a negative way,” that should sound familiar to anyone who’s grown up in the South and heard “bless your heart” one too many times. We’re meant to see Mary Louise as this unassuming maternal figure, a woman from a different generation, whose blunt insults are just left-over remnants of a bygone era. And we might’ve bought that easy-to-swallow lie too, if it wasn’t for the whiplash Mary Louise gives us (and Madeline) when she follows that pseudo-apology with a simple, “Maybe I do.” She says it with an exasperated shake of her head as if admitting her own personality flaw before getting a final dig in about the untrustworthiness of little people. She weaponizes her own inner-monologue in a way that’s confusing, but not outright hostile, which makes it more difficult to see through, and even harder to fight against.
Perhaps the most GIF-able moment of Streep’s stint on Big Little Lies so far is the dinner-table scream that has been dubbed over and re-Tweeted ad infinitum. It’s a glorious release after a truly disturbing build-up as Mary Louise passive-aggressively berates Nicole Kidman’s Celeste at the dinner table for her reliance on fast food before delivering a troubling monologue about mourning her son, an abuser and rapist who she views as better than other men. She empathizes with the twins who, she reasons, must be so confused as to how their classmates get to keep their disappointing, pot-bellied fathers while Perry was taken from the family in such an unextraordinary way. And what does she do, she asks them, when the questions and the frustrations over his death become too much? She screams, and she’ll f*cking show you. Streep lets out a blood-curdling howl, exaggeratedly thrusting her whole body forward with the sound before calmly settling back to her salad and questioning Celeste on her apathy. It’s another unsettling contradiction, made worse by Streep’s maniacal smile and her pandering to children — if it weren’t for her diatribe on middle-management sons and the glass-shattering pitch of that shriek, she’d be just another grandmother entertaining her grandsons at the dinner table. But she isn’t, and we find ourselves echoing Celeste: “Mary Louise, please. The boys.”
Where were you when Meryl Streep invented necklace acting? It’s a question our grandchildren will one day ask of us. This bit of genius comes as Mary Louise is once-again battling with Madeline Mackenzie, snooping into Celeste’s Ambien-fueled emergency before regaling her with a “funny” story about her father’s advice on befriending a bully on her first day of school. Madeline’s the bully in this scenario. She knows it and says as much before Mary Louise assures her that any ill-will is just leftover trauma from her school days. It’s not Madeline’s fault that she resembles that bully so much. The confrontation is a masterclass in restrained tension and nervous ticks, the most notable being how Streep chooses to fiddle with Mary Louise’s tiny cross necklace. It’s something that happens often in real life, women playing with bits of jewelry as a kind of distraction in stressful situations, but to see Streep bravely loop that thin gold chain over her chin before gently caressing its cross as she throws shade at a shocked Reese Witherspoon convinces us of two truths: First, Meryl Streep has no fear; and second, director Andrea Arnold is a genius for witnessing that performance and saying, “Yes, this is the take we’re going with.”
Caught in the Act
One of the more sinister qualities of Mary Louise is how she hides her bone-deep obsession with rooting out the true cause of her son’s death as maternal concern over Celeste and the boys. In every interaction between the two women, we feel the accusatory glances, the lingering lilts in a conversation filled with unspoken accusations. Take the bathroom incident, which sees Celeste catch Mary Louise in the act of snooping through her prescription pills. It’s after a drug-induced car accident, so Mary Louise has cause to worry, but her methods are as sneaky as her veiled threats, warning Celeste over the dangers of prescription drugs one minute before questioning why she needs so many painkillers the next. Celeste takes that affront for what it is — an unearned criticism of her fitness as a mother — and issues a sharper retort blaming her drug use on Perry’s abuse. Rather than engaging with Celeste, Mary Louise takes a long, drawn-out pause before dismissing the conversation with an exaggerated snap of her neck. Everything Mary Louise does is over-the-top and disconcerting in a way that’s impossible to put our fingers on, and Streep knows it. She’s milking our unease and turning it into awards-season gold, people, and there’s nothing we can do about it.
Normally, Streep’s more contentious interactions happen when Witherspoon is in the same scene — we’re not wholly convinced the show didn’t hire Streep on just so Witherspoon could tell her to f*ck off each episode — but in the fourth episode of season two, it’s Kidman who gets to trade blows, literally, with the Oscar-winner. The two women have a whispered argument at a pumpkin-carving party after Mary Louise arrives uninvited and lets slip she’s renting an apartment in the same building as Jane Chapman (Woodley). When Celeste explains the complicated dynamics of living so close to the woman your son raped just to gain access to the child of that rape, Mary Louise doubles down on her belief that Jane is lying about the encounter before questioning why Perry felt the need to find comfort in other women. That accusation doesn’t sit well with Celeste, who slaps Mary Louise so hard, her glasses fall to the floor. Did Kidman ever envision the sheer heights her career would one day take her, b*tch slapping the greatest actress of all time on a TV melodrama? Probably not. But this scene is less about Kidman and more about Streep, who gets all the best comebacks this season including her follow-up to this physical altercation. Foreplay? Is nothing off limits this season, Meryl?
Big Little Lies knows what a weapon Streep is, and the creators are harnessing her power to insert a bit of thrilling chaos into what would otherwise be a heavier, slower-paced season. The show wants to take a look at hard-to-digest realities — rape and its aftermath, believing women, domestic violence, murder, death, and moving on from trauma — but to do that, it has to give something back, a bit of excitement, a bit of drama to hook viewers week after week. That’s what Streep does best, mining the worst of her character’s grief and wielding it to wreak havoc on a group of rich socialites with too many secrets and too much to lose. She’s the most dangerous of villains because she’s a contradiction of everything these women represent. Mary Louise could care less about personality contests, keeping up appearances, being polite or reserved, or brushing uncomfortable truths under the rug. Streep doesn’t want to hide the skeletons in that closet, she wants to spring clean the whole damn house, and she’s doing it one oddly-mesmerizing performance at a time.