“We’re kidding ourselves if we think people have stopped talking,” says recently widowed Celeste Wright, played by Nicole Kidman in HBO’s “Big Little Lies.” Her loaded comment comes early in Season 2 of the star-packed drama, as she’s huddled in a car with three other key characters to discuss how much suspicion they’re drawing over the dramatic and sudden death of her husband just months prior.
Celeste is right, of course. People are still talking, on- and off-screen, about the so-called Monterey Five, a group of moms in an affluent Northern Californian community who seemed to have it all. But behind the picture-perfect veneer they worked so hard to maintain were messy lives filled with the stresses of child rearing, adultery, domestic abuse, sexual assault … and murder. But it wasn’t just the lure of pulling back the curtain on privilege that made the show a critical success.
The shame, anger and eventual sisterhood shared by these women hit a chord with audiences at the height of the #MeToo movement. Season 2 is likely to do the same with its arrival during a contentious national debate over a woman’s right to choose abortion and just ahead of the first primary debates starring a record number of formidable female contenders.
The show’s own formidable cast of Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Zoë Kravitz, Shailene Woodley and now Meryl Streep hopes the plight of their characters connect to a larger, national reckoning around gender equality — and unity.
“It’s hard being a woman and feeling like you can’t make mistakes,” Kravtiz says by phone recently. “I think that’s where we get the really sticky situations. We’re constantly fighting for equality or attention or to be taken seriously or to be treated like humans. These women, the reason they are the way they are, is that they feel like they can’t make a mistake. We’re in such a crazy place right now in the world and in our country, and I hope that women feel encouraged to join together and open up and make mistakes together.”
Originally conceived as a closed-ended limited series, the drama made its debut in early 2017 and became an instant success that garnered critical acclaim, record ratings, eight Emmys and a wealth of social currency in the form of memes and GIFs. Credit the show’s star talent and built-in fanbase from the Liane Moriarty best-selling novel on which the series was based.
Even before the seven-episode season reached its conclusion, the clamor for another season began growing. And it followed the actresses and producers for months after the show’s finale that year.
“I think the more people asked — ‘Oh, could there be a Season 2?’ — we kind of went on our own journey asking ourselves, ‘Could there be? How would that work?’ ” says Casey Bloys, the president of programming at HBO.
“It was a force unto itself,” Kidman says. “The kind of force that wills you to bow down to it.”
So they did. But not without some considerable thought that spanned several months to first figure out whether the story justified another look. “There’s a huge amount of love between us as women, and there’s the desire to spend time together,” Kidman says. “But that doesn’t warrant another season. I mean, we can just go out to dinner or go on a trip.”
Since the first season mined the source material of Moriarty’s novel, the challenge was moving the story past the narrative of the book. The show’s team asked the author to consider giving thought to what happened next for the characters she created.
Moriarty wrote a 170-page unpublished novella that served as a foundation for returning writer-producer David E. Kelley, who had initially been reticent about the idea of stretching the narrative beyond the first season. The story expansion featured additional characters, including new matriarch Mary Louise, the mother of Celeste’s abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård).
“I didn’t want to consider Season 2 unless we could measure up to the standards that we set for ourselves and the audience,” Kelley says. “The turning point for me, really, was the new material. We knew we left it on an open-ended question of sorts. And what Liane came up with when she sat down and unpacked it all, I was convinced that we had more emotional material to mine.”
Kelley hesitates about whether he would have proceeded without Moriarty’s involvement: “It’s hard to say. If Liane had not wrote the novella, I suppose I would have gone into some room with a blank page and started going inside myself to see where these stories and characters may live. But it never came to it, because before I had to consider that, Liane had breathed new life for these characters.”
Enough to persuade the entire cast to return, with the women leveraging the show’s massive success for salary bumps. (Witherspoon and Kidman, who also serve as executive producers, reportedly saw their paychecks rise to roughly $1 million per episode.) And the show’s already high-wattage star power added voltage with the addition of multiple Oscar winner Streep as Mary Louise.
She just came to play at the highest-level. She kept us all on our toes.
The new season, which begins Sunday, will again consist of seven episodes, this time directed by Andrea Arnold. (Season 1 director, Jean-Marc Valle, remained involved as an executive producer.) Things pick up in the idyllic coastal town of Monterey a few months after the climactic elementary school fundraiser night that culminated with the ladies intervening in an altercation between Celeste and Perry. Bonnie (Kravitz) pushed Perry down a flight of stairs to his death while Celeste, Madeline (Witherspoon), Renata (Dern) and Jane (Woodley) watched.
When the second season opens, it’s the first day of school for the women’s young children. And while the murder mystery of last season is gone, the shared secret from that fateful night lingers like a shadow and binds them in their mission to protect Bonnie from police.
“Something that I think gets explored all the way to the very end is: Are they really friends or are they all just sharing a secret?” Witherspoon says.
Their individual journeys too, test the women in new ways. Celeste is grappling with the relief from being free of the abuse inflicted by her husband and the guilt stemming from her toxic thrill of their dynamic, while also trying to make sure her sons don’t follow in his footsteps.
Jane is figuring out how to handle the circumstances of knowing the identity of her rapist — Perry — and how much to share with her son about his father. Madeline is losing control with a daughter refusing to go to college and a marriage in jeopardy. The wealthy rug is being pulled out from under Renata. And Bonnie, who comes into focus, is withdrawn and detached as ever from the women and her husband.
The arrival of Perry’s mother, Mary Louise, also complicates matters. She’s there to help Celeste care for her twin boys in the wake of their father’s death. But she also has a nagging belief that her son didn’t lose his balance — as the women had told police — and is determined to figure out what really happened. As an interloper, Streep’s character delivers some clever commentary and some tension, particularly with Witherspoon’s Madeline.
“She just came to play at the highest-level,” Witherspoon says. “She kept us all on our toes.”
“She works her ass off at building her craft. It was incredible to watch,” Woodley adds. “As a human, I think she suspects people will see her in a certain light, so she immediately disarms you with her generosity and kindness and humor and intelligence. You forget for a hot minute that you’re speaking with this woman that you’ve revered for so many years.”
Cracking open the tortured, twisted and complicated lives behind the picture-perfect veneer has been thrilling to explore, Kravitz says. “They’ve worked too hard to get to this place, and now they see it’s cracked.”
A craving for more roles that delve into the private and messy lives of women is what prompted Witherspoon and Kidman to champion female-driven projects in recent years through their respective production companies.
Witherspoon’s Pacific Standard, which she cofounded with Bruna Papandrea in 2012 and which has been behind such female-led movies as “Wild,” and “Gone Girl,” has optioned Moriarty’s latest book, “Truly Madly Guilty” and will next serve up an adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel “Little Fires Everywhere” for Hulu. Meanwhile, Kidman’s Blossom Films, behind such films as “Rabbit Hole” and “The Family Fang,” has optioned the novels “The Expatriates” by Janice Y.K. Lee and “Reconstructing Amelia” by Kimberly McCreight, each featuring dynamic female characters.
For many of the actresses, “Big Little Lies” presented a rare opportunity to not be sole female voice on set. And the power of women connecting and supporting each other in the workplace and building a sisterhood off set, Dern says, was “the greatest gift in the world.”
“Two of my dearest friends are actresses, Naomi Watts and Julianne Moore. We get to see each other rarely, but we’re having lunch later,” Dern says. “We collect each other. We were like, ‘Oh, my God, we get to all sit together to talk about stuff that would terribly bore our families, but somebody will at least understand me.’ And that was the gift we had every day while shooting ‘Big Little Lies.’ ”
So, hey, why not keep it going for a third season?
“Oh, I don’t know,” Kidman says at the thought. “I’m exhausted, so the idea of it ... We’ll see what happens. Is there one around the corner right now? Absolutely not.”
The imminent concern is just seeing how people respond to what they cooked up for Season 2.
“It will be nice to see what people’s responses are,” Witherspoon says. “I just watched the final episode, and I think it’ll be very talked about — a big conversation starter.”