If Big Little Lies’ second-season premiere was the calm before a storm of consequences, then the second episode, “Tell-Tale Hearts,” is a whole new maelstrom of melodrama.
This episode sees our five scheming socialites falling deeper into the web of secrets and lies that have surrounded them, as family tensions, spousal betrayals, and devastating reveals about sexual assault and domestic violence all churn to the surface. It probably shouldn’t be as fun to watch as it is, but Big Little Lies has always been pretty gleeful about its sordid affairs.
Strap in, because a lot happens in this episode.
Celeste and Bonnie are both trapped in isolating guilt spirals
“Tell-Tale Hearts” gives everyone a squalid tale to tell, and the result is that their stories spill forth almost immediately. This is partly because, as the bard once said, “Children will listen,” and all the kids of Big Little Lies have not only been listening to their parents, but also talking among themselves. The repercussions are significant, and I’m excited to watch how the sons and daughters of the group, who are now dubbed “the Monterey Five,” deal with the sins of their parents.
Celeste (Nicole Kidman) is still so plagued with guilt and tortured memories of her late husband, Perry, that she’s having trouble sleeping. But while on Ambien, she sleep-drives and crashes her car in the middle of nowhere, leaving her searching for a way to explain her behavior to Perry’s already suspicious and ever-watchful mother, Mary Louise (Meryl Streep).
While giving Celeste a lift home, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) spots Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) walking aimlessly along the deserted highway. Bonnie’s own spiraling guilt over Perry’s death at the end of season one has left her increasingly listless and disconnected from her friends and family. While Bonnie resists Madeline’s concerned scrutiny, Celeste seems to know exactly how Bonnie feels. “That woman’s not well,” Madeline tells Celeste, ignoring the obviously unwell woman right next to her.
In another parallel with her kindred spirit Celeste, Bonnie’s emotional detachment has caused her husband, Madeline’s ex Nathan, to call in Bonnie’s mom, Elizabeth ( Crystal Fox), to come stay with them, without telling Bonnie in advance. Her mother’s arrival — and her practice of witchcraft, which leads her to do things like sneak around at night, leaving animal bones in Bonnie’s room — only escalate Bonnie’s unease and exacerbate the tensions between Bonnie and Nathan. But Elizabeth does identify the basic thing that’s wrong with her daughter, the thing no one else seems willing to say outright: She saw Perry Wright die (at the end of season one), and she’s traumatized.
Bonnie’s mom seems to be the only person willing to fully and openly discuss what’s going on under their noses. That is, apart from the kids. And when the kids start talking, the dominoes start to fall.
The spilling of one closely-held secret causes a cascade of new problems
When she’s back home, Celeste dodges Mary Louise’s questions, only to have to break up an increasingly familiar bout of violence erupting between her sons, twins Josh and Max. This time, Max hits and swears at Celeste, who reacts by pushing him away and accidentally knocking him to the ground, screaming that she won’t let Max become like his late dad. Tick another box in the obvious mental checklist — “Signs your daughter-in-law killed your son” — that Mary Louise is keeping. (Oh, and she’s making plans to rent an apartment nearby, so that she can continue to keep an eye on Celeste.)
Dire as this situation seems, it’s just the beginning of new troubles for Celeste. Josh and Max have been picking up gossip from Madeline’s younger daughter, Chloe. Thanks to Madeline’s glib discussion of her friend circle and its fraught dynamics, Chloe’s sussed out that the twins’ late dad, Perry, is also the father of another boy at their school — Ziggy, the daughter of the fourth member of the Monterey Five, Jane (Shailene Woodley). Now she’s shared the big secret with the twins and Ziggy, unbeknownst to their parents. Josh and Max have, in turn, told their grandmother about their other brother.
The repercussions of this revelation are immediately sobering. Mary Louise is understandably confused about why Celeste didn’t tell her that she has another grandchild. This means that Celeste has to tell her the truth — that Ziggy is a product of a sexual assault. Jane is also thoroughly shaken by the news that Chloe, Josh, and Max are all privy to the secret of her son’s paternity — one she had wanted to tell Ziggy herself first. She makes the difficult choice to be honest with him about how he was conceived.
Meanwhile, Madeline, in the middle of trying to scold Chloe for spreading private secrets among her classmates, runs into trouble with her own husband, Ed (Adam Scott), who’s weirdly shocked and angry that Madeline didn’t tell him about her friends’ big secret. (Ed is presumably meant to seem hurt by his wife shutting him out of her life, but he mostly just ends up looking like a giant gossip, because, as Madeline points out, he’s asking her to fill him in on her friend’s sexual assault. Not cool, Ed!) This uncomfortable moment of conflict between Madeline and Ed is rapidly overshadowed by a revelation from the elder of Madeline’s daughters: While high school senior Abigail continues her ongoing argument with her mom about why she doesn’t want to go to college, she lets slip that Madeline had a short-lived affair last year with the local theatre director … and Ed overhears her. After processing this second, more legitimate bombshell, he tells Madeline their relationship is over.
And the hits just keep coming: When Celeste tries to talk to Mary Louise about Perry’s sexual assault of Jane, Mary Louise flatly rejects the idea that her son could be capable of committing rape and labels Jane a liar. She also implies that Celeste is disloyal for believing Jane, and then goes even further by disbelieving Celeste herself when Celeste tells her that Perry has a history of domestic violence. Insisting on branding Jane’s rape an “affair,” she coaxes the confession out of Celeste that she only learned of the assault the night of Perry’s death.
This is clearly a smoking gun to Mary Louise in terms of motive. Armed with all this new circumstantial evidence and an incendiary timeline, she tells Celeste she’s going to the police to report all the secrets that Celeste has been keeping: the existence of Perry’s other son, their combative history, and Celeste’s secret plans to leave him once and for all — arrangements Celeste was making last season on the eve of Perry’s death.
This episode asks whether the family that shares its secrets can survive them
The spilling of all these secrets all tie into the episode’s overarching theme — the concept of family and what the hell that even means, anyway. “Tell-Tale Hearts” suggests that there’s ultimately not much difference between a dysfunctional family that shares its secrets and a dysfunctional family that doesn’t. In an early scene, Celeste tries to tell her sons that they can talk to her about their dad, only to have them accurately inform her that she’d rather avoid the whole subject. “I shouldn’t do that,” she admits. “Families should be open with one another.”
“I don’t think we’re that kind of family,” her son Max replies shrewdly.
He’s echoed later on by Ed, who coldly challenges Madeline’s idea that there is an “us” during their breakup. “What does that even mean?” he asks. “It can’t mean honesty, truth, or trust.”
But if this episode makes a pretty strong case that the only way to keep your household happy is to never open your mouth, it also reminds us that, even then, the truth will come out. Which brings us to the fifth and final member of the Monterey Five. Just as she’s on the cusp of national prominence, Renata (Laura Dern) finds out that her useless husband has been committing fraud — when the feds show up to arrest him. Not only that, but he’s been squandering her fortune as well as his.
Renata reacts to his confession by flying into a hilarious rage and yelling, “I will not not be rich!” This is highly relatable, and also amazing — but she still winds up bailing him out and giving him a lift home from jail, which, let’s face it, is pretty much as great a show of loyalty as this show can deliver.
So far this season, Renata has mostly popped into the unfolding drama of her friends’ lives to be busy and important, which is typical Renata. I’m intrigued to see how the show will weave her storyline back into the larger narrative, but even if it doesn’t, and Laura Dern’s job this season is to drop in and have empowered tantrums every now and then, Big Little Lies will be five-star viewing. The crime melodrama is one thing, but if you can’t have a self-aware sophisticate screaming about her right to a slice of the patriarchy, what’s the point?