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Big Little Lies 2: why Meryl Streep’s bloodcurdling scream is so powerful

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Meryl Streep

In Big Little Lies season two there’s a villainy vaccum, now that Perry is dead. Enter Mary Louise (Meryl Streep), Perry’s inscrutable mother. And in the first episode she conveyed just how terrifying she will be through one particularly chilling, skin-crawling scream.

Spoiler alert: this story features in-depth discussion of Big Little Lies season two and, in particular, one very powerful Meryl Streep moment. If you haven’t seen the first episode yet, and don’t want to know more about the scream, then now is the time to click away. Consider this your warning!

Here’s the thing about Big Little Lies season two: it has no plot.

I mean it. Sure, there are some whispers here and there of something rotten in the in the sun-drenched state of Monterey. Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) is wracked with guilt over killing Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). Abigail (Kathryn Newton) doesn’t want to go to college and Madeline Martha MacKenzie (Reese Witherspoon) is suitably horrified. Renata (Laura Dern) is being Renata. But when I say whispers of plot, I really mean whispers.

In season two of Big Little Lies there’s no mystery. Which is fine, because the show has something better. It has Meryl Streep.

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It’s about as impressive a double down as you can get, really, when your show is already studded with the best female actors in Hollywood, from Witherspoon to Dern, Kravitz to Shailene Woodley and, of course, Nicole Kidman, whose turn as Perry’s abused wife Celeste in season one won her every award she was eligible for. 

Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies
Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies.

Streep plays Mary Louise, Perry’s inscrutable mother in law who hops on the highway from San Francisco and installs herself and her fake teeth in Celeste’s glass-fronted beachside mansion. 

Rather than drip-drip-drip the reveal of Streep as Mary Louise, Big Little Lies deploys her in media res in the first episode of the second season, like a grenade. There she is, impassive and immovable, waking Celeste from a nightmare in which Perry – Mary Louise’s cherished only son – abuses her over and over and over again.

What does Mary Louise want? Vengeance for her son. We know that from the snippets of interaction we see between her, Celeste and Madeline throughout the first episode. Like I said, there’s not much of a plot. Major sequences in the first episode involve Madeline and Mary Louise conversing first in a café and secondly in a real estate agent. The suspense of it all!

The two are not friends. At first, Mary Louise tells Madeline that she finds “little people to be untrustworthy.” (Madeline Martha MacKenzie is, of course, Reese Witherspoon-sized, which is to say that she hovers at an untrustworthy 5’1”.) Later, at the real estate agent, Mary Louise apologises. In a manner of speaking.

“When I was in boarding school I had a best friend, or so I thought, who revealed herself to be quite treacherous and caused me a lot of pain,” Mary Louise says. “She was just a itty bitty little thing with a big, bubbly personality that was designed to hide that she was utterly vapid inside. You remind me so much of her, I suppose I punished you for that. That’s wrong of me, and I apologise.”

Hello, 911? I’d like to report a murder. A vicious, cold-blooded murder by way of savage, scalding burns. 

Nicole Kidman and Meryl Streep in BIg Little Lies
Meryl Streep is the best thing about Big Little Lies season two.

Who needs a plot when you have Streep, at the top of her game, delivering lines like that? Now that Perry is dead, Big Little Lies has a serious villain vaccum. Thankfully, his mother has stepped in to fill the space, fizzing, right up to the very top.

Take, for example, the most powerful, skin-crawling scene from the first episode. Mary Louise, Celeste and the twins Max and Josh are sitting at the dinner table together. The boys are fighting, as is their wont, and Celeste is trying to stop them. Mary Louise, however, tells them to indulge in their anger. To revel in it.

Because Mary Louise is angry. She’s furious. She’s absolutely livid that her son is dead, and she wants to know who did it. Celeste sits there, frozen in her chair. We know that of all the many and varied conflicting emotions that she is feeling about the death of her abusive husband, anger isn’t one of them.

“The other day, I was with some friends and their sons were not a patch on your dad. Not a patch. I felt so angry. Angry! That their mediocre, spindly, pudgy, balding, middle-management sons were still alive, and my Perry, my Perry… I just wanted to scream.” 

That’s exactly what she does. Right there, at the dinner table, Streep tilts back her head just a touch and shrieks a big, bloodcurdling, skin-crawling shriek. When Celeste responds in shock, Mary Louise stares at her. “My grief is too loud for you?”

Unsurprisingly, given how clippable the moment is, the scream has now become a meme, dropped into Edward Munch paintings and synched up with ear worm pop songs. Fans are already clamouring for Streep to win all the Emmys, based solely off that scream alone.

What can we learn from the moment, though? Mary Louise wants her grief to have a loud, physical, rowdy presence. She wants to feel her pain and to make sure that others feel it, too. She wants to break her pain open and swim around inside of it. This isn’t a bear-it-in-silent kind of grief. This is a sadness that is brimming and bubbling over, right out of Mary Louise and into the world. There is some power in thinking of the scream in that way. No wonder it’s so meme-able – ever felt so frustrated and sad and angry that all you could do is let out a primal, guttural scream? Of course you have.

But the scream is noteworthy for another reason, too. In the first season of Big Little Lies the villain spent most of the season hiding in plain sight. Here, in episode one of the second season, we have our new bad guy announcing themselves – loudly and terrifyingly – right out of the gate. 

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What does Mary Louise want, creeping around Celeste’s house and watching her while she sleeps? Vengeance for her son. And what if she can’t get that? Or what if everyone proves so duplicitousness with all of their big, little lies that she can’t get to the bottom of it all?

Well, she just might scream. After that, who knows. But if that chilling shriek is anything to go by, it’s not going to be anything good. 

Season two of Big Little Lies airs in the US on HBO on Sundays and in the UK on Sky and NowTV on Monday mornings and again in the evening.

Images: HBO

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Hannah-Rose Yee

Hannah-Rose Yee is a writer based in London. You can find her on the internet talking about movies, television and Chris Pine.

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