Mary Louise Wright wasn’t meant to be a superhero. The mousy grandmother, played by a transformed Meryl Streep, looked so neutral when she arrived on “Big Little Lies” six episodes ago that she may as well have been a clump of seagrass. Beige was the color of her sweaters, skin — and personality.
Yet it’s this seemingly frail woman who has single-handedly saved Season 2 of HBO’s drama from slipping off the picturesque cliffs of Monterey and washing away to parts unknown.
The series, about five women in an affluent community struggling to keep up appearances — and to cover up a murder — has struggled to reignite the spark of its award-winning first season.
Back then, grade-school mothers Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), Renata Klein (Laura Dern) and Bonnie Carlson (Zoe Kravitz) channeled most of their energy toward appearing as young, thin, rich and happily married as possible, no matter how miserable it made them.
Now, two years and one murder later, their mistruths have snowballed into a mess of prosecutable lies. The new set of circumstances has rattled the group (which also includes single mom Jane Chapman, played by Shailene Woodley) — and the show’s confidence.
“Big Little Lies” was initially meant to be a one-off limited series based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name. But its A-list cast and mix of “Desperate Housewives”-like storylines with serious issues such as domestic abuse and rape garnered eight Emmys (including outstanding limited series) and ensured the story wasn’t ending in 2017.
Season 2 is less successful in its toggling among satire, melodrama and naked odes to “Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous.”
The uneven tone and bumpy narrative may be the result of behind-the-scenes drama juicier than any of the feuds onscreen: namely, an Indiewire report that creative control was wrested away from director Andrea Arnold late in production by showrunner/writer David E. Kelley and Season 1 director Jean-Marc Vallee.
If so, the men spliced their visions in using a lifetime’s worth of flashbacks as Scotch tape. To borrow from Bernie Sanders: “The people are sick and tired of all the damn flashbacks!”
In this context, the season’s least graceful character has become its saving grace, and she’s garnered more intrigue with each successive episode. Who knew until last week’s episode six that Mary Louise had the physical power to shove her apartment door shut on a woman half her age? (Poor Jane.)
While everyone expected a fabulous performance from the world’s greatest actress, Streep’s Mary Louise is a rare TV masterpiece.
The gaslighting senior is a complex mix of old-fashioned etiquette, passive suggestion and nerve-grating menace.
Though frumpy and awkward, she arrives on the scene with the stealth of a phantom. She materializes at the most vulnerable of times, disarming her prey with librarian soft-speak, then targeting their weaknesses with the precision of a Special Ops sharpshooter.
And above all, she’s beyond weird, a veritable freak among the other put-together ladies of Monterey.
She chews on her necklace like an absent-minded teen. She makes utterly inappropriate comments to relative strangers: At one point, she tells Madeline to her face that she’s “very short” before describing short people as “untrustworthy.”
And over the calm of dinner with her grandkids, she unleashes a cataclysmic primal scream, then returns to eating as if nothing happened. She’s a sociopath of the highest order, disguised as a benign patron of the early-bird special.
It would likely take lifetimes’ worth of psychotherapy to pinpoint the performer’s inspiration, but one clue may be that the character and actor share the same names. Mary Louise “Meryl” Streep, or at least her public persona, is very different from the women she plays on “Big Little Lies” — she’s confident, accomplished, refined. But never underestimate one’s alter-ego, even if she may resemble a schoolmarm.
Regardless of what happens during Sunday’s finale — will Mary Louise be cross examined in court and, if so, what horrors will be exposed? — it’s clear that, without her peculiar presence, the season would have felt as fragmented as its other characters’ broken marriages, failed careers and collapsing “she’s got it all” facades.
The show’s drift into mediocrity is a shame, especially since it was initially held up as a breakthrough for women in front of and — with Arnold’s hiring — behind the camera.
It made watching a show about the woes of the 1% feel less dirty. But Streep’s Mary Louise has picked up the slack.
It’s anyone’s guess who she plans to hang with all that rope.