Actors come first on Big Little Lies. The first season would have been soapy, guilty-pleasure TV were it not elevated by Reese Witherspoon’s bossiness, Laura Dern’s bullying and Nicole Kidman’s insistent depiction of trauma. TV veteran David E. Kelley spun a simple story around a fabulous gimmick—a murder investigation where we didn’t know who killed, or had been killed—and the performers made the material sing. It was a bit like American Vandal, only with award-winning heroines instead of poop jokes, and there really is nothing wrong with that.

What, then, for an encore? An actress with all the awards, naturally. As this season demanded a sparring partner for the heroines, the “Monterey Five"—Zoë Kravitz and Shailene Woodley round up the quintet—HBO went for the most Apollo Creed adversary: the one and only Meryl Streep. Big Little Lies (streaming in India on Hotstar) got bigger, and watching these gifted women play off each other had to be special.

With five ladies keeping a secret from season 1, Streep’s character—the buck-toothed mother of the murder victim—is eager to sniff out the truth. Her early interactions with Witherspoon are a scream. Looking the actor up and down, she says, “You’re very short." Witherspoon flails for a comeback as Streep continues: “I don’t mean that in a negative way—maybe I do." She turns the knife during their next encounter, pointing out that Witherspoon appears to have heeded her words: This time, she’s wearing heels.

Streep’s Mary Louise is a frightening woman, pointedly lashing out to clear her son’s name, unwilling to bear his ghastly truth. This is a season about mothers and mistakes: Kidman’s Celeste exposes her children to violence, Dern’s Renata spoils her child even while going bankrupt, and Witherspoon’s Madeline raises girls who, like her, thrive on gossip. To one side stands Kravitz’s Bonnie, haunted by the lie she’s carrying, forever wanting to go Bohemian Rhapsody on her own violent mother—she wants to tell Mama she just killed a man.

Fifteen years ago, Kidman was hailed as the greatest actress alive. Between 2002 and 2004, she gave us The Hours, Dogville, The Human Stain, Cold Mountain and Birth. She flexes that acting muscle hard as a messed-up mother, breaking down but committed to protect her twin sons. Masterfully balancing vulnerability alongside resolve, she emerges the de facto heroine against Streep, her nasty mother-in-law. It’s rousing to watch Celeste lawyer up and mount her own attack in court. When she gets home, her kids ask: “Were you a superhero?" You’d better believe it, boys.

The other superhero is an inimitable Laura Dern, lip-syncing to Diana Ross during a photoshoot for a cover story on powerful women. Renata Klein is unapologetically proud of taking charge, and, as her life veers out of control, Dern throws around magnificent outbursts, stabbing the air with a loaded forefinger, defiantly hissing at her soon-to-be bankrupt husband: “I will not NOT be rich." It is proclamation, wish and challenge rolled into one from a woman who knows what she wants. The cover story gets canned. Hysteria has rarely looked this good.

Big Little Lies handles therapy brilliantly, and the strongest moment this season involves Celeste blaming herself for the abuse she has faced, till her therapist asks her to imagine Madeline being beaten up. Her empathy is immediate and ferocious, as she shouts with a pain she doesn’t feel for herself. As Celeste tells Madeline, they are the ones with a true bond. When it comes to the Monterey Five “or whatever we call ourselves, the lie is the friendship".

Moving away from these two, the story drags. People of colour are particularly short-changed, with Kravitz stranded in a comatose arc robbed of drama, and Poorna Jagannathan, playing a hotshot lawyer with so little to say that Kidman, her client, can’t help comment. “I see silence is still your weapon of choice," she snarls.

Madeline—who called herself by her full name in season 1, Madeline Martha Mackenzie, even as Renata relentlessly said “Madelyne"—is now Maddie, no longer bossy, trying to deal with a marriage she has failed. She’s disarmingly natural, and Adam Scott, in a wonderful, softly nuanced performance, is the husband who can’t help loving her. Their attempts at a future are simple, bittersweet and ultimately hopeful.

Streep has the best lines—she smashes them hard, like a cruel tennis pro—but ends up too much of a villain, lacking the conflicts the other women carry. She doesn’t get to traffic in the unsaid. Like the finale, she’s clumsily written. This has always been a show where the silent beats work better, the moments outside the over-written lines, and the first episode this season captured that blurriness well, when Shailene swirled in the sand to the sounds of Sufjan Stevens. It was a moment typical of trailblazing director Andrea Arnold, given the reins only to find the show eventually reshaped by last season’s director, Jean-Marc Vallée. Pity.

Perhaps as a result, Big Little Lies offers talking points, but stays clinically free of vision. However Arnold’s contract was worded, this leaves a bad taste. This show should know better. No lies are small. All our pants are on fire.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

@rajasen

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