Every single time I think of Big Little Lies, I think about my love for Renata Klein. Played by Laura Dern, Renata is known to her daughter’s school principal as the “Medusa of Monterey” — a reputation earned by, among other things, Renata yelling at school officials; Renata throwing her husband out of her Tesla; Renata screaming at Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) for staging a rival birthday party; Renata wearing a shade of red that would make Satan blush to a court date; and Renata stating with unflinching anger that she will “not not be rich.”
And, episode three, “The End of the World” contains, in one line, a perfect crystallization of the Gorgon that is Renata Klein: “You deconstructed my little girl into a coma.”
Amabella was not in a coma. Amabella was suffering an anxiety attack after learning about sustainability and climate change. Knowing this truth makes one understand Renata’s self-absorbed worldview even more: Every little thing that happens to Renata is, to her, the worst possible thing in the world.
At first blush, it’s enjoyable to watch Renata flip out, because watching someone so rich, beautiful, and successful act so ill-behaved can make us feel a little better about ourselves and mitigate our aspirational envy. If Renata were nice, she’d be more annoying than lovable.
But beneath the exaggerated moments of Amabella’s supposed coma, there’s a sly story being told about Renata that ties into those of the other mothers of Monterey and their children. Despite Renata’s best efforts at protecting her, Amabella is an emotional wreck who seems to always find herself in some kind of trouble or harm. And part of Amabella’s stress is that she notices, despite her mother’s best efforts to save face, that her mother is in some kind of turmoil.
“She thinks something is going on with you [Renata] and has been going on for some time,” Amabella’s therapist tells Renata.
Amabella, like the other members of Monterey Five’s children — Ziggy, Max, Josh, Abigail, Chloe, and Sky — reflects the kind of mother Renata is rather than the kind of mother she thinks she is, shortcomings and all. And Renata, like the other mothers on the show, doesn’t enjoy what she sees.
“The End of the World” is about how the show’s mothers coming to terms with the children they’ve raised
The most chilling moment in this episode is when Celeste’s mother-in-law Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) meets Jane. “Meets” is a generous term, considering how strange the encounter is. Mary Louise shows up at Jane’s work unannounced, and something seems a little off: Her sentences are jagged, each word seemingly trying to dodge the next one coming after it. There’s a flutter at the bottom of her voice.
After rushing through formalities and explaining who she is, Mary Louise voices doubts about whether her son (and Celeste’s husband) Perry raped Jane, calling into question Jane’s integrity and trustworthiness.
“How would you feel about submitting to a paternity test — I mean, submitting Ziggy to a paternity test,” she says. “I’m presented with the idea that my son is both an adulterer and a rapist. And I am desperate to squash that idea.”
Mary Louise can’t see her son as a rapist, because to her, that would mean she did something wrong in raising him. It’s already been hinted this season that something happened with Perry’s late brother, Mary Louise’s other son, casting further suspicions over Mary Louise’s parenting. But in her desperation to exonerate Perry, Mary Louise’s real motives are hard to decipher.
Does she want to avenge her son? Or does she want to clear his name because she can’t come to terms with how this reflects on her? Does she blame herself for the things Perry did?
Big Littles Lies’s second season, since the very first episode, has been playing with the theme of nurture over nature, and how our parents shape who their children become. Parenting isn’t just the things parents do for their children, but also the things they do when they’re not in “parenting mode.”
It’s only natural that we see Mary Louise wrestle with the monster that is her deceased son.
Mary Louise and Renata are thus far from the only mothers who feel like they’ve failed their children. Bonnie’s mother believes Bonnie has lost touch with the spiritual side she instilled in her. Madeline is adamant about Abigail going to college, feeling like if her daughter follows in her footsteps, she’ll have failed as a mother. Celeste is scared of raising boys who may turn out abusive like their father.
The show isn’t just showing us the conflict, however. We also see each of these women push through to try to be a better parent, or what they think is a better parent, to their kids.
For Renata, that means becoming rich again and steamrolling everyone in Amabella’s (but really Renata’s) path. Mary Louise will push and push to clear her son’s name. Bonnie’s mother thinks the solution is going back to nature and for Bonnie to stop listening to her husband. Madeline is adamant and relentless about Abigail going to college. And Celeste is seeking help from Madeline, Jane, and Mary Louise.
A looming question now, though, is whether any of these mothers will realize that improving themselves for their children is about truly being there for their kids — rather than trying to correct the mistakes they’ve made in their own lives.