About 12 minutes into the new season of HBO’s Big Little Lies, Meryl Streep brushes her right eye and the most banal thought washed over me with the force of revelation: God damn, Meryl Streep is a great actress. I had initially considered the news of her casting on the show to be a kind of triumphant piece of PR, the TV equivalent of the Vanity Fair Hollywood Issue photo spread. Streep joining the already movie-star-flush cast of Big Little Lies for the former miniseries’ second season was like her taking a seat on a divan next to Reese and Nicole. Whatever work she actually did would presumably be very good—she’s Meryl Streep!—but the real dividends would come this fall, when La Streep was, as always, her impossibly charming self on the awards show circuit.
But Streep is better than that—startlingly, arrestingly better—and her work exemplifies the delectable disconnect at the heart of Big Little Lies. Within the story, more is decidedly not more. The haves of Monterey, California—wealthy one percenters as attractive as famous actresses—are swimming in largesse, but while their wealth protects them from certain material hardships and bad interior design, it can’t protect them from abuse, heartbreak, deceptions, stress, whisper campaigns, guilt, or daughters who don’t want to go to college. Outside the story, however, the new Big Little Lies is a decidedly more-is-more proposition: more seasons, more storylines, more sumptuous landscape shots, more movie stars.
Streep plays Mary Louise, the superficially mousy, inwardly seething and strange mother of Perry Wright, the abusive rapist whose death at the end of last season trapped the series’ five major characters in the big big lie that animates the second season. Mary Louise is in Monterey to help her daughter-in-law Celeste (Nicole Kidman) with her twin sons, and at home, the two women politely circle one another, their passive-aggressive rapport at odds with the graceful light fixtures. It’s only when Mary Louise bumps into Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) that she relaxes enough to be her genuine, strange self. “You’re very short,” she interrupts herself to observe about Madeline. “I don’t mean it in a negative way. Maybe I do. I find little people to be untrustworthy,” she elaborates, with a little head-shake, as though she’s letting Madeline in on a true secret of her personality.
Streep is the real wonder in this scene, but I did also admire the finesse with which the show has worked out a Streep-time-sharing scheme. Presumably when she was cast, both Witherspoon and Kidman, producers on the show, wanted the chance to act with her. Kidman’s Celeste would obviously get time with someone playing her mother-in-law, but the actresses and the series’ writer David E. Kelley had to come up with something a little more creative for Witherspoon’s Madeline. The solution, like the entire second season, works better than it has any right to, a compromise—to create more content, to get Reese and Meryl acting together—that doesn’t feel compromised at all. Witherspoon and Streep’s spiky scenes are the early episodes’ most fun, a structurally and artistically satisfying answer to a power-sharing problem.
While these scenes do gift to the world with the definitional GIF of “active listening,” provided in the form of Witherspoon’s face, Streep steals them outright. With Madeline we see that Mary Louise is more than just the quiet, polite mother-in-law—she’s a weird, blunt, isolated woman whose mood see-saws back and forth like her line readings, regularly giving voice to her interior monologue like a space cadet, and then not apologizing for them, like a boss. Her character is so much more specifically odd —almost ferret like—than the haughty diva turn she could be mailing in with the exact same lines.
This brings me back to the eye brush. As their conversation continues, Mary Louise goes on reading Madeline, who strikes her as a “wanter,” the type of person who is never satisfied. Madeline—who certainly is a wanter, and probably knows it—gets defensive. “You don’t have to take it personally,” Mary Louise replies, and swiftly wipes beneath her glasses, almost where the nose pads rest. “I’m a wanter myself.” The gesture is so naturalistic, but so uncommon—actresses do not often fidget with their faces on screen—that it stood out to me. Streep so fully embodies Mary Louise that she can be in her head and her body at the same time, talking and scratching like a real person. But Streep is one of the few actresses about whom you can safely assume her every intonation, her every move is a choice, and likely her choice, however informed by a director, writer, or editor. There’s verisimilitude to her touching her face, but there’s more too. When she says, “I’m a wanter myself. I want my son back” she isn’t just making any old gesture: she’s reaching for where the tears usually are. Just as she’s about to mention her dead son, she instinctively tries to wipe them way. God damn, Meryl Streep is a great actress.