Big Little Lies is no longer driven by a big mystery. With the matter of who killed spouse-abusing rapist Perry Wright resolved at the end of its first season, the mysteries on the show now are small, human ones: how we decide whom to trust, or how much weight a conscience can take before it shatters. The most pressing of those unanswered questions surrounds the new arrival to the wealthy Californian enclave of Monterey: Perry’s bereaved mother Mary Louise, played by Meryl Streep. Is she, as many characters seem to see her, a difficult person placed in a nearly impossible situation, a grieving mother trying to do right by those she loves? Or is she deliberately malignant, zeroing in on the personal weaknesses and insecurities of everyone she encounters in her quest to determine what really happened to her son?
In “The Bad Mother,” the season’s penultimate episode, any lingering doubts about Mary Louise are put firmly to bed. The revelation is handled subtly, in an episode in which Streep barely appears, and is mostly conveyed via a series of reaction shots. We only have to see Mary Louise breathing deeply, a slight smile of beatification crossing her face as Shailene Woodley’s Jane screams at her from the other side of a closed door, to realize there is nothing accidental about her.
The precision of this moment, each little gesture and breath deployed just so is vintage Meryl Streep. But Big Little Lies shows us a new side of our Greatest Living American Actor. For once, Streep appears comfortable fully embracing the unredeemable nastiness of a character. Mary Louise is less a recognizable human than a Fury, one of the spirits of vengeance that rose from the mythological underworld to scourge the guilty with whips. Her barbs are conversational rather than literal, but her punishment is no less potent for being meted out indirectly. By removing anything ingratiating from Mary Louise, Streep delivers one of her best performances of this century, somehow revealing new layers within a body of work that had begun to feel predictable.
There have been few surprises in Streep’s filmography over the past 15 years. For the most part, she’s played characters made famous on stage by other actors (Doubt, August: Osage County, Into the Woods), real people (Julie & Julia, The Iron Lady, The Post), or characters in films that are, frankly, beneath her (Ricki and the Flash, The Giver, Lions for Lambs). And like the characters, the performances themselves are unsurprising. You can bet that Streep will effect some transformation of her appearance and voice, that she will rely on a key prop or two to communicate subtext, that she will insert breathing at odd moments along with a few ums and uhs to make the text feel spontaneous. You also know that, no matter what, she will be charming.
Charm, ineffable as it is, can be a difficult part of the actor’s art to discuss, but it’s the key to Streep’s recent work. Her charm flows from the facility with which she lets us see her characters thinking without belaboring the matter, with no ponderous pauses or mugging. There’s just something extremely compelling about watching Streep’s face as the synapses fire behind it. At its best, this charm is like a lantern, illuminating the films in which she stars. The Devil Wears Prada, a highlight of her late-career film work, hinges on it. Miranda Priestly may be the boss from hell, but there’s a warmth and even occasional vulnerability in Streep’s portrayal. Unlike her real-life analogue Anna Wintour, who famously hides behind enormous sunglasses and a bob that acts like the walls of Troy, Streep’s Miranda wants on some level to be known, both by her estranged husband and her protégée. In The Post, she modeled her portrait of Katharine Graham in part on an audiobook of Graham reading her own memoir, and imbued the character with softness and warmth, fumbling with her reading glasses and greeting patronizing comments from the men around her with a smile. Along with the script, Streep’s performance added a new layer to the political thriller familiar from All the President’s Men, in which Graham never appears and is only mentioned as the owner who will get “her tit caught in a big fat wringer” if Woodward and Bernstein’s exposé is published. (The real-life Graham responded, “Got any more messages for me, Carl?” when Bernstein conveyed the threat.) The film becomes not just the story of the dogged reporters who took down a presidency, but also the story of a woman coming into her own power, despite the underestimations of both her male colleagues and herself.
Over the years, however, it has come to feel as if Streep either cannot or would not tamp down that charm. Many actors would kill to be so innately charismatic, but if you are an actor of Streep’s immense range, it can be a liability. Not every person is charming, and ingratiating oneself to the audience does not serve every project. In Into the Woods, Streep’s Witch was, despite her character’s protestations to the contrary, a little bit too nice. And in The Iron Lady, she endowed Margaret Thatcher with a plucky aplomb that undermined her real-life monstrousness. When Streep’s Thatcher describes raising taxes on the poor, it’s not far off from how her version of Julia Child might discuss making a perfect soufflé. Even in a scene where Thatcher lectures a doctor about how kids these days feel too much and don’t think enough, you can’t help but, well, feel for her.
Big Little Lies upends all this, giving us a Streep performance that’s purposefully devoid of charm. The familiar methods are there, but turned to new ends. Streep wears glasses that make her eyes slightly too big and false teeth that change the shape of her mouth, rendering her face uncanny, not quite human. The key props—a cup of coffee, a scarf, legal papers—are still there, but instead of bringing subtext to the surface, it seems like Mary Louise is clinging to objects to keep herself from expressing the full breadth of her rage. Streep shifts her voice into its upper register, robbing it of warmth and giving it a plaintive, keening quality. Rather than feeling completely spontaneous, Mary Louise’s odd breaths and ums start to seem like a deliberate smoke screen, a cloak to hide the knife she wields so expertly. All of this comes together in what will almost certainly be Season 2’s most iconic scene (and the clip shown at the Emmys when Streep is inevitably nominated), where Mary Louise, learning the truth of Celeste and Perry’s relationship, turns the revelations around on Celeste, all but accusing her of murder. In one minute, we see Mary Louise go from being backfooted by Celeste to taking command—and the relished exhalation of breath once she knows she has the power.
When Mary Louise is charming, her charm is a weapon, deployed to make those around her underestimate her. In each of the season’s six episodes thus far, we watch a member of the Monterey Five attempt to overwhelm Mary Louise with friendliness, or feigned vulnerability, or anger, or pleading, only to be swatted away like a helicopter annoying Godzilla. It is only in the final minutes of “The Bad Mother” that Celeste appears to have realized who her adversary actually is, setting up the season finale’s big courtroom showdown. Because of the nature of the show, we can be fairly sure Celeste will win, even though we are also fairly sure she shouldn’t. Celeste is too fragile, and Kidman’s performance too tentative—and too incapable of maintaining an American accent—for a victory to feel realistic or earned.
While Streep’s performance is some of her best work in years, it has the odd side effect of making Big Little Lies almost unwatchable. Mary Louise is an excruciating character to spend any time around. We, like the Monterey Five, dread being in her company, even as we feel compelled to do so. Whenever she shows up, I find myself reaching for my phone, desperate for a second screen to shield me from her unstoppable, toxic bullying, masked as the carelessness of a doting, bereft grandmother. It is, at times, too much, particularly if you’ve ever watched your own toxic bullies get away with it at school, or your workplace, or in the White House. The conventional wisdom about Big Little Lies’ second season is that, other than Streep, it’s a bit of a letdown. Reports of behind-the-scenes shenanigans only contribute to the sense that something is just off about our second trip to Monterey. But one reason why the show can be difficult to watch has nothing to do with incompetence on the creative team’s part. It’s because we are finally seeing what happens when Meryl Streep turns off the charm and unleashes the darkness. The results are often unpleasant, but we should be grateful for that. Unpleasantness, it turns out, is what Streep’s work needed, and embracing it shows us what great actors can do when they challenge themselves.