Big Little Lies season 2, episode 4, recap: “She Knows” puts Meryl Streep on offense

So far, one of the great things about Big Little Lies second season is how Meryl Streep’s character, Mary Louise, plows through the intricate web of shared secrets and lies around her.

The fourth episode, “She Knows,” makes it clear that she’s opposed to the Monterey Five for reasons beyond just generation gaps, fashion sense, and a distressing willingness to gaslight rape victims; she’s quite gleefully setting herself up as their No. 1 enemy, and it’s kind of wonderful to watch.

But she’s not the only too-prescient mother in this situation. Bonnie’s mom, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), is also taking a hard look at her daughter’s friendships. The net is tightening, and everyone’s on edge.

Mary Louise is on the case; ready or not, here she comes

We usually think of people who are calculating as holding their strategies close to their chest. That’s what makes Streep’s character so fascinating to watch. On the one hand, she bluntly says exactly what she’s thinking, and openly voices suspicions about her ex-daughter-in-law, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and her group of friends. She’s completely unconcerned about what they think of her and, in fact, seems to relish her ability to keep them off-guard.

On the other hand, she never stops scheming and planning her next move; that low-key bouffant hair is clearly full of secrets. But they don’t stay secrets long. At the beginning of episode four, Mary Louise turns up unexpectedly and uninvited at a get-together Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is having for the kids with the intention of seeing all three of her grandsons.

Remember that in the last episode, Mary Louise basically stalked and weirded out Jane (Shailene Woodley) by showing up at her job, gaslighting her about her own sexual assault, and trying to get her to take a paternity test. Then, she staked out the school in order to get a glimpse of Ziggy, cornering poor Jane into establishing a relationship with her. Now, she announces, she’s decided to rent an apartment in Jane’s building, so she can be even closer to them both.

When a horrified Celeste reminds her that she’s going to be living near her son’s rape victim, Mary Louise shrugs her off, repeating her assertion that she doesn’t believe Jane was really raped. Then she implies that if her son, Perry, had been cheating on Celeste with Jane, it must have been Celeste’s fault — and that probably there had been more women like Jane.

Celeste, shocked and angry, slaps Mary Louise, hard. And just like that, there’s another notch in Mary Louise’s tally of reasons her daughter-in-law probably murdered her son. She’s also growing concerned (although maybe we should put “concerned” in air quotes) about Celeste’s ability to look after her sons.

Later, when Celeste apologizes for hitting her, Mary Louise tells her she’s being erratic, and then weirdly adds that “grief is meant to be shared” — like Celeste is to blame for not letting her in emotionally, even though Mary Louise so far has done nothing bu gaslight, undermine, and flatly disbelieve her. Mary Louise does admit that her own husband left her at some point, after the mysterious accident in which Perry’s 5-year-old brother, Raymond, lost his life. “I deserved the blame, to be left,” she says, without really explaining what she means.

This episode contrasts relationships in various stages of decay and denial

This episode takes some time observing several relationships in various stages of decay, though not everyone seems aware that the writing is on the wall. Madeline is trying to keep her own marriage from ending, with minimal success. Ed (Adam Scott) hasn’t left yet, but he’s pretty much checked out emotionally. When Ed asks her why she didn’t just come to him if there was an issue with the relationship, Madeline morosely declares that she’s the problem. Later, when she asks him to just hurry up and leave her if he’s going to do it, he acts completely baffled, despite rejecting her at every turn. (Showrunner David E. Kelly keeps writing scripts in which Ed ends each scene he’s in by standing there uselessly for a few seconds, unfocused and speechless, and full marks to Adam Scott for somehow managing to make these moments feel like his character is slowly crawling towards some sort of realization about his own marriage.)

For her part, Renata (Laura Dern) is trying to keep from losing her entire fortune since her husband squandered it in an investment fraud; preserving the marriage is “eh, whatever” on her list of priorities. After a brutal meeting with a judge to discuss their assets in their bankruptcy claim, Renata’s husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) tries to ask for forgiveness for stealing her entire self-made fortune. She replies, majestically, that since she married a man who took all her accomplishments and turned them to shit, the fault is hers: “My picker’s broken,” she says. “My bad.” It’s cold and bitter and fantastic, and Laura Dern continues to own this season.

All of Renata’s energy has gone toward throwing her daughter Amabelle an unforgettable 70s-themed disco birthday party — maybe the last one that she’ll ever have on this grand scale. The gang’s all in attendance, including Jane and her cute new boyfriend, Corey, the one relationship that’s currently on the upswing. He’s been patient with her insistence on taking things at a snail’s pace, and during the party she finally reveals to him why, telling him briefly about her assault.

Bonnie’s mom, Elizabeth, also accompanies her family to the party, and she’s keeping a close eye on Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) and her tense interactions with the other members of the group. Bonnie’s worried that Mary Louise knows too much, and both she and Celeste tell Madeline that they regret having lied about Perry’s death. Elizabeth tells Bonnie she doesn’t like the energy in the house, or the energy around her, but Bonnie’s still wary of her mother’s spiritualism and extremely wary of what secrets she might be able to learn if she looks too closely.

She’s right to be wary. As we all should know by now, on this show, nothing spreads faster than a secret.

Big Little Lies is cynical about the over-protective stratagems of parental figures, but it also gives them plenty of reason to worry

As the party’s winding down, Bonnie’s mom’s psychic intuition spikes, and she senses something alarming — but before she can parse what it is, she collapses and has a stroke. Later on, at the hospital, with Elizabeth still comatose, Bonnie’s dad shows up and, incredibly, accuses her of stressing her mother out and somehow causing her stroke. My colleague Alex Abad-Santos noted in last week’s recap that BLL is a show that’s always asking about the “nature/nurture” conundrum, and how each factor impacts the lives of children; but let’s just note that most of the parents on this show can’t nurture their kids for shit.

Our group of friends aren’t always able to nurture each other, either. Jane is still having flashbacks to her rape and tells Celeste she’s not sure if she’ll ever be able to have sex again as a result. When she asks Celeste if Perry ever raped her, though, Celeste lies — we saw Perry assault her last season, but she assures Jane that Perry never assaulted her. Her answer clearly isn’t what Jane expected, and seems to have made her feel a little more isolated.

And sometimes they’re able to nurture themselves least of all. The show tends to swing back and forth between Bonnie and Celeste, never letting us forget that they’re both, in their own ways, caught in major mental spirals because of Perry’s death. At the hospital, Bonnie sees the detective who worked Perry’s case and assumes she’s there to talk about it; she isn’t, but Bonnie blows up at her before she realizes it, and it’s not a good look. Meanwhile, after lying to Jane about her own rape, Celeste has a one-night stand with the bartender — which Mary Louise and the boys walk in on the next morning. What’s worse, Celeste has taken Ambien and is groggy to the point of being unable to remember what happened.

Even though it’s been months since Perry’s death, Celeste’s louche behavior is yet another thing that looks suspicious, and to Mary Louise, it’s a definite sign that Celeste is unfit to care for the kids. “You’re a mess,” she tells her bluntly, before showing her the custody petition she intends to file. Celeste, outraged, orders her out of the house and starts preparing for battle.

Mary Louise is clearly not wrong — Celeste is a mess! — but we’re all Team Celeste here, and soon Jane shows up at Mary Louise’s door to defend her friend and declare that she’s a great mother. Mary Louise, however, seamlessly drives one more wedge between the two of them by pointing out that Celeste has been driving on Ambien and suggesting that Ziggy might not be safe in her care. By contrast, Jane, she insists, is an excellent mother. But we all know by now that there are no excellent mothers in this world — just people struggling to fuck up the least.

And back at the hospital, one of them is waking up from her stroke. As Bonnie watches over her mother, Elizabeth wakes — and has what seems to be a vision of her daughter, drowning herself in a roaring tide and then floating, lifeless, in the sea.

We’ve had glimpses of this vision, in the form of quick interpolated edits of the ocean, granted to us throughout the season, but this full reveal still feels like a shock, especially considering that there are only three episodes left in the season thus far, which doesn’t seem like nearly enough time to pull Bonnie out of her depression, if indeed the vision is pointing to her suicide. Celeste and Bonnie are the characters most impacted by the end of season one, and they’re currently the most vulnerable; but as the person who committed the act that ended Perry’s life, Bonnie is in a far more vulnerable position than Celeste, and of all the members of the Monterey Five, she’s the most isolated.

However, Mary Louise seems to be doing her best to turn all of the group’s members against one another, and if she succeeds half as well as she’s succeeded in driving Celeste into a mental spiral, the fallout will be vicious. Will the other members be able to save Bonnie if they can barely handle their own lives, and are barely talking to each other? Whatever the answer, the next few episodes most likely won’t be pretty.