Entertainment

Why There's So Much Controversy Surrounding 'Big Little Lies' Season 2

big little lies
TFW your female director was basically fired. | HBO
TFW your female director was basically fired. | HBO

A dark cloud settled over Monterey, the sunny backrop of Big Little Lies. It's not the menace of Meryl Streep's new antagonist Mary Louise Wright -- though she's certainly causing her fair share of chaos in the context of the series. It's off-screen drama that yields questions about authorship, sexism, and whether you can even watch the show with a clean conscience if you want to support female filmmakers in an unfriendly industry. 

Indiewire reported that Andrea Arnold, the credited director on all episodes of Season 2, was essentially ousted after she finished filming the season. Instead of reinventing the show in her image, HBO and the executive producers, among them first season director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer David E. Kelley, took over, reshaping what she had captured into a style that mimicked Vallée's work in Season 1 without her input. 

Which is not to say that the season hasn't been enjoyable. In its second outing, Big Little Lies has grown pulpier -- and more nonsensical -- yet the joy of watching fabulous actresses tear into one another remains. But if you've detected a thinness to the storytelling, or were wondering where that shot of Reese Witherspoon hurling ice cream at Streep went, the efforts to scrub Arnold's work might explain that.

Who is Andrea Arnold? 

Arnold was always a strange but exciting choice to join the Big Little Lies family. While she's worked in television before -- notably on Jill Soloway's I Love Dick and Transparent, both Amazon series -- she's mainly known for her films, which are largely concerned with people living on the margins of society. In other words, characters who exists in communities that are worlds away from the extreme wealth of Big Little Lies' Monterey. While she won an Academy Award in 2005 for her short Wasp, her breakout work was arguably 2009's Fish Tank. The film centers on 15-year-old Mia, who dreams of being a hip hop dancer and gets involved with her mother's boyfriend (Michael Fassbender). In 2016, Arnold made another well-reviewed tale of wayward youth, American Honey (now on Netflix), about a teen (Sasha Lane) who travels the American West with a ragtag group of magazine-selling young adults, among them an intensely charismatic Shia LaBeouf. It features the best movie sequence ever set to a Rihanna song. Arnold typically shoots in the boxy Academy ratio and uses first time-actors and improvisation. Her hand-held camera is constantly in movement, and she finds beauty in situations that would otherwise seem downtrodden. When she was announced in December 2017 as the woman taking over the helm of Big Little Lies, cinephiles were overjoyed. Her involvement -- along with that of Streep -- seemingly made the extension of what was supposed to be a limited series a worthwhile endeavor. 

Almost immediately, it appeared that Arnold wasn't exactly doing "her thing" in the drama, but it was unclear whether that was her choice or HBO's. (The fact that Arnold did not sit for any interviews and was not at the premiere seemed indicative that it was the latter.) 

What about Jean-Marc Vallée? 

The cinematic aesthetic of Big Little Lies was established by French-Canadian director Jean-Marc Vallée, who had directed Witherspoon previously in Wild and was nominated for an Oscar for editing his feature Dallas Buyers Club, which led Matthew McConaughey to a Best Actor win. Vallée is big on indie music cues and flashbacks, but he's a far more commercial director than Arnold, whose films are loosely plotted. Vallée jumped over to another HBO project based on a successful book, Sharp Objects, which is what prevented him from coming back full time on Big Little Lies to begin with, per Indiewire's report. Meanwhile, writer David E. Kelley, of Ally McBeal and The Practice fame, is the sole authorial voice of the series aside from author Liane Moriarty, who wrote the book Season 1 was based on.  

So, what happened? 

Sources told Indiewire's Chris O'Falt that HBO always intended for Vallée to return, but allegedly never told Arnold this plan. If the network wanted Arnold to adhere to Vallée's style, that was also never conveyed. "Sources close to production and Vallée tell IndieWire that there was no style bible laying out the visual rules of the show, common for TV series looking to maintain consistency between different filmmaking teams," O'Falt wrote. Arnold is "heartbroken," and viewers are left with shorter-than-intended episodes cobbled together through reshoots and the help of nearly a dozen editors. 

What does this mean for the series? 

To the average viewer, probably not much. If anything, Big Little Lies season 2 largely looked and felt like Big Little Lies, but that's sort of the problem. An Arnold-directed season was a thrilling prospect because it promised to add something new to a show that had seemingly reached its natural conclusion, with Season 1 finishing the story Moriarty told in her novel. In fact, a main gripe with the season was a narrative one, seemingly invented to keep the intrigue going beyond the text: Just why did the central characters involved in the death of Perry Wright need to lie when self-defense is such a clear explanation for his fatal tumble down the stairs? Perhaps there's more of a justification in the chunks of Arnold-shot footage that were excised from the final project. But that's a minor issue in the grand scheme of things. 

Regardless of how the season shook out, Big Little Lies now has a big PR problem. As O'Falt explained: "A show dominated by some of the most powerful actresses in Hollywood hired a fiercely independent woman director -- who was now being forced to watch from the director’s chair as scenes were shot in the style of her male predecessor." 

Neither Witherspoon nor Nicole Kidman -- the two aforementioned "powerful actress," who also happen to be executive producers on the project and are seen as largely responsible for getting it made -- have commented publicly on the controversy, but there are questions as to whether they did enough to protect Arnold's work or whether they were complicit in removing her from the project. Before the penultimate episode aired, Witherspoon Instagrammed a still of the lead actresses from the opening credits and captioned it, "I've got all my sisters with me." The official account for the show replied, "We are family." The exchange is a minor show of solidarity that seems to leave one key person out. 

What now?

BLL's lackluster series finale left more questions than answers, the biggest of which is: What was the point of all of that? Messy storylines, like Celeste's custody battle, wrap up neatly, while the matter of what repercussions the Monterey Five will face for Perry's death remains up in the air given that the finale ends with the women walking to confess. Looking back, it appears that the seven episodes had no significant character development, just a lot of memeable moments amounting to nothing. Another huge question is whether audiences will ever see the footage Arnold produced. In light of Indiewire's story, the hashtag #ReleaseTheArnoldCut emerged. It mimics "#ReleaseTheSnyderCut," a cheeky call from DC obsessives to release a Zack Snyder cut of Justice League, but this one is completely serious in messaging. 

With the season finished, it seems less likely that HBO or anyone involved will have to answer to outrage over perceived mistreatment of Arnold. HBO president Casey Bloys has already said a third season is "not realistic" given the cast's schedules. But now Big Little Lies' legacy will be less of a triumph for women in Hollywood and more of a cautionary tale. In between the real estate porn and costume parties, the series has often been about its characters claiming ownership over their lives independent of the men who surround them. Knowing that a talented female creator was offered, then denied, the opportunity to create art on her terms makes watching a deeply frustrating experience. No amount of Meryl Streep side-eye can change that. 

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Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.