Entertainment

The Meryl Streep-Reese Witherspoon Battle Is the Best Part of 'Big Little Lies' Season 2

madeline
Madeline, battle ready. | HBO
Madeline, battle ready. | HBO

One of the first images that leaked from Season 2 of Big Little Lies featured Reese Witherspoon hurling an ice cream cone at Meryl Streep's back. It was a thoroughly invigorating paparazzi shot, igniting fantasies of a showdown between two Oscar-winners. Last night's premiere did not offer up any cone action -- we'll have to wait for that -- but it did build on the promise of Witherspoon vs. Streep.

Meryl's Mary Louise Wright, the mother of the not-so-dearly departed Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), may be in closer contact with Nicole Kidman's Celeste, but her mortal enemy appears to be Witherspoon's alliterative town rabble rouser Madeline Martha Mackenzie. At this point, it's not exactly clear why Mary Louise has it out for Madeline, but she has an inherent (possibly accurate) suspicion of Monterey's preeminent holder of grudges. Together, they're an explosive match: Witherspoon's keyed-up energy crashes into Streep's eerily composed (except when she's screaming) school marm aesthetic.

Streep's performance has sparked the most discussion in the afterglow of the Season 2 premiere, and for good reason. Decked out in creepy false teeth and a truly unflattering wig, Streep turns Mary Louise into an immediately indelible character in the same league as Miranda Priestly. She's wonderfully inscrutable, to the point that's hard to tell if she's plotting some sort of long game or simply has no social graces. With pursed lips she hovers over the women of Monterey like some garbage-guzzling seabird waiting to strike. Mary Louise is somehow both perfectly composed and wildly erratic at the same time: During a dinner with Celeste and her grandchildren, she calmly informs them that she's going to scream, then issues a blood-curdling scream. It's ostensibly an act of catharsis, but is unsettlingly Lynchian.

Celeste is Mary Louise's most obvious target, given that Kidman's former lawyer is the woman who was married to her now-deceased son. But for some reason, Mary Louise seems singularly focused on gnawing away at Madeline's self-image. The first time they encounter one another on screen, Mary Louise disregards Madeline's pleasantries to tell her, "You're very short." As the older woman continues her disconcertingly low-key parade of insults -- "I don't mean it in a negative way... maybe I do" -- Witherspoon's face goes on an incredible journey. She can't even conceal her horror as Streep quietly rips her apart.

Later, the two encounter one another at Madeline's office as Mary Louise meets with another real estate agent about getting an apartment. Ushering that poor soul aside, Madeline uses the opportunity to stand her ground and tell her friend's mother-in-law that she doesn't appreciate the way she was treated. For a brief moment it seems like Mary Louise might concede. That is, until she launches into her about how Madeline reminds her of a "treacherous" boarding school best friend who was just an "itty bitty little thing with a big bubbly personality that was designed to hide that she was utterly vapid inside." Again, just watch Witherspoon's expressions.

HBO

This is going to sound insane, but I almost think Witherspoon's performance in this series has become a tad underrated. I know, I know, I know: That's probably an overstatement. I'm talking about Instagram, Draper James queen Reese Witherspoon here. But as Kidman deservedly cleaned up trophy after trophy for wrestling with trauma as Celeste, Witherspoon faded (a little) into the background. It was enough to make audiences forget, just a little, that no one has done more for setting the tone of Big Little Lies than the erstwhile Tracy Flick.

It's Madeline Martha Mackenzie's shit-talking spirit that makes the series such a compelling watch, and Witherspoon makes her more than a collection of memes. The reason Mary Louise's comments hit so hard is because they speak to the insecurities that Witherspoon has been teasing out for an entire season now. She largely does a good job of hiding them, but they pop out in moments of stress, like when she confronts her rebellious daughter about the decision not to go to college. Madeline's desire to overcorrect for her own errors has also put her at the center of the big question going forward: Will the Monterey Five be exposed? There was no reason to lie after Perrys' death. Bonnie was about to confess, but it was Madeline's decision to concoct a story about him slipping.

Now Mary Louise, the only person who really cares about finding some sort of justice for Perry, has Madeline's number and has murder on the mind. At the end of the hour, when she finds Celeste screaming from one of her frequent nightmares, Mary Louise asks, "So who are we planning to kill?." Did Celeste give something away in her sleep? Is Mary Louise just angling for a reason to go after Madeline? It's a compelling cliffhanger no matter how you look at it, and opens up a Pandora's box of possibilities for the season. I for one can't wait until ice cream gets involved.

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