Arts & Culture

Big Little Lies Is a Horror Show and Meryl Streep Is Its Villain

An ode to Streep's Mary Louise, the grandma of our nightmares.
IMAGE JENNIFER CLASEN / HBO
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It starts with her mouth. Meryl Streep contorts her lips inward, focusing all of her tension in their corners. When she's silent, the degree of pursing and clenching says it all; when she's speaking, her jaw remains constricted.

It's as if she's guarding something—something lurking inside, threatening to escape. If Big Little Lies were just a touch more like Alien, escape it would.

In theory, something could be on the verge of exiting Streep's jaw: a set of false teeth, which she wears to play Mary Louise Wright, mother of the late Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård). They were Streep's idea, designed by Hollywood "Tooth Fairy" Chris Lyons to mimic Skarsgård's white-chiclet-style choppers. The change is so subtle it feels uncanny, leaving the viewer unsure if there is really a difference at all. It just feels... off.


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Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) snoops through Celeste’s medicine drawer.

That's the magic of Mary Louise, as Streep plays her. She's cloaked in every cultural signifier of the classic American grandma, from the silk scarves and wire-rimmed glasses to the distinctive "Ooo's" that accent her speech. She's every bit the harmless retiree—but one or two deviations from the norm, toward the limits of social acceptability.

When verbally sparring—the crutch of almost every Mary Louise interaction—she feigns reserve, then strikes. "I can't complain. Actually, I can." "I don't mean it in a negative way. Maybe I do." It's a one-two emotional punch, the likes of which the Monterey Five have never seen—despite living in one of the most toxic social environments around. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and the others are left reeling.

Beneath these devious tactics lies only more malice, which she throws at Jane (Shailene Woodley) with even more fervor than the criticisms she hurls at Celeste. Even after conceding that Perry had fathered Jane’s child, Mary Louise insinuates that Jane lied about the rape, cutting deeper into the emotional wounds that her son first made. When Mary Louise’s wickedness hits the Monterey Five’s woman-power shield, it splinters the glass.

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Mary Louise is always watching.

In anyone's hands, that script would summon an intimidating mother-in-law. But with Meryl, Mary Louise takes the form of a horror villain, making the viewer's skin crawl with her brand of suburban gore. Mary Louise is more spine-chilling than any costumed antihero, because she meets us where we are. She hunts in coffee shops, or seaside apartment complexes, preying on her victims with barbed remarks and—when necessary—legal intervention. It's the closest Monterey gets to bloodshed, save what happened to Mary Louise's son.

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Not that Meryl plays her as a one-note antagonist. Depending on her surroundings, she allows Mary Louise to slip between passive-aggressive aggressor and cooing caretaker, without even showing the seams. She howls at the dinner table, snoops through Celeste's medicine drawer, and plays with the twins in equal measure. Meryl refuses to let the audience see through Mary Louise, even as she sees through just about everyone else.


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Mary Louise (Meryl Streep) confronts her daughter-in-law, Celeste (Nicole Kidman).

It was a true stroke of genius to add this enigmatic grandmother to the already-frothing mixture of Monterey intrigue. Whereas in season one, Big Little Lies wasted no time introducing us to is climactic murder, in season two, the drama unfolds quietly—with Meryl pulling at each woman's strings, untangling them as she searches for the truth they're working so hard to obscure.

Even better, there’s something there for her to find. She’s right; Perry’s death was no accident. And on its own, it’s not wild for a grandmother to be concerned for her grandchildren, as their mother’s grief balloons into a prescription drug problem. The heroines, too, have their secrets.

With the stakes lowered one notch—hovering just above reality—Big Little Lies has evolved into a domestic thriller. And Mary Louise is the teeth-baring devil next door.

*This article originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com

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*Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors

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