How Big Little Lies subverts the murder mystery

Season 2 of the HBO series shows what comes after the case is 'solved'

Big Little Lies Meryl
(Image credit: Jennifer Clasen/HBO)

One reason a "whodunnit" can be so satisfying is that learning who did it can feel like it fixes whatever was done. Mysteries tend to have messy beginnings and confusing middles — and to go down any number of random tangents and side stories (this messiness being one of the other major pleasures of the genre) — but a neat and tidy conclusion can retroactively clean it all up. Case closed! A crime was committed, but justice has been done; a solved mystery is a happy ending.

This satisfaction might come apart if the story were to continue after the ending, of course. Apprehending a murderer won't bring the victim back, and life goes on and grief continues, forever. And since this feeling that we've had a happy ending if we've "solved" the mystery is, partially, a product of the point at which the story stops being told, the most interesting thing about David E. Kelley's HBO adaptation of Big Little Lies is that it has a second season, that the story continues past the mystery's solution. Though it was initially billed as a "miniseries" in 2017 — its seven episodes retold the story of Liane Moriarty's 2014 novel — the show returned in 2019, picking up in the aftermath, as life goes on. But in place of a new mystery to be solved, it instead introduces Mary Louise — played magnificently by Meryl Streep — as a kind of vengeful Miss Marple, an ominous Jessica Fletcher who picks at tied-off threads and asks questions everyone else wants to be forgotten. By introducing a detective into an already-solved mystery, the show subverts the genre itself, eating away at the happy ending "solution" with the gnawing hunger of a grief that will not be satisfied.

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Aaron Bady

Aaron Bady is a founding editor at Popula. He was an editor at The New Inquiry and his writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The New Republic, The Nation, Pacific Standard, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. He lives in Oakland, California.