Renata Klein is the star of Big Little Lies and if you disagree I want to fight you. And not only do I want to fight you, but Renata wants to fight you, too. She wants to destroy you. She wants to rip you to shreds and then put those shreds into a taro root and chia seed shake and then throw that shake into the ocean.
Renata is not an angry woman. She is not a vengeful woman. Renata is a righteous woman. She is, at least in her mind, the Joan of Arc of Monterey. Except if anyone ever tried to burn her at the stake she’d sue their asses.
It should have been obvious from the beginning that Renata would turn out to be the secret weapon of Big Little Lies. And it shouldn’t have been a secret, anyway. She’s played by Laura Dern, an actress with a preternatural ability to show the fringes of the human psyche—the edge of desperation, the peak of self-confidence, the valley of grief. I go back and forth daily between being preemptively ecstatic about Dern winning every acting award available to her next season and being furious at the injustice of a loss to some equally extraordinary actress. I’m giving a Dern-worthy performance over her performance. Recognize us, dammit!
With only a few scenes in the first episode, including one where she screams in a child’s face, it would have been easy to lump Renata into the villain category. But villain is far too reductive a descriptor for Renata. She is the pulsating id of the show. She is an attachment parent in a pantsuit; a CEO holding conference calls about a kid’s birthday party. She can do it all and do it all well. And, it bears repeating, she screamed in a child’s face with no reservations! She doesn’t need to be popular; she just wants to be right.
What’s so interesting about Renata is that while she is a woman who seemingly has it all—the career, the kids, the power, the house—her struggle is not rooted in juggling everything. That’s rare for television. When Renata struggles it’s with larger, moral questions. She’s activated by the choking of her daughter, Amabella, but she’s propelled by a basic confusion over why her daughter—and by extension she herself—can’t receive justice.
Through that lens, everything becomes a justice issue. Yes, even a Disney princess birthday party. We get treated to possibly one of the best Renata moments—and there are so many from which to choose—when she cannot cajole Madeline into letting her daughter, cool kid Chloe, attend Amabella’s party. We see her boardroom-honed negotiating skills skid off the rails in the face of Madeline’s refusal, not because pettiness is her kryptonite but because what Madeline is doing isn’t fair. And when things aren’t fair, Renata levels up in ways that are absurd, extraordinary and terrifying.
She offers Madeline the works, a “weekend trip to Disneyland, all expenses paid” which is insane even for some as wealthy as she is. But reaching an impasse with Madeline, Renata shifts into high gear, telling her “I’ll even get Snow White to sit on your husband’s face. Maybe Dumbo can take a squat on yours. You’re dead in this town, as is your f---ing puppet show.” Even Renata’s escalation is Type A. Joan of Arc wishes she'd been this fierce.
And Joan isn’t the only one. The other leads on Big Little Lies would probably throw themselves into the ocean before admitting it, but there’s a part of Renata that they all want, too. While they struggle with self-doubt and make tentative stabs at the life they want, Renata storms through every situation, all declarative sentences, sharp angles and crosswords done in ink.
From a plot standpoint, Renata sets off the other leads in a way that no one else does. You see this most directly with Madeline, but the threats to the production of Avenue Q bring Celeste back into the legal world. And deliciously, in the second to last episode, when Jane gets wind of a petition to kick Ziggy out of school, it brings out a strain of violence in her that had, up to that point, been a steady but silent undercurrent. Of course, not to be outdone, when Renata is attacked she dramatically flips, like a basketball player faking a foul, claims an injury to her eye and next shows up in a dramatic patch like Darryl Hannah in Kill Bill. You can’t outdo Renata Klein. You never will.
And while it’s true that the petition, and by extension Jane’s latent agency, are the work of one of the chorus of parents, Renata’s fingerprints are all over it. She’s the one who cast Ziggy as the villain—again, out of a sense of injustice, not malice—and, from her flow all the other parents' assumptions about the little boy. She is the whisper that travels like breeze through the Greek chorus of parents. They think these are their own opinions. They are not. Renata is legion.
It’s a testament to the writing on Big Little Lies and to Dern’s perfect performance that the character comes through as clearly as she does, especially in a show packed to the gills with talent. But Renata Klein plays second fiddle to no one, not even a career-best Reese Witherspoon or a haunting Nicole Kidman. This is Renata’s show. And if you don’t agree; you can meet us outside.