If the final moments of Big Little Lies’ Episode Four are any indication, there are only four words to describe Bonnie’s future: you in danger, girl. After Bonnie’s mother, Elizabeth (Crystal Fox) suffers what doctors believe to be a stroke, she wakes up in the closing moments of the episode and has a vision: her daughter Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) floating in the ocean. The moment is punctuated with a reworked cover of Timmy Thomas’ “Why Can’t We Live Together,” as the episode cuts to black, forecasting an ominous final three episodes for Bonnie.
Elizabeth’s big vision moment is a shift for Big Little Lies. That’s because executive producer Jean-Marc Vallée’s doesn’t simply use music score this series—it’s a part of the character’s lives and minds. But as Bonnie floats in the abyss, the music seems to be playing on an unconscious level. “At the end of Four, we were looking for a track to finish… but done in a way where we could also have the feeling that something mysterious is going on,” Vallée explains. “We’re wondering What the hell is this? What is she seeing? What are these visions?“
Season Two has spent a lot of time in the minds of its characters, be it Madeline and Celeste’s dreams or Elizabeth’s visions, and in Big Little Lies style, even those scenes get musical backing. Vallée and Earworm music supervisor Simon Astall see the use of music as less of a score and more of an extension of their characters. What started out as a TV series soundtrack has grown into a phenomenon of its own, but the meaning runs deeper than just a strong playlist. The duo spoke to Esquire about Season Two’s music, getting into the minds of the characters, and what clues might be available to those listening closely enough.
The idea of featuring music so prominently is one that Vallée has carried over from Season One. But using it to launch into a character’s psyche is something a bit newer in Season Two. Even if a song seems to play out of no where, Vallée and his editing team make sure it’s grounded in reality. At the start of Episode Three, as Bonnie recollects on the past with her mother, Elizabeth Cotten’s “Shake Sugaree” plays in her mind, when in real time, it’s actually Elizabeth singing it as a lullaby to Bonnie’s daughter Skye. “It’s going into their thoughts and their minds and seeing what they think about,” Vallée explains. But the process is more than just linking songs from one scene to another.
Vallée, who serves as Executive Producer after directing the entirety of Season One, gets the final look at the season’s playlist, ensuring a unified tone. But early in the process, Astall starts plotting the course for the types of songs that might be incorporated later on.
“The way we started it was we had different playlists for each character, with thoughts of where they might be in their lives,” Astall explains. As footage rolls into the editing room, editors have a selection to choose from. In some cases, early choices stick for the long haul.
Season One featured the reoccurrence of “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” in Jane’s (Shailene Woodley) life—an apt fit as she got closer to identifying her rapist and father of her son, Ziggy. In Season Two, Renata (Laura Dern) gets her own theme song in “What Becomes of the Brokenhearted.” Creator David Kelley wrote the track into the story in Episode Two, but as Vallée put his final touches on the season, he had an idea. “We thought, why don’t we put it in while she’s driving in Episode One and then have it in her car again,” Vallée says. The result is a masterful lesson in storytelling. While Episode One features the song in an innocuous car ride, it’s recalled in Episode Two when Renata shuts it off mid-argument with her husband Gordon. “Often, when there’s a playlist playing, you don’t realize that the playlist starts over again,” Vallée says.
Those little tricks are what makes the music of Big Little Lies one of the series most interesting characters. Like a spicy comeback from Chloe, every music choice sheds a bit of commentary into the story, whether it’s in the mind of a character or streaming from their laptops. The particular use of music and its placement within the dreams and visions of the series characters will continue to evolve throughout the rest of the season, with Willie Nelson and Leon Bridges tracks slated for later episodes. Oh, and Roy Orbison. Roy Orbison is going to play an important part. “Every time we cut to [Mary Louise’s] place, she’s listening to Roy Orbison’s music. She’s into Roy,” Vallée explains. “We had Elvis in Season One, and now we’re having Roy Orbison. He’s more on the dark side.”
To hear it from Vallée and Astall’s point of view, song selection can act like Easter eggs in that way. To overlook the upcoming use of Roy Orbison or even the just slightly rerecorded opening song from Michael Kiwanuka is to miss foreshadowing and tone shifts to come. As for the fate of Bonnie as she floats in the ocean during the haunting final song of Episode Four, that’s still up in the air. But as Elizabeth continues to have visions, the music of Big Little Lies becomes a potential forecast of what’s to come. The only question is: is there any way to stop it?