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Laura Dern's Renata Klein is the GIF Queen of Big Little Lies

But is the series sacrificing character for meme gold in its second season?
  • Laura Dern in Big Little Lies (HBO)
    Laura Dern in Big Little Lies (HBO)

    “I will not not be rich” snarls Laura Dern as Renata Klein, jabbing a finger at the plexiglass that separates the recently arrested Gordon Klein (Jeffrey Nordling) from his angry wife. Four episodes in, and the second season of Big Little Lies has already delivered a number of instantly quotable moments, but why simply quote the most outrageous and rage-fueled lines when GIFs can do the job and then some?

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    As each member of the Monterrey Five attempts to keep their shared secret, it’s as if they are becoming the most extreme versions of themselves in an attempt to maintain some level of control. Renata is doubling down on being the kind of person we cheer on loudly in every episode, yet would hate to encounter encounter in real life. Her signature outbursts and uncontrollable fury have been part of the show since Amabella was attacked in the very first episode; but certain aspects of Renata’s Season 2 storyline are feeling a bit forced.

    Social media has changed not only how audiences watch and interact with TV, but also how networks interact with viewers and promote their shows. This means partaking in memes and using animated GIFs just as fans do. GIFs are now a staple of online conversation, featured and promoted from dedicated areas on our phones and social media. The gif search engine GIPHY has verified accounts for individual shows including Big Little Lies, revealing just how valuable they have become. At the time of this writing, the show's official account has 403 gifs available, which have been viewed nearly 700 million times.

    Renata had a number of Season 1 moments that perfectly illustrate rich lady rage, which can be used by anyone to emote a sense of exasperation. Clad in an expensive 3.1 Phillip Lim fringed sweater, her perfect manicure is on display as she mimics a throttling motion aimed at her husband.

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    The infinity pool in the background only adds to the excess. The same location location is the backdrop for another peak Renata meltdown where she yells, “I SAID THANK YOU!” at a fellow parent. Stripped from its context, this GIF looks like she is simply screaming into the void.

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    It isn’t all rage-spiraling though, as Renata’s dancing at Amabella’s birthday party makes for an excellent celebratory response. These are all GIFs I have saved on my phone, which I have used on multiple occasions since the first season aired two years ago. I recently rewatched Season 1 and found it jarring to see these snippets back in their original form after taking on their own life in my digital interactions.

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    Cut to Season 2, which thus far has played like a Laura Dern highlight reel. Before her life comes crashing down, her patio is the scene of another dance moment during a magazine photo shoot. Watching her shimmy her shoulders along to Diana Ross, I found it hard not to think what a great GIF this will make (I am part of the problem!). Yet after a while, I've begun to wonder if these moments don't detract from the substance of the scenes in which they appear..

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    Part of Renata’s intensity regarding money comes from the fact that she grew up without any, but these flashes of insight are few and far between. Any introspection is immediately usurped by the next over-the-top moment. The insecurities and softness that were presented in Season 1 have been replaced by a series of fury-laden reactions that lean toward caricature.

    This is perhaps best demonstrated in her confrontation with Principal Warren Nippal (P.J. Byrne) when she notes, “Please. I will be rich again.” This entire scene can be broken down into memes and GIFs, including the best polar bear reference since Lost. She even goes so far as to call him pitiful to his face, just as she did to her husband. It's no wonder Principal Nippal thinks Renata is the Medusa of the second-grade mothers. Then, of course there's the moment when she mocks the doctor treating Amabella’s anxiety attack, giving Laura Dern another opportunity to flex her full-of-contempt face. Truly, a GIF gift.

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    Every man that gets in Renata’s way this season is on the receiving end of a scorn-filled tongue lashing. Again, series creator David E. Kelley knows what his audience wants. The contempt she has for her husband permeates every interaction, including her trip down to his man cave when she orders him to sell his toys. In Season two's disco-party episode, Renata’s oversized smile and “fun” attitude are her shield, but she drops that facade when she needs to break up Ed and Nathan’s fight, hissing at them:

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    Originally conceived as a mini-series, the first season of Big Little Lies was made in a vacuum. There is no way director Jean-Marc Valée could have known that certain moments would take on a life of their own, but the second season doen't have this luxury. That's not to say there are now script notes emphasizing which lines will be transformed into GIFs, but it's hard not to view some of the broader scenes as being geared toward recreating the types of moments that became so viral  last time around.  The intersection of art and social media means that a scene such as Meryl Streep screaming at Mary Louise at the dinner table will inevitably take on a life of its own in GIF and meme culture. The scream montage that featured in the first Big Little Lies Season 2 teaser has “Mood” written all over it.

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    Big Little Lies is a buzzworthy show with an A-list movie star cast, but plenty of movie stars are now doing TV. In order to maintain relevance and buzz, it helps to have these moments that can be clipped and taken out of context to be used in personal conversations and public declarations. A GIF doesn’t make a TV show a hit, but it does extend its life. It would be naive to think this isn’t something being considered, at least from a promotional point of view.

    Laura Dern as Renata Klein is delivering a scene-stealing performance, in part because this character is larger-than-life. Dern does imbue a sense of sympathy, even when Renata probably doesn’t deserve it, but in lesser hands, she would be a cartoonish nightmare. For all the GIF gold Dern has delivered, her character is emblematic of where Big Little Lies could flounder. It doesn’t always scratch beneath the surface of its slick appearance, no matter how many therapy sessions are portrayed. To quote a Madeline moment from Season 1 (one that's also saved in my GIF folder), when it comes to depth and delving beneath the surface: “I want more!”

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    Emma Fraser has wanted to write about TV since she first watched My So-Called Life in the mid-90s, finally getting her wish over a decade later. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina

    TOPICS: Laura Dern, HBO, Big Little Lies