Emmy episode analysis: Laura Dern (‘Big Little Lies’) will not not be rich in ‘Tell-Tale Hearts’

“Will somebody give a woman a moment?!” Laura Dern’s Renata Klein roaringly implored last summer – and she got her wish, you could say. After winning Best Limited Series/TV Movie Supporting Actress for playing Renata on “Big Little Lies’” first season in 2017, Dern returns to the Emmys this year for the acclaimed HBO series, but in Best Drama Supporting Actress as she contends for its second installment. On her eighth career nomination, the actress is gunning to accrue her second victory just three years after snagging her first with a little help from her episode submission to Emmy voters, “Tell-Tale Hearts,” the season’s second outing.

When we meet Renata in the first season, she is unbridled, snooty and forthright, married to her wealthy husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling) and living a most luxurious lifestyle in her glamorous Monterey home. At the same time, she’s an uber-protective, concerned mother of her first-grade daughter Amabella (Ivy George) – who is choked on her first day of school – and a workaholic, who joined the board of Pay Pal in the summer that precedes Season 1. In her attempt to identify her daughter’s bully, she gets at her Monterey fellows’ throats, most markedly Jane Chapman’s (Shailene Woodley), to whose son Ziggy (Iain Armitage) Amabella points as her attacker. But after Renata learns that Ziggy is innocent, she comes around on Jane and offers a sincere apology.

Now, an entire year has passed since Trivia Night, on which Celeste’s (Nicole Kidman) abusive husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) was fatally pushed down a flight of stairs by Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) after she witnesses him attacking the group of women (also, Jane, Renata and Reese Witherspoon’s Madeline). Together, they decided to say he fell backwards instead of arguing it was self-defense. At the beginning of Season 2, all is good and well for Renata – who is about to be on the cover of the top women’s magazine in the country – until Gordon is arrested for securities fraud in “Tell-Tale Hearts,” plunging them into bankruptcy, wiping out every dollar Renata herself brought into their marriage.

Hysterical and distraught, she vents to Madeline about her fear of being thrust back into poverty after spending her entire adult life trying to escape it. She believes the detective who is investigating the Trivia Night incident might have been the one who tipped off the FBI, who have seized her laptop and iPad. On the ride home from bailing Gordon out, Renata pours out her rage and kicks him out of the car after he downplays his offense and blames her in part, but she quickly turns back around and recollects him. Finally, she lies beside an innocent Amabella in bed as she broods their family’s daunting situation.

What are the chances of Dern not not winning her second statuette? Let’s be the (judgy) judger of her prospects by considering the pros and cons.


“Tell-Tale Hearts” is further proof that Dern is a master at balancing genres, with almost all her scenes being as uproarious as they are devastating. Behind all the hysteria that viewers eat up with a spoon lies Renata’s deep-rooted fear of returning to poverty – or as she puts it, going “back in the hole.” When she visits Gordon in jail, the camera sits on Dern’s face and captures the angst with which the actress’ eyes bristle and the fury that dawns on her face as Renata hears of the mess in which her husband has put their family. While unabashedly humorous, her famous exiting line, “I will not not be rich!,” subtly displays Renata’s way of coping with the aforementioned fear: by reassuring herself that it’ll all be fine. And her boundless wrath – which Dern gloriously unloads in the car scene after Gordon calls Renata a “wanter” – doesn’t just derive from the loss of their money but all the hard work she put into establishing financial comfort. Ultimately, Dern’s scenery-chewing thoroughly works because the actress has fleshed out her character so precisely that it all feels inherently Renata.

Dern has been on a hot streak since her Emmy win in 2017, succeeding it with a Best Limited Series/TV Movie Actress nom for HBO’s telefilm “The Tale” in 2018. For her role in Noah Baumbach’s feature film “Marriage Story,” she then won every televised award earlier this year, including her career-first Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress. Between her two recognized roles of real-life sexual assault survivor Jennifer Fox in “The Tale” and the composed, astutely manipulative divorce attorney Nora Fanshaw in “Marriage Story,” the actress has been able to further show off her incredible range. And that doesn’t even include her searing turns in other recent projects, the nine-time Emmy-nominated “Twin Peaks: The Return” and 2020 Best Picture nominee “Little Women” being among them. But even before 2017, the TV academy recognized Dern with five bids for “Afterburn” (Best Movie/Mini Actress, 1992), “Fallen Angels” (Best Drama Guest Actress, 1994), “Ellen” (Best Comedy Guest Actress, 1997), “Recount” (Best Movie/Mini Supporting Actress, 2008) and “Enlightened” (Best Comedy Actress, 2013).


Winning a boatload of awards en route to the Emmys can be both a good and a bad thing – good, because you are likely to be more top of mind come voting; bad, because voters could feel as though you’ve been sufficiently awarded. With Dern, there is the added fact that she’s already triumphed for her “Lies” role, whereas her nominated co-star Meryl Streep obviously hasn’t. A three-time Oscar and Emmy winner, the legendary actress joined the second season as Perry’s grief-stricken, cunning mother, who arrives in Monterey to get to the bottom of her son’s death but quickly starts a custody battle for her two grandchildren after she deems Celeste an unfit mother. Even if Streep – who snagged Critics’ Choice and Golden Globe Awards bids (for the latter of which Dern missed out) earlier this year – doesn’t steal all of her co-star’s votes, she could siphon just enough to allow one of their competitors to pull ahead.

Speaking of their competitors, Dern and Streep are the only two in their category who even face a co-star, with Helena Bonham Carter (“The Crown”), Julia Garner (“Ozark”), Thandie Newton (“Westworld”), Fiona Shaw (“Killing Eve”), Sarah Snook (“Succession”) and Samira Wiley (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) rounding out the lineup. They are also the only acting bids for “Lies,” which followed its 16 total citations for Season 1 with just five for Season 2. Dern is the only Season 1 acting nominee who even managed to sneak back in, with 2017’s limited series/TV movie actress and supporting actor champs, Kidman and Skarsgard, as well as Witherspoon and Woodley, all missing out. This could point to less support from the actors’ branch, which, if split up between Dern and Streep, might not be enough to tip either one over the edge.

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