Spoilers ahead. Hopefully, you've already come to this conclusion on your own — or have already seen the movie — because I hate to be the bearer of bad news. But anyway, here goes: Meryl Streep is barely in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again. And that's because of some more bad news: Her character, Donna, is dead in the movie. But how did Donna die? Mamma Mia! 2 actually leaves a lot of questions unanswered.
The film begins with Donna's daughter, Sophie (Amanda Seyfried), getting ready to reopen her mother's hotel, which is now called the Bella Donna, and there a pictures everywhere of Donna watching everyone in the background, looking like the Virgin Mary. So, yeah, it becomes clear very soon that Donna has died. At some point early on there's a quick exchange that makes it clear Donna died about a year ago, but her cause of death is never explained or even hinted at.
Even still, because of how this movie is set up — it's both a sequel and a prequel — we still get a lot of Donna in the movie, just a younger version played by Lily James. We find out that she ended up in Kalokairi after graduating from Oxford (?!?!) and deciding to go there because she heard some weird myth about it. Basically, Donna has always been the free spirit Streep played in the first movie, which checks out as far as the whole living-on-a-random-island-and-having-a-child-on-your-own thing goes, but doesn't give us any further information about how she might have died. Did she dance off a cliff? Did she injure herself while doing a repair at the hotel? Did she drown after a celebratory jump off a sailboat? We'll never know.
The film is wholly unconcerned with details such as how a main character died, which, while that sounds ridiculous, does fit in with how the first movie (and play) worked, too. The story is based around Sophie finding out who her father is — a very serious thing — but in the end she decides to just let all three of the men she's only known for a few days become her dads. The point isn't to get answers, the point is to watch people sing and dance to ABBA while on a beautiful island.
And so, with Here We Go Again, there's another very serious topic, death, that the film glosses over. Donna having died makes the movie more emotional, moves Sophie's story forward, and fits in well with the songs from ABBA, but when it comes to the details of the death, we get nothing. Is it possible to make a fun musical that also has a clear plot and answers very obvious questions? Yes, of course. But Mamma Mia! doesn't seem concerned with doing that and in this sense it is consistent in both movies.
The reveal about Donna dying was kept under wraps until the film premiered, but there was speculation that would be the case based on the trailers, which didn't show Streep very much. In an interview with Entertainment Tonight in March, Seyfried commented on the rumors and said, "You do see her. She’s, Meryl is very much a part of this movie. No, there are absolutely no flashbacks. No, because all the 'flashbacks' are of Lily [James] playing Donna. So it’s a prequel and a sequel, and so you see Meryl is very much a part of it."
While Seyfried didn't give away any spoilers, she was right about Streep being very much a part of the movie. And Streep is in the movie. She appears as Donna towards the end as a vision Sophie sees in a church, and they sing a very emotional rendition of "My Love, My Life" together. Streep is also a part of the big song and dance number to "Super Trouper" along with the rest of the cast at the very end. On top of that, there are those giant photos of Meryl Streep in the background of the hotel scenes. Yes, Meryl is there is a big, morbidly hilarious way.