REVIEW: Little Fires Everywhere

Reese Witherspoon's new book-to-TV adaptation is on fire

By Tegan Mouton

REVIEW: Little Fires Everywhere

Little fires everywhere

It’s been over 100 days since South Africa ground to a halt in a bid to stop the spread of Covid-19 and since then I have spent way too much time indoors watching TV. Amidst all the feel-good rewatches (I’m talking to you, New Girl) and trashy binges (ugh Tiger King) a few have really stood above the rest.

One such series, to my surprise, was Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington’s eight part original Hulu series, Little Fires Everywhere. From the very first scene of the series, which featured Witherspoon’s character Elena watching her elegant home go up in flames, I was hooked.

When I say I was surprised I enjoyed the show, I don’t mean I thought it would be bad, a cast of this calibre wouldn’t pull through for a bad script, I was just skeptical of Witherspoon’s returning to TV starring in (and producing) another mini series so soon after the hugely popular Big Little Lies.

At surface level, you can draw a lot of similarities between the two shows. Both are set in idyllic “American Dream” type towns (Monterey, California and Shaker Heights, Ohio), both are focused on women and their domestic situations, and both start with a bang that hints at a “whoddunit” type mystery that has you interested from the first scene.

Witherspoon’s characters in the two shows have a great deal in common too, they’re both rich, slightly unfulfilled, disconnected from their marriage, struggling with their teenage children, and just a little too involved in everyone else’s business. But that’s where the similarities between the shows end.

Big Little Lies delves into the themes of abuse, betrayal, healing and the strength of women supporting women, and while the characters have their complexities, there is a clear antagonist throughout the series. In contrast, Little Fires Everywhere feels more nuanced and layered with its thought provoking themes, and half the time you don’t know who to root for, something I thought was excellently balanced by producer Liz Tigelaar, who took author Celeste Ng’s book from the page to screen.

So, without further ado, let’s dive into why I found this series so gripping:

Spoiler warning, this is your last chance to bail before we recap some of the series’ most surprising reveals.

The premise

Little Fires Everywhere is about two women from different socio-economic backgrounds who suddenly find their lives overlapping. Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, a wealthy mother of four and part-time journalist who has the seemingly perfect life, while Washington portrays mysterious bohemian artist Mia Warren, a single mother with a teen daughter and a nomadic lifestyle.

Mia and her daughter Pearl move into the Richardsons’ rental home in Shaker Heights, and when their children hit it off and Mia takes a job as a “house manager” in Elena’s mansion, their contrasting lifestyles and views on family cause tension for them, and some great TV for us.

The reasons for their discomfort with each other come out over the course of the series, and a number of flashback sequences give insight into the two characters.

Long before Elena was the pedantic mother who wakes up at 6am everyday and measures exactly 4 ounces of wine every night, she was a free spirited student travelling Europe with her college sweetheart and dreaming of being a journalist at a newspaper like The New York Times.

When faced with the choice of adventuring further with her boyfriend or returning to Shaker Heights and a cosy life set up by her affluent mother (complete with a job at the local paper), she chose the latter.

Flash forward almost twenty years later and Elena and her husband Bill (I love you Joshua Jackson) have welcomed four kids (only three of whom were planned) and she’s still writing for the same community paper she started at. While she’s a devoted mother with a loving husband and a comfortable life, it’s obvious her decision decades ago has cast a shadow on the life she dreamt of. Her need to be perfect comes from a deep-rooted insecurity about her place in the world, and she balks at anyone who didn’t choose the white picket fence life she did.

As for Mia, her wariness of the Richardsons comes from her understanding of the socio-economic class dynamics at play in Shaker Heights, a predominantly white, affluent town where casual racism is rife (let’s not forget the very first interaction between Elena and Mia is the former calling the police when she sees Mia and Pearl sleeping in their car).

Interestingly, Mia and Pearl aren’t African-American in the book, but Liz Trigelaar and Celeste Ng thought the eight part series would allow them to properly explore the topic of race dynamics that Ng was worried to try within the limits of a book. In fact, the show writers were all asked to read Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility before they joined the production.

The other reason for Mia’s dislike of Elena and her way of life is one of the biggest reveals of the series. That Mia was never actually supposed to be Pearl’s mother, that she conceived her daughter with the husband of an infertile woman so that the couple could have a baby, and that when the time came to give Pearl up she wasn’t able to go through with it, running away with the baby instead.

Her decision to keep Pearl means her daughter could never have the suburban normalcy that the Richardons do, and that Pearl so badly longs for. Mia’s jealousy of Pearl’s fascination with cookie-cutter mom Elena causes friction between the two, and her fierce protection of her decision to raise Pearl is also what sets off the series’ subplot.

The super intense sub-plot

The series’ secondary plot is the catalyst for Elena and Mia’s relationship to turn from fragile friendship to all out war, and has to do with Elena’s best friend Linda McCullough adopting a one year old Chinese-American baby after years of heartbreak and struggling to conceive. Drama ensues when Mia discovers the baby is in fact the biological child of her colleague, undocumented waitress Bebe Chow, who regrets her decision to abandon her baby outside a fire station during a spell of postpartum depression, and desperately wants her back.

The ensuing court case about the baby’s custody divides the Richardson and Warren families, who disagree whether she would have a “better life” with an affluent adoptive family who disregard her culture, or with a single mother who loves her dearly but was forced to give her up when she couldn’t afford to feed her. You could see why Elena and Mia feel this argument mirrors their own situations.

Going back to what I said about not knowing who to root for, I’m still not entirely sure who I think was the deserving victor of the court case. When Linda was ultimately granted full custody by the court, and later when Bebe stole her baby back and fled the country during the show’s climatic final episode, neither situation really felt right to me. I think this is what Tigelaar (who is adopted herself) wanted the audience to struggle with, is a mother’s love enough when you can’t provide for your baby, and can you really put a price on a child?

Tigelaar was quoted by Vulture saying: “We talked a lot in the writers room about this idea of who deserves to be a mom and how we decide that as a society,and how much of being perceived as a good mother to your children is about having money. In terms of this custody battle, why does Linda deserve this baby? If she had two healthy children today, would she still deserve Bebe’s baby?”

My main take away 

While Little Fires Everywhere touches on themes of racism, classism, belonging and identity, at its core this is a story about motherhood and the complex nature of mother daughter relationships. Aside from the battle between Bebe and Linda to be granted the rights to raise Bebe’s baby, Mia and Elena struggle with their daughters throughout the series too. Elena’s eldest daughter Lexie is the perfect poster child, fitting the manicured image of the Richardson family. She’s beautiful, smart, popular, and likely heading off to an Ivy League university after High School.

But below the surface, she’s suffocating under the pressure of being perfect, and doesn’t feel she has anyone in her family she can turn to when she unexpectedly falls pregnant. Elena’s youngest daughter Izzy on the other hand is the polar opposite, a young, fiercely independent aspiring artist struggling with her sexuality, leading to serious tension between mother and daughter. It doesn’t help that Izzy’s unexpected arrival and difficult childhood were the final nail in the coffin of Elena’s career dreams.

As for Pearl, her unorthodox upbringing means she knows to never paint more than one wall of a new bedroom when they move in, because they’ll likely be gone again soon. Despite the close bond between Pearl and her mother, you can sense a tinge of resentment from the younger Warren girl, and it all comes to a head when Elena maliciously reveals that Mia kept Pearl from a life with a wealthy suburban couple.

Rebelling against their own mothers, the three girls seek advice and shelter elsewhere. Lexie spends the night at Mia’s after her abortion, and Izzy develops a special bond with the artist, especially when Mia makes her feel safe discussing her sexuality. On the other hand, Pearl spends hours at the Richardson home, and even asks Elena to help her with administrative problems at school.

While the daughters aren’t perfect, nor are their mothers. Elena sees only what she wants to see with her children, and pushes them to excel without seeing without the pressure is doing to them. Mia on the other hand has lied to Pearl for her entire life, and her protectiveness over her daughter stops Pearl from making the connections with others that she desperately craves. That said, both of their actions, while maybe questionable, are rooted with good intentions and endless love for their children. If that’s not motherhood I don’t know what is.

The ending

The drama all culminates in a fire, as you would have guessed by the name and opening scene. After hearing that Elena has evicted Mia and Pearl and that they have left town forever, Izzy breaks down, douses her bed in gasoline and is about to strike a match when her siblings and mother stop her in the nick of time. Having just found out about Lexie’s abortion and seemingly coming unravelled, Elena loses it and says what everyone has been thinking the whole time, that she never wanted Izzy in the first place. It’s a heavy moment, definitely some of Reese Witherspoon’s best acting, and ends with Izzy grabbing her things and running away.

The three remaining Richardson children decide they’ve had it with their mother too and finish Izzy’s work, dousing their rooms and setting their house on fire, pulling Elena out just in time to watch the house burn (a la the series’ first scene). I know this ending was super dramatic and supposed to blow our minds (in the book it’s Izzy who starts the fire) but it didn’t really pay off for me. Sure Elena wasn’t great, but I don’t think she was the worst mother in the world, and having the three remaining kids suddenly flip a switch and be disgusted with the privileged life they’ve only benefitted from seemed like a bit of a stretch, but that’s just my opinion…

We catch Izzy hitch-hiking on the side of the road, and being picked up by none other than Pearl and Mia, before waking up and realising it was all a dream. The last shot of the small 14-year-old is her sitting on a bus, off to an unknown location, though in the book it’s made a bit clearer she’s off to look for Mia and Pearl.

As for where the Warrens are actually headed, we last see them pulling up to Mia’s childhood home so that Pearl can finally meet her estranged grandparents, while Mia reads a poem Pearl wrote for her.

In the closing scene of the series Elena goes out in search of her youngest child, and breaks down when she realises her daughter is gone, calling her “Izzy” and opposed to “Isobel” for the first time in eight episodes. It’s a heartbreaking moment and I definitely had to reach for the tissues.

Do we need a second season?

There’s a lot of speculation around whether or not the show might return for a second season despite the first series covering all the book’s subject matter. Remember, that didn’t stop Witherspoon bringing back Big Little Lies for season two (a mistake in my opinion, sorry Meryl Streep).

That said, viewers will be curious about what happens next, does Elena face trouble with the law after her false confession that she burnt her own house down? Does Pearl ever meet her biological father? And do Izzy and Elena ever find each other again?

As for the last question, Ng’s book ends on a more definitive note with the heartbreaking line:

“Elena would spend months, years, the rest of her life looking for her daughter, searching the face of every young woman she met for as long as it took, searching for a spark of familiarity in the faces of strangers.”

Ng has said that she won’t be returning to write a sequel, and both Witherspoon and Washington have stated they’ll be happy with only one season, so at this point it seems unlikely.

For my part, I loved the openness of the ending, it gives the series serious emotional weight and feels true to life. Things don’t always wrap up neatly, you don’t always get a chance to redeem yourself, and sometimes you have to let go and move on. That said, I could definitely see myself watching this again.

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