Little Fires Everywhere
Of all the books and thinkpieces and podcasts and TV commentary and stand-up specials and tweets and any other form of media that discuss motherhood, probably nothing has cut me more than a piece Caitlin Flanagan wrote for The Atlantic way back in 2004, which is titled “How Serfdom Saved the Women’s Movement” and details the internal frustration felt by so many women over whether and how to balance parenting and working. Actually, it’s this one specific line from the polarizing author that sticks with me: “If you want to make an upper-middle-class woman squeal in indignation, tell her she can’t have something.”
I wasn’t married when Flanagan published the piece. I also didn’t have kids and I certainly wasn’t upper-middle class. But I understood then, and now more than ever, what she meant. If you have been taught your entire childhood that you can achieve anything and get all that you deserve just by working hard — and are not taught anything about luck, race, wealth, class, disabilities, or any other hurdle — then, yeah, you’d be pretty upset when you find out that life’s not always that easy.
This isn’t to say that you can’t be indignant and also suffer severe loss and pain.
The fourth episode of Little Fires Everywhere opens with a flashback to 1992, not with Elena or Mia, but with Elena’s friends Mark and Linda. He’s led into a hospital room where she’s being prepped for a procedure, her legs in stirrups. It’s not explicitly stated what is happening, but given what we know already about their troubled history with conception and how her voice cracks when she tells him that “nobody should have to do this,” it’s probably a safe assumption that she is about to have to deliver a still-born baby.
Linda is wealthy and popular and married to a successful man. But none of those things can give her the child she wants more than anything; a child she has been so close to having, but is ultimately almost literally ripped from her. She’s played by the rules and patiently waited for her own child, watching from the background and hiding her jealousy as all of her friends’ tummies grew until they welcomed little cherubs of their own. Finally she was told that someone was careless enough to discard such a treasure and she wasted no time swooping in to rescue an abandoned little girl. And now that woman wants her back?
“I know it’s her mother because I’m her mother,” she sobs in the present day, as Elena and Bill come over to discuss the situation with Linda and Mark over take-out dinner (which I really, really hope was not Chinese food). Linda’s not thinking clearly right now, yelling not just at her friends, but at strangers and pretty much everyone who will listen that she’s the baby’s mother. So one can forgive her when she decides it’s a good idea to let Elena meddle in the matter and attempt to bribe birth mother Bebe with a check for $10,000 and a promise of an immigration attorney and visitation rights if she agrees to stop fighting Linda and Mark’s adoption efforts.
Bebe, like her friend Mia, doesn’t take kindly to Elena’s desire to help the situation, hiring an attorney and getting in front of the story in the press. (Bebe shutting down Elena by asking her how much she’d accept for her own children and, later, Bill’s face when he realizes she was involved in the bribe — and therefore exacerbated the situation — are both priceless). Elena knows she messed up with Bebe, but she should have realized she was out of her element when she started a fight with Mia. She wants the other woman to apologize for hurting Linda and for acting like her friend before begging to keep her job and her apartment. But she also wants to stick it to Mia just where she thinks she has the upper hand, accusing her of not choosing Pearl’s needs over her own by moving across the country, not having a 9-to-5 job, and keeping weed in the house.
Mia, who has held her tongue for the most part, cannot take it anymore and nearly spits in her rage that Elena “didn’t make good choices,” she “had good choices; options that being rich and white and entitled gave you.” Elena is disgusted that Mia would dare speak of the subject that has been bubbling beneath their relationship since they met at the duplex. But Mia reminds her that “you made this about race when you stood out there in the street and begged me to be your maid.”
Still, Mia does put her relationship with her daughter on hold this episode. She’s mid-fight with Pearl about why they need to stop associating with Elena and the rest of the Richardsons when she stops to help Bebe. She also promises this near-stranger that she can help her find the money for an attorney after Bebe’s caught stealing from the register at work. How can she afford this grand legal fee when she has to tell Pearl that going to Goodwill is a splurge? Mia’s apparently selling a photograph of herself, sitting naked, smug and pregnant in a bathtub.
No wonder Pearl sneaks out and asks Elena to spend the night at the Richardsons, filling in for absent eldest child Lexie by donning her friend’s pajamas and letting Elena tuck her into bed. Things only get worse when Mia storms over in the middle of the night, screaming in the pouring rain for Pearl to come out of the house. What will the Richardsons’ neighbors think of that? And what will Mia think when she finds out her daughter lost her virginity to the banal Trip Richardson?
And no wonder that Izzy, who found Mia to be her only salvation in what she deems to be a Stepford-like life, becomes even angrier at her mother. In the space of this episode alone, she’s watched her father call Bebe a “lunatic” and her know-it-all sister say that “no one should have babies if they can’t take care of them,” while no one questions why Mia would say that she wanted to protect Pearl from them. Izzy lashes out by saying Elena is a terrible mother, and seems to have her opinions validated when she watches Elena’s soft and gentle interactions with Pearl while all she gets is an article about Lilith Fair.
Izzy also has gotten Mia to let her guard down, though. She’s allowed in her workspace even though Pearl is not, and therefore sees the art bundled up and ready to be shipped to Sotheby’s. But how much of Izzy’s opinions about Bebe are genuine? Does she really feel for her or is she just siding with Mia to be contrarian to the rest of her family? After all, she did tell Mia that she draws inspiration for her art from anything she can think of to piss off her mother …
Clearly, she’s not alone in this. In the final shot of this episode, we see the project she’s been working on with Mia. It’s a large black-and-white close-up portrait of a perfectly made-up Elena, which has been sliced in vertical lines and hung from twine. Slowly, Mia lights the bottom of the slats, taking photos of the flickering colors that begin to engulf the other woman’s pristine image.
• Who took the photo of Mia in the bathtub? Was it Pearl’s father? Did Mia set a timer and take it herself? And why was Mia crying when she looked at it?
• Don’t sleep on the scene where Lexie brags about sex to Serena and Pearl. Note that Serena is so over this while Pearl could not be happier just to be included, another example of how much she wants to be part of the Richardson inner circle. Oh, and Serena did say that Lexie looks like she’s glowing. Hmm …
• Sorry, Trip. But don’t tell your brother that you invented “friend zone.” We’ve already declared that Joey Tribbiani gets credit for coining the term. What kind of ’90s child are you?
• It’s telling that Elena asks Linda for Mark’s checkbook when they decide to try to bribe Bebe. Does Linda not have her own checkbook?
• We also learn in this episode that Bill used to be in the public defenders’ office before moving to a (presumably more lucrative) career in private practice.