Little Fires Everywhere
The fifth episode of Little Fires Everywhere is like a televised retort to those obnoxiously positive affirmations on the power of planning that you see painted on framed glass in drugstore checkouts and on throw pillows. It’s a reminder that planning to have the perfect life that you think you want is a possibility, if you have the means and the desire to shut down anything or anyone that could cause a deviation from this path to fulfillment — even your own desires. The bookends of the episode’s flashback opening and big reveal in the ending also suggest that not everything we think we know about Elena and Mia — the duo of this story, although not the two who inspire this episode’s title — is necessarily correct.
In a “you never really know your parents” nod, this episode starts in 1976 Paris, where a fun, free-spirited Elena gyrates on a disco floor in hot pants and a sequined halter. A handsome sweaty man comes to join her, but she has other ideas in mind. They go back to a small apartment and have steamy, passionate sex.
In the light of morning, however, we see that Elena’s younger self still has the markings of the woman we’ve met in her pearls and Hillary Clinton–red dress suits. The man she brought home with her is Jamie, a steady boyfriend who has been with her during her semester abroad in France — and with whom she’d planned to bring back to Shaker Heights so they can live in her parents’ rental, work at the local newspaper, and have a picture-perfect suburban life. But Jamie’s aspirations are larger than this, and he gives Elena an ultimatum: Stay with him in Paris and live out the unpredictable as they have adventures and fight for work at larger publications, or leave him and go back to Ohio alone and find someone else to help her fulfill the life that is almost preordained for her.
Back in 1990s suburbia, Elena is stressed. We know this because she’s not dressed to the nines before 9 a.m. and hasn’t made her kids’ school lunches. Turns out Elena’s been talking down a frantic Linda, her best friend and Bill’s latest client since he’s representing the McCulloughs in the adoption case against Bebe. Their two children who witness this exchange have issues with it: Moody’s flummoxed that he has to make his own lunch, and Izzy accuses Linda and her husband, Mark, of stealing the baby.
The one thing that Elena and Bill don’t understand is how Bebe could have afforded an attorney. Izzy, who has been reading the New York Times’ art section, has an idea: There’s a story about a new acquisition of an unearthed photograph from a famous photographer. It’s called Duo, and it happens to be the same picture we saw Mia crying over in the last episode.
Elena says it’s absurd that Izzy would think the woman in that picture is Mia. Because internet deep dives aren’t really a thing yet in 1997, Elena simply insists there’s no way Mia’s famous enough to sit for that photographer. But Izzy taunts that she’s disobeyed her mother’s orders and has been at Mia’s house every day — and she saw that she was shipping a package to New York. Elena, fuming at this point, offers the old chestnut that if Izzy wants to live in her house, she has to abide by her rules.
“You seem very angry. Is it because she might be helping Bebe? Or is it because she’s in the New York Times and you’ll never be?” Izzy shoots back.
Cool story, kid. But your actions may have hurt your mentor, Mia. Elena is now gunning for her, going into full-on investigative-reporter mode (or at least what she thinks investigative-reporter mode looks like). After a confrontation with Linda, who has put together that Elena knows Mia and that Mia helped Bebe, Elena decides she simply must go to New York and get answers as to who this woman is. She packs a bag and speeds off in her SUV, leaving her baffled husband and family behind in rain and exhaust fumes.
The irony, of course, is that Elena’s fixation on Mia has made her slip in the department on which she most prides herself: being a good mother. Moody’s lunch situation and her spat with Izzy aside, Elena and Bill have missed the signs that something’s going on with Lexie. As the foreshadowing from last week alluded, she’s pregnant and very, very scared. To her credit, Elena does attempt to listen when Lexie tries to talk with her before she hightails it to the Big Apple. But neither she nor Bill are cognizant enough to think that Lexie’s need for a chat could be something so serious. So the girl gives up her courage to confide in her parents and decides to go it alone.
Well, almost alone.
Lexie chickens out in telling her boyfriend, Brian, about the pregnancy. Nor has she told her best friend, Serena. But, keeping things consistent with their friendship dynamic, she has entrusted Pearl to be her errand girl. It’s Pearl who is charged with buying the pregnancy test, and it’s Pearl who holds it as it comes back positive. (It’s smart on the part of the episode’s director, executive producer Lynn Shelton, to start the scene with a close-up of Pearl’s fingers on the test, delaying the moment when we officially know which teen took it.) Most important, it’s Pearl’s name that Lexie puts on the medical forms at Planned Parenthood. Why? Because Elena’s friend works there and “it’d, like, actually matter” if it got out that it was Lexie, a popular girl from an established family, who is having the abortion. Knowing all of this, Pearl still stays with Lexie at the clinic and drives her back to her own home, where Mia almost immediately figures out what happened.
It’s a telling moment both in the storytelling and in Kerry Washington’s acting that Mia doesn’t ever judge Lexie for having an abortion; Mia is pragmatic enough to know that sometimes women make this decision, and possibly many others would too if they had that access. But it’s equally important that Mia doesn’t let Lexie off the hook when the girl begs Mia to validate her decision to end her pregnancy. Rather, Mia gives Lexie a PG version of the lecture that she’s already given Elena. When Lexie cries that she had no other place to go but to Pearl’s house, Mia seethes that she had plenty of places to go and that “you have no concept of not having anyone.”
Mia’s softer toward her own daughter. She doesn’t lash out at her for skipping school to be with Lexie or start an “I told you so” lecture about just how much Lexie is taking advantage of her. She also doesn’t seriously judge her daughter’s reveal that she lost her virginity to preppy jock Trip because she thought it would be “easy and fun and simple.” Although Mia had previously taught Pearl that sometimes sex is just sex, she gives her more honest advice now by saying that “sex is rarely simple, even when you want it to be.” Trip also might have won over Mia when he later calls the house to check on Pearl; she lets her daughter meet him at the park to discuss their relationship instead of banning contact with any more of the Richardsons.
Mia should have trusted her instinct to keep her distance. Elena’s been quite productive in New York, bribing a receptionist at Mia’s alma mater for a class roster from the early ’80s to learn that her real last name might be Wright, and making a surprise stop to visit a much older, much more successful Jamie, who has fulfilled his dream of having a fancy journalism gig and is married to his job as a political reporter at the Times. Sure, he can do some digging into Mia for her — if she has dinner with him that night.
Proving research into other people’s lives wasn’t that hard before the internet really exploded, Jamie’s able to rather quickly find that Mia’s brother was named Warren and that he died. But Jamie wants more. After lots of wine, Champagne, and a dinner discussion about Paula Jones, the two find themselves with a brown bag of liquor and traipsing through New York. Then he lets it spill: Will Elena ever own up? Not for their breakup, he says, but for something (else?) she did to him. When she refuses, he hits her with the hard truth. “You’re still the same sad person living a sad life. You stuck to your plan. But it’s not my job to make your life better,” he says, before leaving her on the street.
Elena’s so mad that she can’t sleep at the hotel, so she packs up and leaves in the middle of the night. She doesn’t go home though. Instead, we find her asleep in her car the next morning. In a nice bit of tie-in to the first Little Fires episode, she’s awakened by a police officer who lets her know that he knows she’s not from around here. (As an indication, the camera looks around the seemingly lovely-looking neighborhood to stop on an older black man scraping ice off his windshield.)
Actually, Elena is exactly where she believes she needs to be: on Mia’s parents’ doorstep out of the blue, where she asks to be invited in so she can pry about a daughter they haven’t seen in a decade and a half. Elena is shocked to learn that the Wrights have never met Pearl, and they haven’t seen Mia since she was pregnant. But not as shocked as she is to learn another bit of information.
“The baby Mia was carrying in that picture? It was not hers,” Mia’s mother declares.
• Nice that Elena has enough self-importance that she feels she can show up at these strangers’ house and ask personal questions, but also enough manners and tact to say “grandchild” instead of “granddaughter” or even “Pearl,” in case there might be some reason Mia is keeping this information from them.
• I don’t want to neglect Izzy’s role in this episode, or forget to mention the clear rage building inside her. She was able to figure out Mia’s secret fairly easily. She saw Lexie leaving Mia’s house looking unkempt, and also heard her throwing up in their bathroom, so she probably won’t have a hard time figuring out that secret either. As to the larger mystery of who burned down the Richardsons’ house? Izzy’s interest in fire was certainly aglow at the end of this episode.
• Go ahead and hate on the Richardsons, but I appreciate that they teach their kids to regularly read a major newspaper. However, I do wish they’d teach them to clean up their own dishes. (Judging by the way the kitchen looks in Elena’s absence, I think Bill is beginning to agree.)