Little Fires Everywhere
Last week’s episode of Little Fires Everywhere ended with quite a bomb: the close-up of Elena Richardson’s shocked and confused face summing up what those watching at home felt when Mia’s mother frankly told her that “the baby Mia was carrying in that picture? It was not hers.” The sixth episode of the miniseries, which is told entirely in flashbacks of both Mia’s and Elena’s stories, is here to clarify some points about Mia’s mom’s remarks. First off, Pearl is biologically Mia’s daughter. As to how Mia came to be pregnant with her? That’s a more complicated story.
“The Uncanny” opens in 1981 at the Wright family home in Mckeesport, Pennsylvania. A teenage Mia (played now by Tiffany Boone), her parents, and her brother, Warren — he of the eventual surname inspiration — sit down to dinner. Dad and Mom pray that Mia be protected as she goes into New York to fulfill what they consider to be her foolish and economically uncertain dreams of being an artist. They also ask that Warren will get drafted by the NFL so that at least one of their kids will have a noble and prosperous career. (I’m just going to leave this here.)
After dinner, Warren watches Mia pack and jokes that their parents’ worst fears are that she becomes a hooker… or a lesbian. He also tries to give her the cash he was saving to buy himself a car, but she refuses. Even as a young adult, and even from her own brother, Mia doesn’t take charity. She does concede to take his can of Mace.
It’s understandable why the Wrights are concerned. Mia’s entering New York the year after it had the worst year of crime in the city’s history. The subway cars are littered and covered with graffiti. And Mia can swear that some guy in a trench coat keeps staring at her when she rides to school.
At school, she has a hard time fitting in. All the other kids are artsy and know each other. But her teacher, a famous artist named Pauline Hawthorne, takes a shine to her. You know, the same Pauline Hawthorne who Elena was researching after an unknown photo she took of a woman in a bathtub sold for so much that it ended up in the New York Times, and who also happens to look like the woman Mia dreamed of cuddling up to on a subway car in a previous episode’s dream sequence. It’s Pauline who encourages Mia to explore what is “terrifying, impulsive, or uncanny about [her]” and to play with fire in her work.
Mia’s on her way to an art show featuring Pauline when she has another influential encounter. Mr. Trench Coat appears again and follows her out of the train station. This time she’s ready with Warren’s mace. But he promises he only wants to talk. Turns out his name is Joe Ryan and his wife, Maddie, looks just like Mia. This is more than just a fun fact. The couple is childless and looking for a surrogate. Would Mia be interested?
Eventually seeing no other choice once her scholarship is cut, Mia agrees to the Ryans’ plan to pay her for an at-home insemination procedure involving a turkey baster, a virginal Mia, and a kind-hearted Maddie. Mia even ends up living with Pauline, since her previous houseguest has been in the hospital with pneumonia.
All of this is a shock to Warren when he comes to visit his sister that summer and boast of his grey-blue Chevy Chevette. He tells her that their parents’ fears have come true; their daughter has come to New York to have sex (of sorts) for money and become a lesbian. It’s not like that, Mia insists as she gives Warren the State of Liberty necklace that we know now lives around the car’s rearview mirror. Then she goes upstairs, where she has sex with Pauline and they take the now-infamous bathtub photo, “Duo.”
This will also be the last time Mia saw Warren alive.
A few months later, a phone call awakens a very pregnant Mia from her slumber in Pauline’s bed. It’s her mother, sobbing with some horrible news. Mia arrives home, where her parents cannot handle the shock of her pregnancy on top of grieving their son. They tell her not to come to the funeral. Instead, she packs her things, writes a note to the Ryans feigning a miscarriage, and drives as far away from everything as she can get.
Pearl is born in California and Mia hasn’t really stopped running since — except that she does pause to call Pauline when Pearl is a baby. Instead she gets Anita, the gallery owner who will eventually sell the “Duo” photo and who now breaks it to Mia that Pauline died from an aggressive form of ovarian cancer. Anita promises to never reveal where Mia is or what happened to the baby.
Meanwhile, while young Mia is running away from her problems, young Elena (played by AnnaSophia Robb) gets pulled back to them. Around this same time in the early ’80s, Elena awakens in the Shaker Heights duplex with a sunny mood of optimism as the Talking Heads’ “This Must Be The Place” plays overhead. She’s about to start back at work after her third child and plans to ask for a promotion on her first day. She may even be able to finally convince Bill that it’s time he leaves the DA’s office for a more financially stable job and to let her mother help with a down payment on a house so that they can move out of the duplex. Bill even whispers to her that “last night was fun” with a mischievous grin when he walks out the door.
Nothing, however, goes according to Elena’s plans. Her boss, who is the same rude man from the first episode who mocked her for taking six whole weeks of maternity leave for each kid, has promoted someone else to the position she wanted. And also — surprise! — she’s pregnant again. This makes things tense with Linda, who has just suffered a miscarriage, and Elena’s mother, who tells her that even though they picketed for abortion rights that procedure is “not for people like us.” “You have money and resources and there’s no reason that you can’t have another baby” Elena’s mother says, trudging out the classic argument that abortion is only for certain kinds of people. As Elena replies meekly, “is not wanting one a reason?”
You know who is totally on board with having another baby? Bill. He’s completely giddy and hopes it’s another girl. He also seems to believe that four kids isn’t that different from three, suggesting he has not spent much time trying to manage three kids.
A few months later, Bill is eating his words. The new house they bought is in shambles and the baby won’t stop crying and can’t nurse. He’s at work at his new law firm and Elena’s dealing with it all as best she can. She’s still in her pajamas, so she bundles up all four kids and drives to the store to buy out all the formula in Ohio — only to get home and find that the water’s been turned off for the remodel. Bill doesn’t have time to be there to help, so she breaks some plates and cries. He comes home that evening with jugs of water just in time for her to storm out, saying that she’s going to buy a pacifier for baby Izzy.
She doesn’t come home right away. Standing in the drugstore aisle with her unwashed hair and who-knows-how-many-days-old pajamas, Elena cries when she hears a familiar song on the radio. It’s the ’70s beat from Silver Connection that she remembers from her time at the Parisian discotheque, commanding her to “fly robin, fly / Up, up to the sky.” Instead she flies to a phone booth and gets in touch with her ex-boyfriend, Jamie.
Unlike 1990s Elena, who got dolled up at a department store before meeting Jamie for a fancy New York dinner, 1980s Elena speeds off to meet her ex in the middle of the night at a dive bar in Rochester, New York. He’s clearly alarmed by this sudden need to get together, but also tells her that he wishes she had chosen to stay with him and not been so insistent to stick to her plan. She argues that her plan wasn’t that original; that most people “graduate college, get a job, have kids and then you’re happy until death.”
Jamie asks if she’s happy. Then they check into a seedy motel and start having sex until she is reminded that — oh, right — she’s a lactating mother and she needs to release.
With the flickering fluorescents lighting on the motel’s bathroom mirror, Elena catches a glimpse of who she’s become. She is not the type of woman who abandons her family. And obviously Jamie was just taking advantage of her in her upset state. She leaves him there in stunned protest as she gets back into her car and heads back to suburbia, coming home just in time to rock baby Izzy when she wakes up in the morning — and for her husband to find Jamie’s name and number scrawled on a piece of paper.
• This is the second time that Little Fires has shined a light on how taxing and complicated breastfeeding can be — a rare topic of conversation for TV — and I thank the writers for that.
• Maybe not as realistic? Mia has seemingly no problem changing her last name to Warren once she fills out Pearl’s birth certificate. Was it really all that simple before the internet and electronic databases? I have no idea. But, looking back on it, it does seem naïve of us that we ever accepted written checks.
An earlier version of this recap referenced the wrong Talking Heads track; it has been corrected.