Hulu’s miniseries adaptation of Celeste Ng’s novel Little Fires Everywhere has managed to encapsulate so many debates on class, entitlement, and motherhood in just eight episodes. And, by casting Reese Witherspoon as the prim, wealthy, and obdurate Elena Richardson and Kerry Washington as the guarded, polemic, and caustic Mia Warren, it has made race an essential and unavoidable part of these debates. Somewhat ironically, pivoting the story around Mia and Elena’s feud actually diminished the time spent on the catalyst for their simmering resentment, a story of race and privilege in its own right. The custody battle between Chinese immigrant Bebe and the rich white McCulloughs who planned to adopt the little girl she abandoned is almost an afterthought in this episode, as the two main families’ secrets are finally exposed before everything goes up in flames.
The episode opens with a flashback to July 1991, when the four Richardson children are setting up a lemonade stand. With no adult in sight, Lexie (played by Caitlin Reagan) is apparently the de facto guardian despite being a tween herself, because that’s how we rolled in the ’90s. She’s using her time wisely, bossing around her siblings and greeting customers.
While following her sister’s orders, Izzy (played by Cozy DesRoches) sees an injured bird in the bushes. By the time their mom gets back from the store, the bird is freaked out and flying around the house while the kids attempt to contain it. Elena says she’ll have to clean up the mess before Bill gets home and Lexie brownnoses that she’d love to help. A dejected Izzy still remains hopeful that now the bird can return to its family. Moody (played by Maverick Thompson) shoots her down by saying that mother birds reject their young after they have human contact.
Human contact is also cause for rejection at the Richardson home in 1997. Bill’s been sleeping on the couch because he’s still irked at Elena for confronting Mia about Pearl’s lineage and for leaving the family to investigate Mia’s backstory in the first place (especially since it included a pricey night out with an ex-boyfriend, a fact Bill found out through his own reporting). The two will eventually have a proper row this episode, where they focus on a marital spat that will probably be familiar to a lot of households: She believes she gave up a more prosperous career to have kids, telling him that “you have your freedom because I gave up mine.” He’ll remind her that the current issue of Mia — and how she came to destroy everything they know and cherish— is really Elena’s doing since she rented the duplex to the Warrens and hired her to work in their home. Oh, and yeah, he knows she saw Jamie both when she was in New York and when she disappeared for a night all those years ago.
Bill will not be at home when the house fires spark.
Both Bill and Elena are also taking out some aggression on Izzy. Bill gives her a speech that’s essentially his version of “It Gets Better,” telling his youngest child to keep her head down for the next three and a half years and then she can be whoever she wants. Elena is not so tactful. She bursts into Izzy’s room early one morning and screams at her for throwing away the tartan-patterned Keds she forced the girl to wear in the Christmas photo from the last episode. Izzy, knowing that her mother cut her out of this photo, responds that “that’s what we do in this house, right? Throw away the things we don’t like.” (This is a 180 to how Elena treats Lexie, telling that child to stay home from school if she’d like a day to be sad about her break-up with Brian and that one day she’ll meet a boy who is “a better fit for you.”)
Things are also still tense at the Warren household. Mia tries again to talk to Pearl, who is having nothing of it — confirming last week’s cliffhanger that Elena told her not only that her biological father knew about her and wanted her but that Mia had lied to him and said that she’d had a miscarriage. She then cuts deep by telling her mother that she judges everyone but herself.
They’ll fight this episode about why Elena told Pearl the truth. Mia says it was payback to her for helping Bebe with her legal fees, while Pearl insists it was because Elena cares about her. Pearl begs her mom to call her dad and tell him the truth, insisting that she’s sure it’s something that Elena would be happy to do. This freaks Mia out enough that she digs into her memento box and finds the number for one Joe Ryan, working up the nerve to call the house but sobbing and hanging up when his wife answers and guesses that it might be her calling.
Emotions are particularly high in both households because the custody trial is in full swing, as debates swirl in and out of the courtroom as to whether these adoptive parents can properly understand the needs of a child who is a different race. Linda is doing well on the stand until she gets flustered and says “she may look Chinese. But she’s American.” Like her friend Elena, the way she trips over herself to seem politically correct ends up revealing more about her.
Still desperate to find some dirt on Bebe, despite her previous failures to intervene in the case, Elena heads to Planned Parenthood to see if Bebe had been there to discuss her options when she was pregnant. She’s sure that her friend Elizabeth, the doctor who works there and who also subjected her to discussing The Vagina Monologues during book club, will just divulge this private information. Elizabeth (played by Jaime Ray Newman) rightly gives her a hard no, but is stupid enough to let Elena stay in her office while she sees a patient. It takes Elena about five minutes to find the file for “Pearl’s” procedure. Never mind that this news would just as much involve her son (or that Elena’s still so unaware of her children’s activities that she still thinks Pearl is dating Moody instead of Trip), Elena is almost gleeful at having something she thinks she can hold over Mia.
The news of Pearl’s supposed abortion ricochets through the Richardson house, starting with Elena telling Moody while showing little interest in why he’s in the kitchen nursing a swollen face. (It’s because he got in a fight with his brother over Pearl, Mother of the Year.) The news eventually hits Izzy, who quickly figures out that Lexie was the one who was pregnant. Lexie dares Izzy to tell Elena, saying there’s no way their mother would believe her over her perfect older sister.
During the chaos of Richardson-family power plays, the verdict for the trial is in. Bill was right last week when he said the Bebe Chows of the world don’t get to win. She’s devastated, and the McCulloughs are nearly gloating in their press conference; Linda even shows her true colors again and dashes a suggestion of visitation rights. Izzy rushes to Mia’s house, presumably to tell her that Elena found the abortion paperwork, and finds her mentor on the floor hugging a hysterical Bebe.
Later, after Bebe falls asleep, Mia attempts to explain to Izzy what it feels like to lose a child. She talks about driving through the country when she was pregnant with Pearl after her parents disowned her. She came across a prairie fire one night and realized that “sometimes you have to scorch everything to start over.”
Later that night, Elena, still riding her self-righteous high, comes to Mia’s house to gloat and to let it be known on no uncertain terms that she won’t be renewing the Warrens’ lease. Elena can’t help taunting that she “knows” Pearl had an abortion. Mia smirks, bites her tongue for a beat, and then reveals to Elena that no, actually it was Lexie who had the abortion. Elena is so flummoxed by this news that she now demands that Mia leave that night. She storms off, not speaking to a giddy Pearl who happens home at the same time — but does take a moment to size up that the girl is wearing her son’s letterman’s jacket.
It’s at this point when Pearl accepts that her mother is right. She also begins to understand Mia’s decision to keep her as well as her constant fear that they will be found out and Pearl will be taken away. “You’re my mother. You’re always my mother. No matter what,” Pearl says. They pack up their belongings, leaving behind Mia’s most recent art project: a model of Shaker Heights that depicts the town’s history of racism and segregation.
The Warrens drive to the Richardsons’ to drop the key in the mailbox. As Pearl gazes one last time at what she once thought was her dream home, a strand of the perfectly arranged Christmas lights begins to blink. Are the lights saying good-bye? Serving as a metaphor for how the cracks in the Richardsons’ domestic bliss are beginning to show? A foreshadowing for the fire that we all know is coming?
Perhaps all three.
Izzy sees the Warrens drive off and becomes hysterical, throwing the Keds and other clothes she hates on her bed and dousing them in gasoline. Lexie stops her and the others rush in, but it’s Elena who drops the verbal match by harpy-screaming at Izzy, “do you think I wanted a daughter like you? I never wanted you in the first place.” Izzy grabs her bag and stomps off into the night as Moody begs her not to go and the other kids beg Elena to fix it. When she doesn’t, the three remaining Richardson children finish what their sister started and, well, make little fires everywhere. Lexie also makes a point to scream to her mother that she had the abortion.
In the cold light of the morning, Mia and Pearl drive out of town and make plans to go to Mia’s parents’ house. Bebe, meanwhile, has taken matters into her own hands. She snuck into the McCulloughs’ house that night and took back her baby. Like Mia, she’ll now spend the rest of her life on the run.
And Elena? When officials ask her again who started a house fire with her inside? She’ll finally protect her children at all costs and take the blame for the fire.
• What actually happened to Izzy? We see her hitchhiking on the side of the road as Mia drives by, but it’s shot in a more hazy lighting that suggests it’s a dream Izzy is having on the bus we later see her riding, and it happens during Pearl’s voice-over poem about dreams, fairy tales, and parenting. Is this to suggest that Mia, like Elena, is not actually the substitute mom that Izzy believes her to be? And if they actually did pick up Izzy, what happened to her between Shaker Heights and Mia’s parents’ house?
• It’s an interesting storytelling choice to have Mia tell Elena Lexie’s secret. This doesn’t happen in the book, and I’m not sure if I like Mia more or less for this change in decision.
• It’s sweet how well Mia understands teenage love. She makes sure to ask Pearl if she wants to say good-bye to Trip before they skip town.