In adapting Little Fires Everywhere from page to screen, showrunner Liz Tigelaar and her writers diverted from Celeste Ng’s novel in notable ways. Some of those choices enriched this story of the inequities in supposedly perfect Shaker Heights, Ohio. One of the smartest changes was to make Mia and Pearl, the new residents of Shaker Heights whose lives become entwined with the members of the Richardson family, African-American. That allowed the series to dig more directly into the overlap between class and racial issues, both in the custody battle over May Ling as well as the conflicts between Elena (Reese Witherspoon), Mia (Kerry Washington), and their respective children.
But in the highly dramatic final episode, “Find a Way,” the concluding moments veer significantly from Ng’s work, in ways that sometimes defy believability. As in the book, Elena kicks Mia and Pearl (Lexi Underwood) out of the property they’ve been renting from her. When Izzy (Megan Stott), the fourth and youngest Richardson child, who has a fraught relationship with her mother, realizes what Elena has done, it pushes her over an edge on which she’s been teetering for a while. In the novel, Izzy — tired of being treated like a buzzing, infected mosquito instead of a valued member of her own family, especially by her mom — pours gasoline on each of her siblings’ beds, throws a match on all three, then runs away from home.
In the series, Izzy gets ready to do the same thing, but her sister Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) tries to stop her, at which point their brothers, Trip (Jordan Elsass) and Moody (Gavin Lewis), followed by their mother, step in as well. (In the novel, Lexie, Trip, and Moody are all out of the house when the fires are set, and Izzy is under the impression that her mother is also.) With everyone, minus their dad, Bill (Joshua Jackson), present, the situation turns into a massive family blowout, culminating with the horrible moment when Elena shouts at Izzy that she never wanted her in the first place. Elena could immediately take that statement back and apologize. But she doesn’t because it’s the truth, and it confirms the worst suspicion Izzy has harbored about her mother: that she wishes Izzy just did not exist.
Lexie, Moody, and Trip are horrified by what Elena’s said. Lexie, who has carried the heaviest burden of trying to live up to her mother’s extremely high expectations, begs Elena to run after Izzy, then confesses to having an abortion. She also tells Elena she is sick of trying to be perfect and, in fact, isn’t perfect. “Yes you are!” Elena screams at a pitch I didn’t know Reese Witherspoon was capable of achieving. It’s a lot.
An incensed Lexie goes for the gasoline and starts to pour it, then convinces her brothers that their mother’s ridiculous and hypocritical standards are going to ruin all of them. “Maybe Izzy’s the only one who actually had it right,” Lexie says. Her words strike a chord. The three Richardson children set fires in each of their rooms, then drag their mother out of the house once the blaze starts to rage out of control.
This whole sequence of events reflects a determined desire on Tigelaar’s part to go in a different direction with the fire-setting. “We kept thinking — would it be Lexie? Or Trip? Would it be Moody?” Tigelaar told our Maria Elena Fernandez. “And I couldn’t buy it as any of them. But what I got really excited about was the idea of the three of them collectively [doing it].” While that twist does heighten the intensity in the scene and make the ending feel like less of a foregone conclusion, it also doesn’t feel realistic.
Izzy has not been marginalized in the series solely by Elena. Her siblings regularly make her feel like a fourth wheel, if not some unnecessary part that has nothing to do with the vehicle. Lexie, Trip, and Moody hang out together and watch TV, while Izzy is usually off in her room alone. The three elder siblings each have a relationship with Pearl, while Izzy’s bond is with Mia. As the flashback that opens the finale highlights, the Richardson kids have treated Izzy as an afterthought since they were children, and had that behavior reinforced by a mother who was equally dismissive of her youngest.
I buy that Elena would scream at Izzy. I buy that Izzy would run away, and I even buy that Lexie would lay into her mother for being so unforgiving. I do not, however, believe that Lexie would respond by trying to start a fire and conceding that “maybe Izzy’s the only one who actually had it right.” I don’t believe her brothers would light those matches, either.
Not long before all this happens, Izzy gets into two separate arguments with Moody and Lexie. She’s not on actively warm terms with either of them, and she and Trip barely speak. The idea that they want to rally around Izzy’s cause seems very out of character. Also, these kids are not dumb. They know that once they light a match, they’re not going to ignite a tiny blaze they can easily stamp out with tartan Christmas Keds. They’re going to burn the house down. For them to take such an extreme step, they would have to feel a really strong desire to, symbolically and literally, burn down the privileged construct in which they have been living their whole lives. That kind of outrage wouldn’t bubble up and harden within these kids in a matter of moments just because their mother was awful to Izzy.
Burning down the house may mean burning down the faux-perfect ideal that Elena has tried to impose on all of them, which sounds great from a symbolic point of view. But it also means that Lexie, Trip, and Moody are destroying everything they own. It’s hard to imagine that people who are steeped in privilege, raised simultaneously to appreciate and take for granted their wealth, would want to do that, and the episode doesn’t do enough work to convince me otherwise. In this instance, Little Fires Everywhere can’t resist the temptation to surprise, and it sacrifices its narrative credibility in the process.
By contrast, Bebe’s decision to kidnap May Ling following the court’s decision to grant the McCulloughs custody of her — an incident which is intercut effectively with the action at the Richardson home — serves the function of surprising viewers (at least those who hadn’t read the novel, in which the same thing happens) and also being completely believable. Bebe is desperate and this feels very much like a drastic measure she would take.
The other storylines are resolved with either more or less ambiguity than the novel offers. Elena seems to immediately grasp her own culpability in her children’s actions, to the point where she tells the fire chief that she is responsible for the blaze. Or maybe she does that because she’s trying to protect her oldest three and keep their reputations as pristine as they were before. I’m inclined to believe the latter.
Mia and Pearl reconcile their differences, leave town, and head to Mia’s parents’ home, where Pearl prepares to meet her grandparents for the first time. That’s a more concrete bow-tying than we get in the novel, which has them driving off to an unspecified destination.
The ending for Izzy is most ambiguous of all. We see a sepia-and-gold-toned scene of her hitchhiking and being picked up by Mia that appears to be a dream sequence, since it’s followed by Izzy waking up abruptly on a bus. That sequence mirrors a similar moment in the book, though that one is Mia’s fantasy, not Izzy’s: “Mia would slow the car and as the dust settled they would see her hair first, a billow of gold on gold, recognizing that wild hair, that golden wildness, even before they saw her face, even before they could stop and fling the door wide and let her in.” There’s something far sadder about Izzy, rather than Mia, wishing for a moment like that and then waking up to find herself alone again.
The book explains that Izzy plans to track down the Wrights, the family who hired Mia as their surrogate, as well as Anita, Mia’s agent, in the hope of finding Mia again, but the series doesn’t offer that information. It doesn’t tell us whether Izzy will ever see her mother or family again, whereas the novel strongly hints she will not. “[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,” writes Ng in the novel’s poignant last line.
Like the book, Little Fires Everywhere ends by showing us a regretful Elena and Izzy out on her own. But the series doesn’t fill in the rest. There’s a sense that the rest of their story, and the stories of the other characters, have yet to be fully written. Unlike Ng’s book, the Hulu drama seems to want to leave a little room for a season two.