The following contains spoilers for Little Fires Everywhere episode 8.
Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere is a splendid (if at times unsubtle) examination of motherhood and how it can be both a gift and an albatross of societal expectation and disappointment around women’s necks. Through seven episodes, the show follows Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) as they engage in a delicate dance of misunderstanding around each other.
Now in episode 8, at the conclusion of this level-headed series with such lofty, truly adult themes, there is only one question left to explore: WHO SET THAT GOSH DARN FIRE! Yes, for all of Little Fires Everywhere’s sturdy themes of motherhood, at the end of the day this is also a mystery. Starting from its first scene, which opens in media res with the Richardson house aflame, the show has not been shy in dangling a pulpy mystery or two over viewers’ heads.
Thankfully the Little Fires Everywhere finale, titled “Find a Way” wraps up plenty of these mysteries and dangling plots, then sends us on our way with more to consider. Here is a breakdown of what happens in the Little Fires Everywhere finale.
Who Started the (Little) Fire(s Everywhere)?
Way back in episode 1, the Shaker Heights fire chief who responds to the Richardson house fire notes that the fire started as “little fires everywhere” suggesting that this was certainly an arson. The only question was who would do such a thing? The fire chief’s mind immediately jumps to the Richardsons’ youngest daughter, Izzy (Megan Stott). Izzy has all the traits of your standard late ‘90s wild child. She’s fallen for one of her female classmates, she wears her hair short, and she does…*shudders* art.
“Find a Way” reveals, however, that Izzy was the only Richardson child to not participate in setting the house on fire. To be fair, she does get the ball rolling. After Izzy discovers that Elena has evicted Mia and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) from their Shaker Heights home, she returns to the Richardson residence in a rage. She even throws a bunch of clothes on top of her bed and begins to douse them in gasoline.
All three of Izzy’s siblings then intervene and try to calm her down. They succeed but only in time for Elena to wake up, storm in, and ruin everything. At the height of her frustration, Izzy tries to tell her mother that her sexuality is not just some phase, she really did love her girlfriend, April. Elena is just not hearing her and the two continue to argue, culminating in Elena shouting “I never wanted you in the first place” at her youngest daughter.
Not only does this cause Izzy to run away from home, but it completely unmoors the remaining Richardson siblings. Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Moody (Gavin Lewis), and Trip (Jordan Elsass) all have reasons to be upset with their mother. Her insistence on setting high, unreasonable expectations has ground them all down into a miserable mush. Lexie in particular decides to stand up for herself in an explosive fashion.
She comes clean to her mother about her abortion and about how she stole elements of Pearl’s life for her college admission essay. She’s becoming a little monster and it’s because of her mother’s insistence on perfection.
“I’m not perfect,” Lexie says.
“YES YOU AREEEEEE!” Elena responds in a positively inhuman screech.
Lexie takes command of the situation and enlists her brothers to help finish off the fire that Izzy attempted to start.
The answer of “who started the fire” ends up being a tremendously satisfying one. For while the Richardson children are the ones who technically started it, one could argue that Elena was the one to provide them with the matchbook and gas. Little Fires Everywhere is in many ways about both the damage and values that parents instill in their children. Reap and then sow – the oldest story in the world.
One could even say the fire’s been burning since the world’s been turning. One could say that but one shouldn’t because it’s a lame joke.
Where Does Izzy Go?
The first scene in “Find a Way” is a flashback that finds the young Richardson children trying to set up a lemonade stand. When young Izzy sees a wounded cardinal (shout out to Ohio’s state bird) stuck in some hedges, she does the only thing she can think to do and brings it inside.
Of course once the cardinal recovers it wreaks unholy havoc inside the house, angering Elena. The kids are finally able to wrangle the bird outside, leaving behind only a red feather for Izzy to cherish. The messaging here isn’t entirely subtle, nor is Moody’s (scientifically inaccurate) assertion that “Once a human touches a baby bird, its mother rejects it forever.” Izzy has no place here.
We never really see where Izzy ends up after storming out of her childhood home. For a moment it looks like she comes across Mia and Pearl’s car and is able to hitchhike with them but she then wakes up on a bus, revealing the moment to be a dream.
What matters isn’t necessarily that Izzy is but the mere fact that she’s going somewhere at all. Fly away, little cardinal.
What Happens to Bebe and Mirabelle?
The conclusion to the trial between Linda McCullough (Rosemarie DeWitt) and Bebe Chow (Huang Lu) for custody of baby Mirabelle/May Ling comes midway through “Find a Way.” And it’s the conclusion we probably all expected. The judge finds that in leaving May Ling at a fire station (lotta fire symbolism in this show, eh?), Bebe surrendered her rights to the child and the McCulloughs are allowed to retain custody.
Bebe is devastated naturally, and Linda seems only barely relieved. This was a tragic circumstance that truly drained everyone involved. This finale reveals that the story of the McCulloughs, Bebe, and Mirabelle isn’t anywhere near finished. For the night after the trial, Linda hears Mirabelle softly crying in her crib. Exhausted from what they just went through, her husband Mark (Geoff Stults) recommends that they just leave her be. Let her cry it out for now.
The next morning, however, Linda discovers that Mirabelle is missing. And it’s not hard to guess who may have taken her. Indeed the final minutes of the show reveal Bebe holding little Mirabelle/May Ling in her car in a rest stop off I-190 near Niagara. Based on geography, Bebe is likely taking her daughter to Canada to start a new life. Is this a triumphant moment? A tragic one? Who’s to say. Little Fires Everywhere is full of reluctant and enthusiastic mothers…but they’re all mothers. Whether it be through biological determinism or societal pressure, motherhood is a zero sum game on this show. If you are one, you have to stay one. And somehow there end up being winners and losers.
What’s Next for Mia and Pearl?
While Little Fires Everywhere never shies about from how big a Piece of Work (™) Elena Richardson is, it has also presented a reasonable approach to her relationship with Mia. On a worse show, Elena would be an unambiguous villain: the privileged white woman who psychologically tortures her poor black tenants for her own amusement. But Little Fires Everywhere initially presents both women as deeply flawed. Mia has plenty of sins in her past, just like Elena.
What Mia did to the Ryan family in stealing their child, and to Pearl in lying to her her whole life is monstrous. In this finale, however, Mia is able to find some absolution while Elena finds nothing but fire. The reason is simple. Mia finally chooses to be honest with herself and her child. Elena can’t abandon any of her lies, lest her whole life come crashing down. While Elena is shouting “YES YOU AREEEEEE!” in Lexie’s face, Mia is coming completely clean to Pearl.
Mia tells Pearl her father’s name (Joe Ryan). She then tells her her own name (Mia Wright…”Warren” was the name of her brother that she adopted to stay out of trouble). She then promises her that the lies are over and that the next stop in their transient path after Shaker Heights is entirely up to Pearl.
Pearl wants to head to New York to meet her father so they do just that. Mia waits outside in the car as Pearl heads in to meet Joe Ryan. And that’s where the show leaves them. We don’t need to see what happens next. The important thing right now is that Mia and Pearl have mended their own mother-daughter relationship by doing the unthinkable: being honest.
Honesty and truth should in theory be the goal of any artist. Yet throughout the series, Pearl has not been allowed into her mother’s work room to see her pieces. When Pearl is finally allowed in in this finale, she (and later Elena) sees her mother’s sprawling lily-white diorama of Shaker Heights. Everything looks the same, all covered in flour-y snow, save for one cage with Izzy’s cardinal-feather wing inside. The experience is enough to inspire Pearl to start her own artistic path and write a lovely poem.
“The town is made of blinding white flour and beautiful lies,” Pearl intones.
Pearl has always resented her mother for their transient lifestyle, particularly when it became apparent they never needed to live that way. But as Pearl, Izzy, Lexie, Moody, and Trip all discover: there is value in moving on. Beautiful as Shaker Height’s lies may be…they are still lies. Now it’s up to the young people on this show to leave home and find some truth.