This Little Fires Everywhere review contains no spoilers.
Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere is squarely aimed folks with a Big Little Lies–shaped hole in their lives. After all, the two shows have a lot in common – both are based on popular novels, feature multiple A-list actresses and take great pleasure in forcing us all to look at uncomfortable truths about life in picture perfect suburban America. But where Little Fires Everywhere is perhaps not quite as star-studded, it’s a sneakier sort of story, one which repeatedly forces its audience to confront their own assumptions and biases as it explores the dark and messy underbelly of motherhood in America.
The story of two very different families whose lives become intertwined in an affluent Cleveland, Ohio suburb called Shaker Heights, Little Fires Everywhere is a deliciously entertaining drama whose all-around stellar performances carry the show through some of its occasionally overly soapy plot points. It’s a show that’s made to binge, which is a shame since Hulu’s only dropping the first three episodes before moving to a weekly distribution model. But, nevertheless, it should still be appointment viewing for many. (Including, naturally, everyone who loved the messy must-see nature of Big Little Lies.)
Reese Witherspoon, our nation’s go-to actress of the moment for portraying complex, entertaining yet deeply problematic white women, stars as Elena Richardson, a prim suburban mother of four who lives to color inside the lines. She’s the kind of woman who not only has a five-year plan, she meticulously schedules every detail of her family’s life. (Approved sex nights with her husband are Wednesdays and Saturdays, in case you were curious.)
Elena is a woman who believes in rules, and the idea that following them is the surest and safest path to success. It’s why she’s so initially thrown by the arrival of newcomer Mia Warren (Washington) and her daughter Pearl, and the fact that their presence shakes up the picturesque planned community in which she lives. Mia is an itinerant artist, who travels the country with most of the family’s possessions in a beat-up hatchback. Elena initially catches sight of the Warrens sleeping in their car and reports them as homeless, the first of many instances in Little Fires Everywhere that slyly interrogate our assumptions about race, class and privilege.
Washington’s Mia is a prickly, talented photographer and mixed media artist who has built her entire world around her daughter, Pearl, and the idea that her life is her own to command. A carefree, nonconformist type, she’s not interested in things like a lease that lasts longer than a month or a sexual relationship that comes with strings. In true 1990s fashion, you know that Mia is a rebel because she wears Velvet Underground t-shirts and gets high while she does metalwork or lights photographs on fire in the name of her art.
Both these women would likely be caricatures in the hands of lesser actresses, but Witherspoon and Washington sizzle together and, as a result, it’s easy to see how Mia and Elena both reflect and repulse one another. Elena offers Mia and Pearl a place to live – and charitably discounted rent – in the house her parents left her, as well as a job as a housekeeper in her own home. This is a role which she is quick to rebrand as a sort of “house manager,” because even she realizes how terrible the optics on all that are, but its general duties involve cooking and cleaning for the all-white Richardson clan. (It’s the 90s I realize, but whew.)
The two women’s lives become increasingly intertwined as Pearl develops relationships with several of the Richardson children, and Mia herself becomes part of Shaker Heights life. One of the most interesting things that Little Fires Everywheredoes in its initial episodes is position Mia as someone straddling the line between inclusion and exclusion. Her skin color and social status immediately set her apart from everyone in Elena’s orbit, but the show is careful to simultaneously underline how alike these two women are despite this fact. A pitch perfect drunken bonding session over a bottle of wine early in the show’s first hours shows us so clearly how, in a different world, these two could have been real friends.
Instead, each becomes something of an uncomfortable mirror for the other, reflecting back the things they’ve failed to give their own children – and themselves. Pearl, it turns out, is drawn to the stability and ease of the Richardson home, where the everyday choices of living are easy and there’s always another spot at the dinner table, a spare set of nightclothes, an extra bike. Youngest Richardson daughter Izzy is drawn to the unconventional nature of Mia, a mother who doesn’t ask her to be something she’s not and who encourages her to embrace her true self, no matter what that means. (In a welcome shift, this limited series addresses Izzy’s sexuality in a way that the novel does not.)
In Mia, Elena sees a version of herself who made different choices, who followed her dreams, who left the perfectly ordered world of Shaker Heights behind to chase her dreams of being a real journalist and fighting for justice. And Mia both illuminates and resents the unspoken privilege that permeates the Richardson’s lives, specifically the way that Elena is allowed to confront or interact with authority figures and be treated a victim or an advocate rather than a threat.
These two very different – but no less ferocious – mothers ultimately face off when they both become involved in a local child custody case, which asks us to consider not just what it means to be a parent, but what making the best choices for your children involves. The case is complex in and of itself, but is ultimately made even more so by the ways in which both Mia and Elena respond to it, and how it indicts and absolves both their choices as parents. It also results in the series’ most compelling hour – a series of flashbacks which show us both Elena and Mia as similar young women, who both must make difficult choices about love, life and motherhood.
Little Fires Everywhere is a story about a mysterious house fire, yes. (It’s the first scene of the show, after all, and we won’t discover the identity of the person who set it until the series’ final hour.) But it’s also a story about motherhood and family. About the weight of keeping secrets, and the things we’re willing to do to protect those we love. It’s a drama that may well have been assembled in a lab to chase awards and a certain audience demographic. But it’s also an addictive, emotional story with something to say – and that’s impossible to look away from. Watch and enjoy.