The televisual adaptation of Celeste Ng’s book, Little Fires Everywhere thrives off the fraught tension between its two leads.
Starring Reese Witherspoon, Kerry Washington, Joshua Jackson, Rosemarie DeWitt, Jade Pettyjohn, Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, Gavin Lewis, and Jordan Elsass
It’s somewhat inevitable that Little Fires Everywhere will draw comparison to Big Little Lies. Not only because of the presence of Reese Witherspoon as interfering, manipulative homebody and also serving as executive producer, but also the spirit of a sleepy suburbia that houses a sinister mystery. While “Who burnt down Elena Richardson’s home?” is not nearly compelling as “Just what has happened in Monterey?”, replete with picturesque vistas, affairs and violent husbands, Little Fires Everywhere is equally compelling, even though it could have afforded to be truncated into fewer instalments.
Little Fires Everywhere, adapted from Celeste Ng’s novel, starts in media res, as the police and fire service swarm the burnt out remnants of what used to be Elena Richardson’s (Reese Witherspoon) home. The show then flashes back to retell the events leading up to the fire, though most of the narrative revolves less around “Why would anybody want to set fire to Elena’s house” and more “Why didn’t anybody set fire to it sooner?”, so intentionally irksome is her character.
The main conflict of the show derives from the tension between the two female leads: Elena and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) in the suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio in the late 1990s. From the off, there is an obvious visible contrast between the two women: Elena lives a picture-perfect life, with four children in consecutive years: Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Trip (Jordan Elsass), Moody (Gavin Lewis) and Izzy (Megan Stott), a lawyer husband, Bill (Joshua Jackson), and a part-time position at the local newspaper. Meanwhile, Mia lives an unattached life with daughter Pearl (Lexie Underwood) in tow. She moves from place to place, never for significant periods of time, and lives as an artist. In contrast to Elena’s structured and ordered existence, in which everything has a place, Mia is chaos incarnate: utterly unpredictable, delighting in breaking the many layers of rules and constraints that Elena has placed both upon herself and those around her.
The lives of the two women become inexorably intertwined as Pearl becomes drawn to Elena’s way of life and involved with Lexie, as her friend, and a complicated love triangle with Moody and Trip. Elena represents, to her, a stable influence, and a solid anchor that grounds her and allows her to grow. Elena’s youngest daughter, Izzy, meanwhile, is seduced by Mia’s lifestyle and her free spiritedness. In order to keep an eye on Mia, in addition to being her landlord, as Mia is living in Elena’s property, she invites her to be her maid.
While the book deals specifically with the divisions of class between the two families, the show goes one step further in portraying Mia Warren specifically as a black woman, which adds into the economic disparity the issues of underlying biases and prejudices in a privileged white home. Even though Elena views herself as a progressive, accepting woman, she is woefully blind to the many uncomfortable micro-aggressions she herself perpetrates, as well as the damning assumptions she makes about character Bebe Chow (Huang Lu) and her ability to parent.
Bebe Chow’s custody story serves as the spark which ignites the rest of the drama within the show, driving a wedge as it does between all of the characters whose opinions differ. Bebe abandoned her daughter at a fire station because she couldn’t physically afford to feed her, while Elena’s friend Linda (Rosemarie DeWitt) has had multiple miscarriages and is in the process of adopting Bebe’s child. It’s Mia who discovers that the child Linda is adopting is biologically Bebe’s, and the passionate way that both Elena and Mia defend the respective mothers highlights the sheer ferocity of motherhood.
It’s also a brilliant opportunity to delve into the concept of the success of motherhood, and what being a good mother is. For the white characters in the show, it seems to be about what they can provide for their children economically. Linda is from an affluent background and she has a lot of money, while Bebe is an undocumented worker and lives in noticeably worse conditions than Linda. It’s impossible to view this without acknowledging in a 21st century context the difference of race here, as well. Yet, it is also apparent that Linda has a desperate motherly yearning for the child as well, and loves the child just as viscerally as Bebe does, and the programme doesn’t try to explain which mother is the more worthy or deserving, though the ultimate culmination is messy and distressing.
Mia and Elena’s story is the one at the show’s heart, as we explore their differing styles of mothering, though the audience is kept at arm’s length from both women at first. Both are painted as strangely unapproachable: Elena is overbearing and pushy, while Mia is guarded and prickly. While both of the characters’ neuroses are explored later, they do alienate the audience from both of the characters.
While the show takes pains to demonstrate that both Mia and Elena have their flaws and that, despite their different mothering techniques, both make the fatal flaw of deciding what is best for their children for them, the critical eye is more keenly trained upon Elena. Ultimately, her storyline is how she has found herself pressured to follow the societal expectations that are set out for her in a small suburb, and how conformity is easier than paving one’s own path. She finds herself hemmed in by the same picket fences that she erects around her children, with dramatically combustible consequences.
The miniseries could have benefitted from fewer episodes. While some of the most successful and compelling scenes are the ones in which the performers are allowed to let the situation percolate and sit in the uncomfortable, charged silence, the transformation from book to series means that there are fewer question marks left for the viewer. For example, Mia’s backstory is made much more explicit within the show than in the book, as are the particulars between Elena and Izzy’s broken relationship. Elena is painted as the villain in a much more obvious way than Mia is, despite both of them making decisions on behalf of their children.
Throughout Little Fires Everywhere, there’s a simmering tension that always feels in danger of breaking and shattering the facade of perfection, though rarely actually peeps through, which makes for an uncomfortable, gripping viewing experience, as the audience waits in anticipation for the drop in the roller coaster that ultimately never happens. Brilliantly performed and deliciously compelling, this miniseries is almost perfect drama.
Little Fires Everywhere is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.