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Little Fires Everywhere: Series Review

“Sometimes you need to scorch everything to the ground, and start over. After the burning, the soil is richer, and new things can grow.”

Little Fires Everywhere is a moving, beautiful, intelligent, and oftentimes heart-wrenching and disturbing portrait of life in suburban America when morals and ideals clash among its citizens. Based on Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel of the same name, more than anything, this series focuses on and explores the powerful bond of motherhood and the part privilege has to play in society. Over the course of eight episodes, this series pitches leading characters against each other, highlighting both their flaws and their strengths, as they navigate sticky social situations and breaches of privacy. The title is particularly apt; this miniseries is an intense slow burn.

The novel itself is everywhere and received many accolades, including becoming a pick for Reese’s book club. Reese Witherspoon produced and starred in the miniseries, much as she did in Big Little Lies. Kerry Washington stars opposite her and the two play off each other beautifully. I read the book before immediately binging the series, and it stays pretty close to the source material.

On the surface, this series is about two mothers, the powerful, meticulous and privileged Elena Richardson, and the down-to-earth, nomadic, free-spirited Mia Warren, and how their lives and families begin to intertwine, not always in the best ways. But there’s a whole lot more going on than just that. Chiefly, the high profile custody battle of a Chinese baby upends the placidity of Shaker Heights, the perfect suburban neighborhood, and skeletons in both Mia and Elena’s pasts are brought to light, even as their children struggle with their own messy problems and relationships. This series is like an exquisite but dangerous web; where every individual’s actions affect another.

I wouldn’t put this in the thriller genre, though there’s certainly enough tension and secrets to make it artfully suspenseful. The characters, the dialogue, the situations they’re thrust in, make each episode riveting even if nothing was happening (which it is.) The strength in this series, and of course, the novel, is that it elegantly challenges any preconceived notions the audience might have about a risky topic. There is no black and white in this environment, no easy answers, and so it becomes a perfect mirror of the real world. Each character is handled lovingly, each topic with gentleness, grace and gravity. We’re led to sympathize with each character’s motivations, even if their actions have devastating repercussions. Similarly, we’re led to see social debates from both sides of the argument, even if we ordinarily would not have done. It’s stunning, but it’s hard to watch in parts. There’s a reason why this source material is so praised and important; it’s a game-changer.

In the remainder of the review, I’m going to summarize the different plot lines while trying to not give too much away. There will be little details and mild spoilers that I may point out but I will conscientiously avoid major spoilers, huge reveals or answers to ongoing questions the series raises. However, if you don’t want to know anything, don’t read on past this kitten.

The story opens with Elena Richardson watching her magnificent house burn, with a look of resignation and despair on her face, as the fire chief informs her that instead of one point of origin, there were “little fires everywhere.” No one knows who started the fire, or the reasoning behind it. As the story travels back several weeks to showcase the events leading up to the fire, we see that Elena is outwardly a good neighbor and devoted mother, and dedicated to “helping others.” However, Elena and her husband Bill live in a bubble of privilege and luxury, and have never known anything but. As they start to take sides on several social issues that crop up in their lives, their lack of perspective begins to show.

Elena and Bill have four children in a blueprint of the perfect suburban family- in birth order there’s Lexie, a mini carbon copy of Elena; Trip, the handsome golden boy that all the girls in high school swoon over; Moody, the younger son who is overshadowed by his two older siblings and seems to have more intellectual depth than both of them; and Izzy. Izzy is the outsider, the troubled teen, who enjoys defying her mother’s obsession with perfection, and is disgusted by the way the rest of the family acts. She is the fulcrum on which the rest of the family perches precariously; always only a step away from ruining a recital or a Thanksgiving dinner, challenging the very bedrock of ideals that Elena has built her family on.

Enter Mia Warren and her teenage daughter, Pearl. Mia seems to be the exact opposite of everything Elena is; instead of uptight, she’s low-key- instead of obsessing over perfection, she delights in the truth of flaws. She’s calm, she’s gentle, she’s observant, and refuses to be pinned down or put in a cage. Mia and Pearl move around a lot and don’t stay in one place long, because of Mia’s work as a photographer. She is constantly searching for inspiration, and until they make the move to Shaker Heights, Pearl seems content with it. When they do pull into town, Elena offers the duplex she owns at month to month rent, and also a housekeeping job for Mia, thinking she is doing the Warren family a huge favor, but in reality, due to her social obtuseness of her white privilege, sets the stage for friction in their relationship.

When Pearl enrolls in the same high school as the Richardson family, things start to unravel fast. Many social interactions start to entwine and threaten each other; Moody and Pearl establish a close friendship and Moody develops feelings for Pearl but Pearl has her heart set on Trip, which leads to her spending a lot of time at the Richardson house in an effort to get close to him. This concerns Mia, who distrusts Elena and uses her housekeeping job to keep an eye on Pearl while noticing how very neglected and isolated Izzy is. This in turn leads to Izzy idolizing Mia and spending her off hours at Mia’s duplex, which of course, upsets Elena.

At the same time, Lexie shows increasing social ignorance and callousness in her interracial relationship with her boyfriend Brian, mirroring her mother's mistreatment of Mia, and culminating in an inevitable break-up just as she learns she’s pregnant. Her pregnancy is a wrench thrown in the perfectly constructed world her mother has made for her and forces her to start rethinking her world views and her future. Her decision to involve Pearl in her issues further muddies already rising waters in the two families’ dynamics. Izzy similarly is hiding a secret of her own that has alienated her best friend and led her to seek solace with Mia.

Merging seamlessly with the myriad of nuanced plot lines and social threads is the emergence of a high profile custody case in the unshakeable Shaker Heights. Elena’s good friend Linda McCullough and her husband have finally been able to adopt a baby after ten years of trying to get pregnant and failing. The baby is a beautiful little Chinese girl who they name Mirabelle, and was left at a fire station wrapped in several blankets on a snowy evening, and they are overjoyed. They invite the whole neighborhood over for her first birthday and celebrate with fortune cookies. The Richardson family is particularly invested.

Unfortunately, it is soon revealed that Mirabelle is none other than May Ling, the daughter of Chinese immigrant, Bebe Chow, who works alongside Mia Warren at a Chinese restaurant in the neighborhood. Bebe’s story is particularly tragic; she immigrated to America with her boyfriend, and got pregnant only to have him immediately leave her. Without benefits of citizenship and at the mercy of a barely minimum wage job, Bebe struggles to care for May Ling by herself. Her baby won’t latch so her milk supply dries up; she’s barely able to cover rent and uses the last of her money to buy formula but is seventy cents short and denied the formula. (In the same episode, Izzy tries getting on a bus and is seventy cents short, but the bus driver lets her on anyway.) In a particularly heartbreaking scene, Bebe bundles up her screaming baby lovingly and in a moment of desperation, leaves May Ling at the fire station, begging them to give her a better life than she could in a handwritten note.

Several months later, Bebe Chow is doing much better, making more money, but aching for her baby. One evening she confides in Mia, emphasizing that she would do anything to find her daughter. When Mia reveals the truth of where May Ling is, a custody case breaks out and captures the attention of the whole neighborhood, pitching Mia and Elena against each other, even as their children become more inseparable.

Added to the mixing pot are particularly crucial revelations of both Elena’s and Mia’s pasts; as the audience slowly realizes that both leads are simultaneously holding secrets that are very relevant to their different ways of life, and their subsequent actions under pressure.

It’s thrilling, moving, uplifting, saddening and terrifying to watch all the aforementioned sparks turn into little fires everywhere. This series has it all; riveting plot lines, strong characters, powerful dialogue, beautiful cinematography- enough simmering tension to make a tea kettle whistle. But this series’ true strength is in its ability to make you care about the characters and the outcomes of their trials. You become invested, even if you’re unsure as to what the solution to a particular problem is. And it isn’t until later, when you turn the TV off, that you realize it translates so well to real life.

There are many poignant moments, from Bebe’s lawyer asking Linda McCullough what ethnicity Mirabelle/May Ling’s baby doll is, to Mia lovingly and meticulously decorating a second hand bicycle for Pearl, to flashbacks of a young Elena at home with four children throwing dinner plates on the kitchen floor in a fit of despair, to Lexie complaining that it’s not fair that she’s never experienced hardship for an essay she has to write to get into an Ivy League college, to Elena not understanding why Mia is so upset when a cop pulls over Pearl and Moody. The closest thing I can think of to compare this show to, is an intricate and gorgeous stained glass window that slowly starts to shatter. This series both grips you and tugs at your heartstrings, and perhaps even educates you, and that’s what good television is meant to do.

If you start this one, I’d settle in with a fuzzy blanket and your favorite snacks; you may not get up for a while. Little Fires Everywhere is totally binge-worthy.

Memorable quotes:

Jamie: “What did you used to say? That being right is better than sex because it lasts longer.”
Elena: “Because it lasts forever.”

Elena: “I take motherhood for granted sometimes. That they’ll love you forever. That they’ll love you at all.”

Elena: “It’s a beautiful thing to know your actions can affect another person’s life.”

Mia: “It breaks my heart that she can’t see you for you. That she only sees what you can do for her.”

Mia: “You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices.”

Bebe: “You have children, miss?”
Elena: “Yes I do. I have four children.”
Bebe: “How much would you sell them for?”

Mia: “How can we see ourselves when we’re afraid to look at who we really are?”

Mia: “It bothers you, doesn’t it? I think you can’t imagine. Why anyone would choose a different life than the one you’ve got. Why anyone would choose anything different than what you’d choose.”

Elena: “It’s like learning to love the smell of an apple when all you want to do is grab it and hold it and devour it… seeds and all.”
Mia: “That’s exactly what it’s like. Seeds and all.”
This popular line is about motherhood, and may be the defining quote of the novel. In the series, Elena said this quote; in the novel it was Mia thinking it. I cried when I read it in the book and I cried when I saw it in the series. Incredibly powerful.

Definitely three and a half out of four apples,

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