Shaker Heights, Ohio is the same as your typical American TV town. The suburbs are dominated by housewives and their business-lawyer husbands, cornered off by their white picket fences and expensive range rovers. Oh, and their well-kept secrets guaranteed to ruin friendships, relationships and tear the community apart. Them too, of course.
‘Little Fires Everywhere’ originally premiered on Hulu in March of this year, but was only recently made available on Amazon Prime Video. Adapted from Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name, the show is sold as a mini-series – but don’t misinterpret this for it being short and fleeting. Little Fires Everywhere asks much larger questions than you’d think.
The first time we meet Elena Richardson (Reece Witherspoon), she stands aghast while watching her family home burn to the ground. We are already wondering what she could’ve possibly done to deserve this. And when we flashback to the beginning of their story, it still doesn’t make sense.
Everything about her is so normal: in the most suburban American way. She wakes up, has her coffee, checks her littered schedule before heading out to the job she relegated to look after her kids. It’s not until Elena becomes a true Karen – calling her police confidant to report a suspicious car, and its owner, a black woman – that we sense something is off.
Enter Mia (Kerry Washington) and Pearl (Lexi Underwood), newbies to the Shaker Heights community, who are taking a break from their nomadic lifestyle. Mia is an artist, something Elena makes sure to acknowledge is surely a pipeline dream, and while her work has kept her busy, she finally wants a place where her daughter can settle down. They rent a house off Elena, and just like that, the families’ lives become intertwined.
People fall in love. They lie. They cheat. They keep secrets – both white lies and devastatingly large bombshells, which threaten everything they’ve ever known. Mia and Pearl’s arrival sparks catastrophic results, all of which turn the Richardson household upside down.
Mia is everything Elena is not: black, working class, creative, self-defining in her work and relationships. Elena, however, is the cookie-cutter mother – until all her repressed feelings, wants and needs come crawling out of the shadows. Perhaps their one common denominator is that they’re both mothers, they both wish to nurture and protect their families at any cost – even if this means driving a wedge between their kids’ blossoming relationships.
Outside of this, the show tackles issues of immigration, adoption, post-natal depression, miscarriages and abortion – an obliged trigger warning must be given if any of these issues are sensitive to you. Little Fires Everywhere obliterates our understanding of motherhood, putting it under a microscope and truly forcing us to identify what it all really means. Motherhood is not one straight line, it’s not easy to follow or easy to amend. It’s twisted, and complicated, and sometimes spiraling out of control. Much of the show is emotionally powered, so if you like a lot of action, then this may not be for you. But the powerful monologues and tumultuous relationships will keep you gripped if you love these sorts of dramas.
It was Witherspoon herself who discovered the book prior to its publication, as she chose it for her September 2017 book club pick. It became a bestseller soon after, and became a TV adaptation. Much of the show follows the original novel, though some core details have been included. In the book, Mia and Pearl are not explicitly black, and their race is wholly unspecified. Consequentially, the book does not cover race issues between the two families, or the entire community in general.
This slight change creates an entire new meaning within ‘Little Fires Everywhere’. There’s one particular scene in the first few episodes where Elena asks Mia if she’d like to be her ‘house manager’, someone who picks up after her family and cooks their meals. You can understand the wider significance this has, and how it shifts Elena and Mia’s relationship into a different light. The show definitely identifies white privilege, and Elena’s white saviour complex, both of which are ostensibly relevant considering today’s climate, albeit different circumstances.
Female-driven, both the characters and storylines feel overwhelmingly personal – touching you regardless of your feelings towards motherhood itself. Both Witherspoon and Washington put in incredible portrayals of two women only just beginning to understand what it means to be a mother, while coming to terms with their failures and their true feelings towards them.
They are perfect opposing leads, who are evidently experienced when acting in character-driven texts. Both women are credited as executive producers on the show, and their impact is undeniably felt. Comparisons to Big Little Lies, another book-to-TV adaptation which Reece both produced and starred in, have already been made, and I don’t necessarily think that’s a bad thing. Both shows truly shine a light on strong and convoluted women, allowing them to be complicated, chaotic and, at times, downright cruel – a complexity often only offered to male characters.
What’s also refreshing is the fact their teenage counterparts are played by actual teenagers – something rarely found in television these days. Kudos must be given to Lexi Underwood for her impressive performance of Pearl. At just 16, she managed to convey all the minor trials and tribulations of being a teenager, like falling in love and succumbing to peer pressure, while also tackling larger issues such as race, identity and what it means to have a home.
The show isn’t completely heavy, and definitely has some happy and uplifting moments. The relationship between Izzy and Mia was enamouring, as they become two kindred spirits both wishing to heal from their experiences, particularly as LGBT characters. Set in the 1990s, you can expect cultural references, scrunchies galore and chunky telephones littered through the episodes’ 50-60-minute runtime – while being a late-90s baby, I was still able to appreciate the aesthetics and small attention to detail.
It’s not clear if ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ will return for a second season, though it was certainly left in a place where it could be. Though the book had only one installment, many fans of the show are calling to see more of the Warren and Richardson households.
Showrunner Liz Tigelaar, when speaking to Vulture, said while there are still stories to tell, “that’s more of a spinoff than a second season. It’s hard to say goodbye but there’s something about trying to extend it past its shelf life that I feel would dishonour what it was.”. But who knows? Maybe if they get enough cries for a renewal, the show will continue.
Right now, most of us are bored in lockdown and feel like we have seen just about everything on Netflix. If you like domestic dramas or character-focused shows, you should definitely check out Little Fires Everywhere. And even if you don’t, you should still give it a chance. Melodramatic at times, sure, but ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is still raw, real and honest. We see each character as they are: flawed, dysfunctional and arguably, just trying to get it right. It’s hard not to empathise as we watch miscommunication and micro-aggressions escalate into a fiery pit of despair – quite literally. I promise you will find at least one character you relate to, and you’ll definitely be left wondering: if there’s a fire, then who lit the match?
Little Fires Everywhere is available on Amazon Prime Video now.
Featured image credit: Amazon Prime Video