The Hulu Original Little Fires Everywhere is a series based on Celeste Ng’s novel of the same name. Starring Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon, the series explores race, motherhood, and interpersonal relationships in the late ’90s. Hulu releases one episode a week, so it isn’t something you can binge-watch over a weekend. However, I watched the first four episodes with my husband and it quickly became a show that we hate to love.
What attracted us originally, was that it takes place in Shaker Heights, OH. As a current Ohio resident, Shaker Heights was one of the areas I always said we would move to if our stay became permanent. The houses are huge, beautiful, and filled with character. Shaker has a quaint suburban atmosphere but it is minutes away from the heart of Cleveland. Elena Richardson, played by Reese, a part-time journalist with a lawyer husband and four teenage children, is the epitome of privilege. By stark contrast, Mia Warren, Kerry Washington’s character, is an artist who wanders the country in search of inspiration with her also teenage daughter, Pearl. Elena and Mia’s paths cross innocently enough at first. Unfortunately, their lives begin to intertwine and quickly start to cause the self-destruction of both families. While Little Fires Everywhere is extremely entertaining, there is one thing I take issue with as a viewer. The character development needs improvement. SPOILER ALERT!
The character development of this show bothers me. I have not read the book, so I am not sure if the racial aspect is adapted from what is written or if it is a means to make the content relatable in these times. However, what I can say is the way Mia and Pearl are characterized leaves a lot to be desired. They are very much written through the White gaze. Nothing seems to be logical about Mia. She is a liar, she is sneaky, and she is developed as mean and malicious toward Elena almost immediately after the two meet.
Mia seems to want to do any and everything in her power to knock Elena down a notch after only knowing her for a couple of weeks. The secondary storyline of Mia’s night job coworker, BeBe, suffering depression after leaving her baby at a fire station only to discover said baby is currently living with Elena’s friends who are in the process of adopting it, is confusing at best. Mia realizes the baby is BeBe’s biologically and now feels inclined to sell a $30,000 piece of art to help her. Why? When at the start of the show they were living in a car and even skipped out on buying jelly so that Pearl could have a magazine.
Pearl seems to lack any street smarts, despite living as a vagabond her entire life. She has the naivete of someone that has lived in privilege. There are very few Black mothers that do not teach their children to have some skepticism about the encounters they have with White people. Yet Pearl instantly becomes completely immersed in the Richardson household. Even when the Richardsons display blatant prejudice with stereotyping in her presence, she largely ignores and even defends it. It is unclear if these details are intentional but it comes off as someone that is not Black attempting to build Black characters without consulting any Black women.
In comparison, the way that Elena and her children, with the exception of Izzy, are developed is very different. Elena is constantly displayed as a hero. She was doing the right thing by allowing Mia to move into the duplex she was renting at a reduced rate. She offered Mia a job as a housekeeper because she assumed Mia needed extra money. Throughout the series, it becomes obvious that Elena does not even believe Mia is an “actual” artist. The conversations around their dinner table go from microaggression to full out racist almost instantly. Even in those moments, which I am assuming (possibly more for my own sake as an attempt to get through the series) to be satirical, it is always met with the catch that Elena is trying to do the right thing. As if it was simply the 90’s and White people did not know any better back then. It was a different time.
She is protecting her friends, family, and even Pearl from the angry and toxic Mia. Elena gets the benefit of the doubt where Mia does not. Izzy is the rebellious daughter that does not hesitate to call her family out on their crap. She is the black sheep of the family that is grappling with fitting in because of her sexuality. Izzy is barely noticed by her family, this causes her to get in her own way. Which seems realistic for a young girl trying to figure out who she is. She gravitates toward Mia because they are both artists and also due to their shared distaste for Elena. Izzy is the only character to actually have some sense in this series which is surprising as she is just a high school freshman.
In conclusion, Little Fires Everywhere is one of the most addictive, problematic shows to watch right now. Even with some flaws, it is still a great story. If you take nothing else from it, enjoy the 90’s soundtrack. I highly recommend it if you are looking for something to watch during this era of social distancing. If there is one character type Reese Witherspoon plays excellently, it is the annoying, uptight White woman. Especially when you consider how laid back her actual persona seems to be. Kerry Washington also does a great job as Mia. The casting truly is phenomenal. I cannot wait to see how this story unfolds further. Hopefully, we get to see more of Mia’s past to build more context to the story. The way that both Pearl and Izzy are drawn to the lifestyle that is most different from their own can result in a multitude of endings.