Almost immediately, Little Fires Everywhere makes at least one interpretation of its title known in its premiere episode. Along with her husband and three of four children, a horrified Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) watches as their fancy mansion in Shaker Heights, Ohio, goes up in flames. They are informed that someone used an accelerant to purposely start little fires everywhere in the house while Elena was still inside. The current (and immediate) suspect is her youngest daughter, the rebellious Izzy, who is nowhere to be found. The metaphorical meaning of the title sprouts up gradually as seeds for it are well planted in “The Spark,” a slow-burn opener that sets up the rest of the season.
The Hulu drama is based on the 2017 bestselling novel of the same name by Celeste Ng. The book provided an emotional, wrenching look at motherhood, familial relationships, class differences, racism, and even immigration in suburbia, all packaged in Ng’s sharp, briskly-paced writing. The show’s attempt to capture this onscreen is noble if not nearly as perfect. Witherspoon and her co-lead Kerry Washington—their production houses are both involved in the making of the show—deliver powerhouse performances that keep the momentum going. Their tense shared chemistry is endearing to watch right from the first episode, which flashes back four months from the opening to August 1997.
Elena’s Type A personality shines through as we learn her various routines. She weighs herself every morning and proceeds to make a note of the number in a diary; everything from lunchboxes to books are color-coded; she even has dedicated sex nights (Wednesdays and Saturdays only) with her husband Bill (Joshua Jackson). There’s also some tension between her and Izzy (Megan Stott) because Elena can’t comprehend her mutinous attitude, especially when her other daughter Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) is a model child. Even her two sons Trip (Jordan Elsass) , a jock, and a quieter Moody (Gavin Lewis) follow along to her tunes. The Richardson family matriarch is also a part-time reporter for the local newspaper and she spots a woman living in a car on her drive to work. She calls the cops “out of concern” because she doesn’t want anything bad to happen in town. This one scene speaks volumes about Elena’s characterization: polite, careful, but certainly not without condescension.
The people living in the car are Mia Warren (Washington) and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood). They’re clearly used to their living situation and even a young girl like Pearl doesn’t seem to mind it—for now. They clean up in a grocery store bathroom and then rely on coupons during checkout. Their idea of a splurge is going to Goodwill. Little Fires Everywhere quickly sets up the radical disparities in Elena and Mia’s lifestyle, even if it’s a little too on the nose. Their worlds collide when Mia and Pearl arrive at Elena’s rental home, which was left to her by her parents. She shows them the second-floor apartment and essentially lets them know that her goal is for the tenant “to be able to enjoy the place” because the $300 rent per month really isn’t a concern for her. Witherspoon is just so potent with her slightly snobby tone here, just as Washington makes Mia’s disdain to it palpable.
Mia is initially wary about the arrangement but accepts because Elena offers to lower the rent if she mows the lawn every two weeks (the grass in Shaker cannot be over six inches tall. Yes, they do measure it). But mainly, it’s because Pearl has taken an instant liking to her space: “You can finally have a studio and I can have my own room,” she excitedly tells her mother.
Over dinner at the Richardson household, Bill is perplexed by Elena’s sudden decision to rent to the Warrens; she hasn’t even checked out her previous references yet. Izzy takes offense to her mother calling Mia a beautiful African American woman. “How does that matter?” she asks. Lexie reminds her that her boyfriend Brian told her to say Black now. With this exchange, Little Fires Everywhere builds on the notion of how wealthy white families feel discomfort in addressing and talking to minorities, something that comes into play later in the episode as well.
For now, Elena suggests that Moody befriend Pearl since they are the same age and will be in the same classes. Little does she know that her son has already developed a crush on Pearl, and they start hanging out more and more. Moody brings her home one day, and Pearl ends up spending time with all the Richardson kids (except Izzy). She even joins them for supper. There’s a hint of her catching some feelings for Trip. At some point, Lexie claims that it will be easier for Pearl to be accepted to good schools now because of affirmative action.
Elena and Pearl appear to bond on the ride back to the Warrens’ home that night. But Elena’s relationship with Izzy—whom she insists on calling Isobel, because she doesn’t like that nickname—continues to hit a rough patch. The kid burns off part of her hair after her mother, in a misguided attempt to compliment her, tells her that her long hair is her best quality, if only she would style it well.
Elena takes Pearl to the salon and bumps into Mia. She learns that Mia works a few nights at a Chinese restaurant, and because she absolutely cannot help herself, asks Mia if she would like to work as a housekeeper, er, house manager at the Richardson mansion. “You mean, like a maid? I don’t do that,” Mia responds. This is yet another fantastic scene with an intense, simmering tension between the two women. Elena doesn’t really know how to behave with Mia and Mia shrugs it off most of the time because she’s familiar with this. She does accept the job, however, once she realizes how much time Pearl is spending there and is now enamored with the lavishness of the Richardson house.
One of the two biggest takeaways from “The Spark” is Mia’s nightmare. She is haunted by what certainly looks like a memory of being on a train in New York City with a man (Jesse Williams) continuously gazing at her. It’s such a painful reminder of something that she wakes up all sweaty. Mia then possessively hugs her daughter, who is sleeping beside her. The memory adds another layer to Mia and Pearl itinerant lifestyle—never getting too comfortable while moving from city to city every few months. Mia is definitely scared but of what? Or is it a whom? She claims they never plant roots because of her job as an artist and Pearl seems to buy it, so perhaps she hasn’t been fully honest with her daughter either. We learn plenty about Elena in this episode, but Mia remains somewhat of a mystery, even to her landlord. This is intensified when Elena finally receives a callback from Mia’s reference and he tells her that he’s never even heard of the Warrens.
The second most significant setup in this episode is the unexpected but slowly burgeoning bonds between Elena and Pearl, and Mia and Izzy. After an upsetting orchestra performance during which Izzy plasters the words “Not Your Puppet” on her forehead and embarrasses her family, she is seen sitting on her bed at night playing with a little lighter. The next morning she is spray painting a bench on the lawn when Mia enters, shares a painting tip, and says “We artists gotta stick together.” That approving look is one Izzy hasn’t received from her mom...probably, ever, so she responds with a smile. The dynamics, they are a-shiftin’.
“The Spark” proves that Little Fires Everywhere has a ways to go to catch up with its critically acclaimed source material, but through powerful acting and direction, it shouldn’t take too long.
- The well-planned town of Shaker Heights might sound unrealistic but no, it very much exists and the author of the book, Celeste Ng, grew up there.
- On a related note, is it just me or does Stars Hollow not seem so crazy anymore?
- It might seem like it’s too early to call it but based on the premiere alone, Megan Stott and Lexi Underwood as Izzy and Pearl are shaping up to be the breakout cast members.
- Lynn Shelton’s direction in the premiere is simply phenomenal. Honestly, it’s one of the biggest selling points of this episode.