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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Illustration for article titled iLittle Fires Everywhere /iconcludes with a gripping tearjerker of a finale
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Little Fires Everywhere has gone from a slow start to a straight-up explosive drama in its eight episodes. There is a lot to unpack when it comes to the heartrending conclusion of the show but first, a question to my fellow book readers: Are you just as startled after finishing the episode to discover the show deviates from Celeste Ng’s big twist in the novel about who started those little fires?

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It’s not surprising to learn who the culprits are once you consider some of the other big changes the Hulu drama made to the story, including Mia’s race but especially the focus during the second half on Elena’s backstory, Izzy’s sexuality, and the after-effects of Lexie stealing Pearl’s discrimination story for Yale. These are factors—along with how the burgeoning animosity between Elena and Mia deeply impacted their families—that ultimately motivate the three other Richardson children, and not Izzy, to burn down their lavish home.

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Before we dig into those fiery (conversationally and literally) closing scenes though, there’s an entire hour’s worth of Little Fires Everywhere slowly tearing open the reverie of the Richardsons, the evolution of Mia and Pearl’s new and honest life, the surprising end to the major custody battle, and how all of these realities entangle themselves to the point of combustion. If one thing is painfully obvious by this point, it’s that Elena is the common denominator here—even Bill thinks so. She may have started off as a supportive friend to Linda but her actions morphed into some kind of vendetta against Mia over time. Elena clearly harbors resentment at how her life turned out once Izzy was born and is projecting it on the two people in her life—Mia and Izzy—who choose to live as freely as they can. She is blinded by her regret and anger, and continually inserts herself into the narrative to try and fix the situation, including in the finale when she goes to the clinic her friend Elizabeth works at to dig for information on whether or not Bebe was there for consultations while pregnant. She breaches the privacy of several women when she spies on Elizabeth’s computer before finding a file named Pearl W.

She continues to spiral, especially once Bill confronts her about hiding her dinner with ex-boyfriend Jamie in New York City. So she goes to the one person she thinks is the real problem: Mia. The two get into a heated debate and Elena evicts Mia but not before her tenant lets her know that it was Lexie and not Pearl who got the abortion. This scene stands out because, unlike their confrontation in “The Spider Web,” which was sparked by some deep-rooted issues, Mia and Elena attack each other’s mothering in the most gut-wrenching ways.

Elena and Mia’s own involvement with Linda and Bebe was never just about being there for a friend during a tough time. They are both trying to assuage their own guilt. For Mia, she looks at the possibility of Bebe getting legal rights to her daughter as a method of assurance that her decision to take Pearl away was the right one. Now that Pearl knows the whole truth, or at least the version Elena has told her, Mia’s fear of losing her daughter rushes back in. Kerry Washington’s crestfallen face when Pearl tells Mia she wants to speak to her father speaks volumes.

Pearl’s disbelief in Mia’s secrets is completely justified. In fact, it’s more believable in the show than the book because here at least she is expressing her fury for a while before Mia gains her trust again. She comes clean about her anxiety that Pearl would choose to stay with the Ryans over her if she were given the choice but her daughter assures her that Mia is the only mother she has. Both of them agree to pack up and leave in the middle of the night without any goodbyes. Pearl wants to leave intact her memories of Trip and the version of the town she grew to love.

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Ah, this town. We learn a lot more about Shaker Heights in this episode thanks to a podcast (audiobook?) Mia listens to called Beneath The Facade which details the history of systemic racism here. As her next project, she draws up a map of the important locales like the courtroom, the McCullough and Richardson houses, and drops a chunk of white flour mixed with water all over it. Yeah, it’s not subtle.

It’s no surprise then that the judge predictably rules in favor of the McCulloughs after Linda’s emotional testimony even as Bebe’s lawyer challenged how seriously Mark and Linda take May Ling/Mirabelle’s Chinese heritage. Bebe never really stood a chance, not in this family court. The news breaks her. She sobs in Mia’s arms and later breaks into the McCullough home and takes May Ling away. It looks like she’s escaping with her to Canada. Ironically, she somewhat repeats Mia’s pattern and the way she quietly took Pearl away from the people who could’ve been her parents.

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The characters in Little Fires Everywhere are wholly driven by emotion, including Linda and Bebe, whose love for the baby in their lives overtakes rationality by the end. It’s easy to commiserate with both women, especially since Bebe’s actions leave a wake of devastation for Linda who loses another child yet again. But should Bebe, who made a bad decision in a moment of desperation, be punished for her entire life without her kid? The show really does excel at conundrums.

Things take a turn for the worse when Izzy spots Pearl and Mia leaving after dropping off the key to the rental apartment. Unable to deal with the idea that the only benevolent maternal figure in her life has left—thanks to her actual mother—she decides to burn up the pieces of her life she hates. This idea stems from a conversation she has with Mia earlier in which she talks about the time she was pregnant and drove up to California when she spotted a prairie fire at night. In the morning, everything was burnt up and felt like the end of the world. For Izzy, Mia leaving feels just like that.

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Lexie, Moody, and Trip stop her but it leads to a brutal confrontation between Elena and Izzy. It’s tough to watch but boy, Reese Witherspoon and Megan Stott sell the hell out of their characters’ pent up frustrations finally bubbling over. It’s a screaming match that results in Izzy abandoning her family, Lexie confessing about the abortion and the pressure she faces, and all of her kids begging Elena to bring Izzy back. Once their mother refuses, Lexie realizes she doesn’t want to turn into Elena and at her behest, Moody and Trip join her in lighting fires in their rooms. Just like that, we’re transported back to the opening scenes of the first episode. Instead of ratting out her children, Elena digests the events of the night and admits to setting the fire herself.

The scene in which she stares at the remnants of her house the morning after the fire mirror the rest of Mia’s story about the prairie fire. “When the sun came up, the earth, everything was black. Scorched. It felt like exactly how I felt. It felt like the end of the world but then I had Pearl,” she tells Izzy before continuing. “I learned things I didn’t know before like sometimes you have to scorch everything to start over and after the burning, the soil is rich and life can grow there; a life that is maybe even better than what was there before.”

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We won’t really see this new life Elena creates for herself and her family unless Hulu commissions a second season. But since it’s left open-ended, I hope it’s one with less rigidity. If Mia and Pearl can find a fresh start at her hometown so that Pearl can meet her grandparents for the first time, the Richardsons might just be able to find their way back to each other. Well, except Izzy, who leaves town and finally frees herself from the home she felt so trapped in. This is also represented in Mia’s art project of a white-washed Shaker Heights in which Izzy’s feather earring hangs in a small cage with the door left open.

The final moments may seem abrupt—much like they do in the book—because there is no real depiction of how Elena deals with Izzy’s absence, or whether Pearl decides to meet Joe and Madeline, or how the Richardsons recover in the aftermath of the fire, or even where Izzy eventually lands up. It’s not tied up with a bow because that’s not how real life works. Little Fires Everywhere excels at exuding these raw emotions, not holding back on fully displaying the looming flaws and vulnerabilities of its characters, especially Elena and Mia.

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More than anything, “Find A Way” and perhaps the show overall acts as quite a showcase for Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington’s talent. Every expression they serve up, ranging from despair to heartbreak to seething rage is spectacular. Their moving performances of their impressionable characters might just get them a well-earned Emmy nod.

Stray observations

  • First and foremost, the background score in this episode was beautiful and quite haunting, effectively matching the explosive scenes and dialogues.
  • Izzy calling out Moody for expecting Pearl to like him back was a perfect line: “She’s not yours. You don’t deserve her just because you like her.”
  • How did Bill Richardson somehow become one of the most relatable characters on the show? In the same vein, did you think Trip will turn into the nicest of the Richardson kids?
  • This has been said review after review, but I’ll take my last opportunity to repeat it yet again that this cast was phenomenal but Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, and Jade Pettyjohn, in particular, were standouts. I’m excited to see the projects they take on next.
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