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Little Fires Everywhere is rife with honest, harsh confrontations in its penultimate episode

Illustration for article titled iLittle Fires Everywhere/i is rife with honest, harsh confrontations in its penultimate episode
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With Little Fires Everywhere careening towards its end next week, the penultimate hour delivers an emotional courtroom showdown along with some long overdue confrontations to amp up the stakes for the finale, which will finally answer the season-long mystery of who burned down the Richardson mansion while Elena was still inside.

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The appropriately titled “Picture Perfect” is devoted to shattering any idea of just that for characters who have built up some barely existent perfect narrative of their lives. For Pearl, it happens when she learns the truth about her mother’s secrets; for Moody, it’s figuring out that his crush is getting it on with his big brother. For Lexie, it’s getting dumped by her boyfriend Brian along with a much-needed lesson on race, and for Izzy, it’s when her mother screams at her that it’s not easy to be her parent, which leads her straight into Mia’s arms.

All of the kids get their share of the focus in the episode, especially Izzy with her flashback to just a few months ago when she was caught kissing April in front of her school friends during a game. It explains why Izzy has been distant from them ever since the show began: They’ve been bullying her, including April, who we learn in this episode is afraid of coming out and so she just let Izzy shoulder the blame.

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Where many teen-centered arcs are often overwrought or overdone, here the smart storytelling and convincing performances—especially those of Lexi Underwood, Megan Stott, and Jade Pettyjohn—help them add value to the show in unexpected ways. More specifically, the relationship each of the girls share with their mother deepens the complicated takes Little Fires Everywhere offers up on motherhood.

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Elena’s apprehension about having a fourth kid, as we saw in last week’s “The Uncanny,” along with Izzy’s rebellious attitude, makes it easy for both of them to set off on the warpath with each other, whether it’s about wearing tartan keds for a family Christmas photo or Izzy’s protest at school in support of Bebe by selling Cabbage Patch Dolls with faces of people of color stuck on them. Mia and Pearl always seemed to share a strong bond because Pearl believed Mia was providing for her as best she could. In this episode, she learns from boyfriend Tripp that her mother bankrolled Bebe’s lawyer instead of using thousands of dollars to improve their own living conditions. This undermines their connection severely.

Soon, both teenage girls reach out to their version of a picture-perfect mom for solace. Izzy seeks comfort in Mia’s words about loving all parts of ourselves when she learns about her mentor’s former lover Pauline. She finally gains the approval and guidance of a maternal figure when it comes to her sexuality. Pearl turns to the lavishness of the Richardson mansion that she is banned from and unwittingly learns from Elena everything about Mia’s past, including how she took Pearl away from the Ryans.

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As she confides to Tripp in this episode, Pearl has always gotten what she needed from her mother but never what she wanted. This cliffhanger is a setup for everything in her life to finally come to a head, including whether or not she wants to meet the two people who could’ve been her family. Pearl isn’t the only kid whose identity comes into question in this episode. The custody battle for May Ling/Mirabelle finally begins with Bebe Chow taking the stand and Mia stepping in as a character witness for her—a fact that surprises Elena. The two women confront each other in the restroom and Elena reveals that she knows all of her tenant’s background and has even met her parents. She essentially tries to threaten Mia into backing down, which she almost does but an emotional plea from Bebe convinces her not to.

Elena’s progress in this episode is confounding. I found myself sympathetic to her situation—much more than I did to Elena in the book, because this version has more depth—but the woman has blinders on when it comes to having a savior complex. She wants to make sure her best friend Linda gets to keep the baby even if it means interjecting in and possibly messing with Pearl’s life.

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During her testimony, Mia passionately says “no mother would want to be judged by the choice she made in her hardest, most desperate moment.” While she is referring to how Bebe had no choice but to drop May Ling at the fire station due to poverty, it also applies as a defense for her own choice to keep Pearl for herself, even if it’s not necessarily a good one because her actions led to unimaginable loss yet again for the Ryan family.

The episode ends without any verdict on the May Ling/Mirabelle case but Bill assures a panicked Elena that someone like Bebe—a poor, marginalized undocumented immigrant—doesn’t stand a chance against a rich white family like the McCulloughs especially in a town like Shaker Heights. Even I could have told her that. Bebe and her lawyer put up a hard fight but it’s hard to imagine a victory for her when her only source of support in the court is another poor, marginalized woman of color.

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Little Fires Everywhere is surprisingly adept at raising questions about what the society values as a good upbringing, shedding light on this subject in various ways through its characters. It hasn’t been a perfect journey, or even a perfect adaptation of its source material, but the show sure has tightened up its rough edges as it nears the end. Next week’s finale is sure to be a dramatic tumbling of all the dominoes it has laid out over seven episodes.

Stray observations

  • Joshua Jackson finally has more to do in Little Fires Everywhere and he doesn’t disappoint. His “I’m done with you” face every time Elena brings up Mia now is just perfect.
  • In every single close-up shot of her face during the trial, Elena’s face is completely and utterly disdainful. Reese Witherspoon has nailed the expression of privilege.
  • Brian’s breakup speech to Lexie about how problematic her entire family’s behavior is when it comes to racism was much-needed, even if only she got to hear it.
  • Oh, Moody. You’re the only character who gets to continually live up to their name.
  • With only one more episode to go, what questions do you hope are answered by the end beside the obvious one about the Richardson house? Will Joe and Madeline Ryan make a comeback? And who do you think should win the custody battle?
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