For most of its run, the Reese Witherspoon and Keri Washington-fronted miniseries Little Fires Everywhere was compelling enough. It provided what seemed like a drama-soaked mystery (“who burned down the house?”) that was all based around the central question “who hates Elena?” Everyone, it turns out. And yes, Elena made a lot of mistakes. Enough that, in the end, she takes the blame for the fire that her children set, realizing that her actions kickstarted this whole mess.
So that’s fine. It’s a change from Celeste Ng’s book on which the Hulu series is based, where Izzy is the culprit. And in a way she is here, too. She brings the gasoline into the bedrooms. But, after much screaming, she’s absolved as she runs off into the night never to be seen or heard from again. And instead, her siblings take up the torch (!) and decide to completely destroy their home and all of their things.
Now … they are all dealing with stuff, as teenagers are wont to do. Lexi the most, of course. Moody and Trip are mostly just angry over a girl. Suddenly, the golden children all turn on their mother after she tells Izzy she never wanted her. Is that enough to burn everything to the ground? Evidently. (Bill, of course, was just off driving and smoking and not mattering, like usual).
That revelation felt pretty flat and very unearned in the moment. Izzy burning it all down? Sure. The others, not so much. Further, we see that Bebe somehow sneaks into the McCulloughs’ house to steal May Ling back and escape with her, even though you know the McCulloughs would have had that house alarmed to the hilt expecting just such a thing. In the book, they end up adopting another baby girl from China, but that coda isn’t included here. So instead, all we get is a B-plot tragedy without resolution.
The custody battle was where Little Fires Everywhere may have faltered the most. It never felt like a balanced or even thoughtful narrative in terms of understanding both sides of the debate. In this plot and others, the show was very clear who it wanted us to like, leading us very firmly down the path it wanted us to take. And yet, none of these moments ever really connected emotionally the way they should have. There were plenty of interesting threads (particularly after the revelations uncovered in “The Uncanny,” perhaps the best episode), but few were more fully explored. But there was a lot of screaming (which, as a former teen, did feel totally warranted even if it was exceptionally grating).
Overall, Little Fires Everywhere was fine, but it missed some key opportunities to tell a more nuanced story that wasn’t so didactic in its approach. The custody battle between Linda and Bebe would have had more weight to it if either woman had actually been allowed to be a person, rather than sketchily-drawn shadows. The same is true of the kids, each of whom fit into a fairly neat stereotype through the end. And ultimately, what did Elena learn? What would fundamentally change? And did she deserve to “lose” one of her children because she played a major role in trying to help Linda while trying to uncover Mia’s truth? Not that her actions should be excused in any way, but again the balance seems fully tilted away from understanding Elena or her motivations. She just becomes reduced to a callous representation of shallow suburban life, despite Witherspoon’s excellent performance (Washington’s as well, of course).
There’s some sense, in the end, that Elena has had a moment of self-awareness, and that Mia and Pearl are going to be fine, because all of the secrets that were being held in are finally out. But there are consequences to that. For Elena, her perfect world that she tried so hard to control has been destroyed with every truth laid bare. For Mia, her hard-scrabble existence and desperate avoidance of her past ended up bringing her closer to the daughter she thought she could lose. And that’s all fine! But that’s all Little Fires ultimately was. Just … fine.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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