A good education, respectable job, beautiful home and a nuclear family — these metrics have long been the emblems of success in America. Many of us have been taught to reach for these goals, but what do we lose in the process?
“Little Fires Everywhere” considers this question by examining two contrasting women in an elite Midwest suburb. Based on Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel, the star-powered Hulu mini-series takes place in the author’s hometown of Shaker Heights, Ohio during the late ‘90s. Shaker was the country’s first planned community, designed to be a utopian respite for Cleveland’s well-to-do residents. However, the city’s stability and prestige bring their own complications.
When I first found out about the television adaptation, I was ecstatic. I had devoured Ng’s novel, hooked by its nuanced exploration of class and conformity in a setting I knew well. I grew up in a vastly different Cleveland suburb but transferred to a private school in ninth grade where many of my classmates lived in Shaker. There, I was thrown into a foreign world of beautiful Tudor homes with manicured lawns and picture-perfect families not unlike those in “Little Fires Everywhere.”
Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) is the quintessential Shaker resident: mother of four, wife to a successful lawyer and part-time journalist for the local paper. She prides herself on making respectable choices for herself, her family and others around her. Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) is a free-spirited artist and single mother to her daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood). After constantly moving from city to city, she arrives in Shaker to settle down and give Pearl a more stable home.
When Elena rents out her family’s second property to Mia and Pearl, the two families soon become inextricable. As Pearl quickly befriends the Richardson children, Mia and Elena clash due to their differing life experiences and approaches to motherhood. Drama and betrayal ensue as secrets unravel in shocking ways.
Witherspoon plays a similar version of her “Big Little Lies” persona, but her portrayal of Elena reveals a much more damning critique of upper-class white womanhood. The Hulu series, spearheaded by showrunner Liz Tigelaar, diverges from Ng’s source material to more explicitly probe issues of identity and privilege. Most notably, Washington’s casting as Mia rewrites the character as a black woman, bringing race to the forefront of the show.
In Ng’s version, commentary about race simmers in the subtext; on TV, it erupts in heated arguments between Witherspoon and Washington. During a showdown in episode four, for example, Mia tells Elena, “You didn’t make good choices; you had good choices, options that being rich and white and entitled gave you.” This approach can come across as heavy-handed but proves effective in illustrating key points without the aid of Ng’s meticulous narration.
“Little Fires Everywhere” shines because it tackles white racial identity head-on. Most efforts to deconstruct race focus on non-white groups, while whiteness largely remains invisible and thus inculpable. But the neutralization of whiteness only upholds white supremacy, as it allows racial inequity to seep into every facet of American life without a clear perpetrator. Through Elena and Mia’s ongoing conflict, the show reveals aspects of the white experience ranging from white privilege to white feminism to the white savior complex.
However, the series’ straightforward approach to dissecting race sidelines some of Ng’s more intriguing analyses. In both the book and miniseries, Mia and Elena become entangled on opposing sides of a legal battle over a Chinese baby: the biological mother, an undocumented immigrant, fights to regain custody from the white couple that adopted her child. The case takes place in a time when hysteria over “crack mothers” removed babies from black women and placed them into primarily white foster care and adoption networks. By putting a different face on the phenomenon, Ng shines a new light on how racialized notions of motherhood and family create an unjust child welfare system. In the TV version, the case is mostly reduced to fodder for Mia and Elena’s ongoing personal feud.
The show certainly favors melodrama, exemplified by the finale’s unrealistic climax which significantly differs from the book’s ending. As such, some critics have found fault with what they view as overblown caricatures, particularly Witherspoon’s performance. But as someone familiar with Shaker and other elite, white-dominant spaces — including Duke — I found the characters to be empathetic portraits grounded in truth, as ugly as that truth may be.
Ultimately, “Little Fires Everywhere” offers a compelling breakdown of the white upper-class ethos while delivering electrifying, high-stakes television. Though, if you ask me, I prefer the quiet brilliance of the novel’s slow burn.
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