Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, which started streaming this week on Hulu with its first three episodes, is already establishing the racial thread between two families in an upscale Ohio suburb in 1997.
The series introduces us to two different neighbors in Shaker Heights, Ohio: Elena Richardson, played by Reese Witherspoon, the well-to-do white housewife/part-time reporter with a lawyer husband and four teenage children; and Mia Warren, played by Kerry Washington, a black single mother/mixed media artist who moved to the restrictive suburb with her teen daughter Pearl.
Below are the top threads laying out the complexities of the characters and opening the pathway to the plot.
Mia and Pearl are black
In the book, Mia and Pearl, played by Lexi Underwood, aren’t described as black. In fact, their race isn’t really identified with the socioeconomic barrier standing between them and the Richardsons.
Adding their blackness to the storyline, the show emphasized the racial tension between mothers Mia and Elena.
Mia is the black single mother barely making ends meet while Elena is the financially comfortable white homemaker who only offers Mia her rental home after seeing Mia’s car and realizing she had reported it to the police for suspicious activity. Elena eventually offers Mia a “house manager” job, which Mia interprets as a maid job and the racial connotations of domestic service.
Elena will be the white woman character not understanding her racism, like when she calls the police about Mia’s car, while convincing herself she’s not racist, like offering Mia the home to rent after seeing the car. She’s the modern-day Barbecue Becky or Permit Patty but trying to right her wrongs while still making offense, like with the job offer.
Pearl gets in trouble
Once Mia’s daughter Pearl and Elena’s son Moody, played by Gavin Lewis, get acquainted, they’re two peas in a pod. Moody introduces Pearl to a junkyard where he’s decorated a small shed he turned into an artistic sanctuary. Pearl is impressed when she sees words from a poem she had quoted to Moody earlier. But then the two get busted for trespassing.
When neighborhood watch brings the kids back to the Richardson home, Mia goes ballistic. Her black daughter is being brought home by a police officer! In a new (mostly white) neighborhood! Of course, she can’t control her emotions, telling Pearl she’s not like the Richardsons aka not white. Elena is soft on Moody for the offense and tells Mia that it was neighborhood watch, with the man’s uniform appearing like that of a police officer. Mia is visibly upset by Elena’s response and leaves with Pearl.
How the series is juxtaposing Mia with Izzy, played by Megan Stott, and Elena with Pearl shows how the grass is greener on the other side, but in this case the teen girls see themselves in these adult women who are the opposite of their mothers.
Pearl admires Elena because she represents stability. Being a daughter of an artist, she’s been forced to believe she has to move constantly. She begs her mother that they make Shaker Heights home, at least stay a year.
After Pearl gets in trouble with the neighborhood watch, Mia feels profound guilt and lets Pearl paint the rest of her walls in her bedroom a cerulean hue, buys Pearl a bicycle, and even paints her fingernails. There’s a desperate guilt that she can’t offer her daughter stability, especially the kind the Richardsons have. With Mia’s recurring New York City subway terrors, we see this mother struggling with her past circumstances and how she’s escaping them to focus on her daughter.
In the Richardson home, Elena chastises Izzy for not playing her violin at a school concert and writing in black marker across her forehead: NOT YOUR PUPPET. A chilly distance still remains between them because Izzy is the unique child. She burns her hair, wears black clothing, and refuses to conform to the suburban life her parents had set up for her and her siblings. But this ruffles perfectionist Elena to the point they can’t connect.
When Izzy is spraying black paint on a trunk in the front yard, Mia takes notice of the art in motion. Izzy smiles at the compliment. The connection is snapped between their artistic hearts. Seeing how Izzy may be misunderstood in her ambitious household compels Mia to take on the house manager role Elena had offered previously. Though she first took offense, her motherly tendencies overruled her.
The episode ends with Elena receiving a call from one of the references Mia put down for her tenant application. It turns out the alleged former landlord never met Mia, raising suspicions about who Mia is, where she came from, and how her secrets could threaten the Richardsons and the greater Shaker Heights community.
The first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere is streaming now on Hulu. New episodes will arrive on Wednesdays.