The premise revolves around two mothers fighting each other over who is a good mother in Ohioan suburbia. Elena Richardson, played by Reese Witherspoon, embodies the rich white mother stereotype with raising four children in a mansion with her successful lawyer husband. She rents her family cottage to Mia Warren, played by Kerry Washington, a single black mother who’s a traveling artist constantly moving around the country with her teen daughter.
As their children grow closer, the mothers find themselves in conflict when Elena’s best friend Linda McCullough, played by Rosemarie DeWitt, is in the process of adopting a Chinese baby who had been abandoned by Mia’s work friend Bebe Chow, played by Lu Huang, during a postpartum breakdown. The battle for the baby, whom Bebe named May Ling but Linda renamed Mirabelle, goes to court where Elena’s husband Bill, played by Joshua Jackson, defends Linda and Mia pays for Bebe’s legal defense with the sale of a pricey photo.
Elena’s daughter Izzy, played by Megan Stott, is the fourth and youngest child that we learn Elena blames for stunting her journalism career. They come to a screaming match at the end when Izzy, upset when she sees Mia and Pearl driving away with their belongings strapped on the hood of their car, pours gasoline on a pile of clothes and her curtains. The other Richardson children—Trip, played by Jordan Elsass; Lexie, played by Jade Pettyjohn; and Moody, played by Gavin Lewis—try to stop Izzy from setting the fire. The commotion brings in a tipsy Elena. She yells at Izzy that she never wanted her. This makes Izzy run out the front door. We later see her riding the Greyhound out of town.
While snooping for more incriminating evidence against Mia, Elena heads to the clinic to ask her friend there for any files connected to Bebe. Of course, her friend denies her request over health privacy concerns, but once she steps out of the office, Elena looks on the computer then sees a paper file with Pearl’s name on it. Pearl, played by Lexi Underwood, is Mia’s daughter who accompanied Lexie during her abortion. But Elena thinks Pearl is the one who had the abortion. She thinks she’s surprising Mia with the news at her door, but Mia reveals that it is Lexie who had the abortion and shames Elena for not being the mother Lexie could run to in such a situation.
After Izzy leaves the house during the gasoline fight, Lexie tells her mother that she is the one who had the abortion. She screams she’s not perfect while Elena screams back that she is. Distraught, Lexie tells her brothers they would end up like their mother desperate to live a perfect life. Then she sets the first fire in her bedroom.
When pouring the gasoline, Izzy tells her siblings that their mother drove Mia and Pearl away. Trip is in shock since he developed a romantic relationship with Pearl and hid it from Moody. Earlier in the day, they physically fight over Pearl in a junkyard that Moody had introduced to Pearl as a secret space. Pearl eventually starts meeting Trip there to create their secret relationship. Losing Pearl forces him to set his fire in his bedroom.
Coming home after the fight with his brother, Moody is icing his bruised face with a bag of frozen peas in the kitchen. Elena comes in and blames him for Pearl’s alleged abortion. He tells her to look at Trip.
Later, he’s on the sofa still icing his face when he and Izzy are looking at the news when the verdict over who won custody over baby Mirabelle/May Ling appears. The McCulloughs win. Visibly upset, Izzy shakes tears away when Moody tells her she should’ve expected that outcome because the rich and beautiful people always win.
Izzy accuses him of being in that category and that’s why he expected Pearl to be with him instead of Trip. She tells him he didn’t own Pearl as the first Richardson kid to become friends with Pearl and falling for her. While his siblings are setting fires in their own bedrooms, he’s doing the same, watching the flames grow.
WHY EVERYONE IS SETTING FIRES
Mia plants the idea of the fires unintentionally when she tells Izzy a story about seeing a prairie wildfire in California while she was pregnant with Pearl. She says sometimes the land has to be scorched to start over.
Instead of starting an actual fire, Mia soon talks to Pearl about calling the Ryans, the family she originally had acted as a surrogate before losing her brother and being disowned by her family. Now with Pearl knowing who her biological father is, she confides in her mother that she knows their time in Shaker Heights, Ohio is finished. They go into Mia’s art studio as she starts completing a massive art project emphasizing the current and past racial landscape of the town. Then they pack and leave town.
Bebe chooses another route. In the McCullough residence, Mirabelle cries in her room over the baby monitor. But Linda wants to check on the baby when her husband stops her to train Mirabelle to cry it out; they won the baby and nobody is taking her away. Uneasy, Linda falls back in the bed until the early morning when she finds Mirabelle is gone. We see baby May Ling in Bebe’s arms at a rest stop in New York. She kidnaps her own baby.
Bill isn’t home when his children are having breakdowns that turn into acts of arson. He admits to Elena that he knows that she had dinner with her ex-boyfriend, a superstar The New York Times reporter, while she headed to New York to investigate Mia’s background. Though he wins the custody case, he’s sour to the point he leaves the house smoking a cigarette. On his drive back, he returns to his house completely engulfed in flames.
When asked by investigators who started the fires, Elena takes the blame for her children.
WHO REALLY STARTS THE FIRE
In the book, Izzy is the sole arsonist who starts the fires alone in each of her siblings’ bedrooms at the end of Chapter 19.
“On her shoulder she had her bookbag stuffed with a change of clothes, all the money she owned. They couldn’t be far ahead, she thought. There was still time to find them. The sandpaper grated under the match head like nails on a chalkboard and there was a whiff of sulfur and the tip flared bright, and Izzy dropped it onto her sister’s flowered comforter and ran out the door.”
Watching the fractured mother-daughter relationship between Izzy and Elena onscreen may have swayed the writers’ room to take the blame off of Izzy. The girl has been through a lot. The premiere episode shows the house on fire with the investigators asking about Izzy’s whereabouts, which follows the book, of letting us know Izzy commits the fire but the story will reveal the why.
But the TV series went the surprise route with forcing the other Richardson kids to start their own fires. It humanizes the siblings more because in the book Izzy remains the outcast until the end. At least, on TV the Richardsons, except Elena, seem tired of the perfectionism constantly bestowed upon them.
The next chapter reveals Pearl wanting to include Izzy on the car trip out of Shaker Heights. The TV series doesn’t show that aspect; Pearl and Mia just want to flee and avoid goodbyes.
“An idea began to form in Pearl’s mind in wild golden loops. “We could go back and get her. I could climb up the back porch and knock on her window and—”
“My darling,” Mia said, “Izzy is only fifteen. There are rules about that kind of thing.”
Izzy fantasizes about running off with Mia and Pearl after actually seeing them pull away from the curb, so that hope remains with Izzy that she can experience the freedom the Warren women have. The freedom theme continues when Elena sees the art project Mia leaves behind. It’s a wheat flour mold of Shaker Heights with a birdcage in the center of the town holding a cardinal feather. We see the feather in the beginning of the episode when a younger Izzy lets an injured bird into the house and Elena becomes upset by the disruption to her perfect home. Inside the cottage, Elena caresses the feather and hopes for her daughter’s return. In the book, the character has the same sentiment, knowing the authorities could find Izzy but if they can’t, she will look for Izzy herself.
The TV series did an excellent job with bringing the book to life even when artistic license created more depth to the characters and their behaviors. The largest difference is making Mia and Pearl black to reinforce the racial tensions in this real utopian community and pitting white mothers with means against nonwhite mothers without means. Since the final episode ends with the book, let’s hope there won’t be a meaningless continuation like HBO’s Big Little Lies based on Liane Moriarty’s book that Reese is also involved in.