The (Inevitably) Explosive Climax of a Great Limited Series
My reactions to the finale of Little Fires Everywhere
I’ve spent the better part of two months patiently making my way through Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere not so much caring who set the fire that opened the series but more to see how the clash between Mia (Kerry Washington) and Elena (Reese Witherspoon) would end up. And it is a credit to the writers of this series (and no doubt to Celeste Ng, who wrote the novel it’s based on) as to just how good they were at subverting the audience’s expectations of the two central characters.
For much of the series run, I was convinced that Elena was trying to be the good person in this story and that Mia was the shifty one. But by the end of the series I realized that the whole time Mia was the more nurturing and far better mother to Pearl than Elena ever was to her children. And its pretty clear when you look at the series as a whole, just how much of Elena’s poison had wafted into her children.
Lexie spent much of the season trying to prove that she was deserving of her position at Yale, which led to doing some truly horrible things, including stealing Pearl’s story of problems with getting into a math class for a college essay, using sex to convince her boyfriend Scott to stay with her, and having an abortion and using Pearl’s name as a cover. When everything blew up on her in the penultimate episode, we finally realized just how close to the surface her racism was — and it was unsettling.
The rivalry between Trip and Moody unfolded quite differently as we expected. For the first half of the series, Trip seemed to be the more sympathetic person and Moody just another dumb jock. But Trip always seemed to look down on everyone in high school, as if there was a level of elitism in him that made him superior even to his brother. When Izzy turned on Trip in the last episode, revealing that he was just as possessive of Pearl as the rich people he disdained, it was a real blow — which still didn’t make up for the fact that he basically grouped Pearl “with the rest of the sluts he sleeps with”
There were never quite the same depths to Moody that any of the other Richardson children seemed to have, but there was something in him that really was reaching for something better. He was the only one who felt a certain level of guilt for what he was doing with Pearl. Nevertheless, given opportunity after opportunity to tell the truth to his brother, he just couldn’t do it, and he was still trying to justify it in the end.
For much of the series, you could argue that Elena was trying to do the right thing by children — and even by Pearl, who wanted what the Richardsons had after a migrant life in which her mother was constantly selfish. Mia no doubt took the job as the Richardson’s domestic to keep an eye on her daughter, and her initial involvement with Bebe could be seen as some kind of selfishness as well. Even the circumstances which led up to Pearl’s birth — she agreed to be a surrogate solely to earn the money for another semester, and then lied to the Ryan’s about their child being dead — could be viewed as a selfish act. But in retrospect, they pale in comparisons to the actions of Elena, who no doubt took Mia in to make herself feel better, who kept investigating Mia more to prove that she was lying then to help her friend, and who clearly cared more for the appearance of a perfect family then actually doing the work to have one — never more clear than we she insisted of having Christmas pictures done again, despite her families objections and the cropping Izzy out — made her more and more unsympathetic before she told Pearl the truth about the circumstances of her birth.
By the final episode, Elena has completely lost even the idea of being a good person. She wants her friends to win the custody battle so that they won’t hate her. She bullies the head of a Planned Parenthood, and spies around her office, and then delights in learning about ‘Pearl’s abortion not knowing that she has, in effect, lit a tinderbox. She throws Mia and Pearl out of their house, and refuses to believe Mia’s story.
The last twenty minutes of the episode features some of the finest acting Reese Witherspoon has ever done. Completely unmoored, her reaction to Izzy about to burn her room down while her other children try to stop her is utter bile, telling Izzy that she never wanted her. And when Lexie tries to tell about the abortion and that she’s not perfect, her horrible blast of “YES YOU ARE!” is as close to a Walter White moment that I’ve seen Witherspoon ever do.
The revelation that it is not Izzy who set the fire, but all the other children, is the one act that Elena can’t escape from. The moment where, utterly blank, she says: “I did it” is her realization that in her effort to try and have perfection, she had lost everything — including Izzy, who has run away, her fate unknown.
In contrast, Mia finally tells the truth to her daughter — every bit of it — and demonstrates, just as she did with Izzy, that she didn’t have to be a biological parent to be a great mother. Pearl has been fighting with her mother ever since they came to Shaker, but having seen that ‘the perfect life’ is only perfect at the surface, she now realizes the truth of her mother’s love. The moment where Mia invites her daughter to see her last project — something we know she never did before — is an even greater level of acceptance that was truly brilliant. Throughout this series, Kerry Washington has delivered some of the most emotional — and realistic — acting I’ve ever seen her do, but watching her face in the final minutes as she read her daughter’s entry in her journal, was as worthy of awards as Witherspoon’s work.
This is one of the great triumphs for acting this year. In addition to Washington and Witherspoon, who will clearly be at the forefront of an already crowded Best Actress Movie/Limited Series, attention should be paid to Lexi Underwood as Pearl and Megan Stott as Izzie. Attention should also be paid to Jade Pettyjohn as Lexie, the troubled oldest sibling who bears the brunt of her mother’s anguish.
I don’t think Little Fires Everywhere was perfect. The ultimate resolution to the custody battle that was the backbone of the series wasn’t satisfying in a clear way to me. But overall, this was one of the more mesmerizing limited series I’ve seen in a season that has already been full of them. I spent my quarantine watching this while the world was binging Tiger King, and I feel that this by far gave better entertainment value.