If you haven’t watched Little Fires Everywhere yet, I highly suggest you stop here and go straight to Hulu. Massive spoilers ahead.
The 8-episode Hulu adaptation of Celeste Ng’s 2017 award-winning novel tells a story of racial tension, pettiness, and the fiery antagonism of motherhood. Little Fires Everywhere, simply put, is a show of incendiary power. But while drama draws viewers in, the series is really designed to tear at the seams of female friendships, forcing us to question network television’s habit of forcing black and white women into friendships devoid of any social awareness.
The show opens to the Richardson house in Shaker Heights, Ohio. Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon), a local reporter and matriarch to her husband and four children, stares at her burning home in horror. We begin the series knowing nothing of the situation at hand, but not because the story isn’t worth telling—because the secrets of Shaker Heights were never meant to be known.
Elena and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) are the series’ main characters, and their relationship begins with a blaze. Mia, an artist, leads a nomadic life and arrives in Shaker with the hopes of finally giving her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) a stable home. While they have no history in Shaker, their first interaction with the community is actually—sadly—with the police.
Elena calls the police with a polite neighborhood concern regarding a family sleeping in their car, but anyone could see an emerging racialized narrative. And while we could make the argument that Elena couldn’t have known the implications of her actions, Little Fires was written to take place in the late 1990s. This was at a point when a wave of black media upheaved the film industry, pushing a multitude of lost narratives to the home screen, graphically depicting the legitimate fear black people have of the police. Her actions as not just a community member but as an educated reporter are inexcusable.
From the very beginning, Mia and Elena exist in conflict; Mia finds Elana to be complacent to a racist system. Even though Elena rents her house out to her, Mia quickly understands the perceptions held of her being black, single, and living out of a car with a child. But as a means to rekindle her relationship with her daughter, who is drawn to the air of domestic stability surrounding the Richardson home, Mia accepts a job as Elena’s house manager—a glorified maid. And Elena, willfully ignorant of the race and class dynamics at play, hires a helpless single black mother to clean her home as a charity case.
From this point on, the series quickly transforms from a question of who burned the Richardson home to a social critique of female friendships. Elena befriends Bebe Chow (Huang Lu), a Chinese immigrant fighting for custody of a daughter she once abandoned. We later discover that Bebe’s daughter, May Ling, is actually Mirabelle McCullough, the adopted child of Elena’s best friend. We follow the town through this incendiary court case as Bebe files for sole custody, even though from the very beginning we all have an inkling of a feeling that Bebe will never see her daughter again. It’s a classic racialized court-case arc; the white family can never lose. But with this case, the polite racism that once imbued Elena quickly erupts, and Mia no longer works to fit into the facade of Shaker Heights.
Ng’s attempt to add a multifaceted layer of a mixed-race friendship in a town that claims to be post-racial is nothing but profound. Network television has a habit of sticking white and black girls together when, in reality, it’s hard to get past the racialized boundary. Everyone keeps crashing into this false narrative that black women are sidekicks to a questionable white woman’s endeavors, and Ng ultimately sets fire to this trope. And honestly, I say let it burn.
We see many moments of authenticity expressed as the series progresses, which is why so many scenes between Mia and Elena left me uncomfortable. Mia fights on countless occasions to separate herself from past narratives of black femininity and expresses her disdain for the box into which Elena tries to push her. As a black girl, it was damning to finally see a black woman refuse a white woman’s hand in film and fight for a relationship that doesn’t rest on the basis of white power dynamics but rather on the struggle for visibility.
The brutal truth is that until Elena and Mia can come forward and move past the pleasantries, most on-screen black and white duos, like them, will fall into a network abyss—leaving us wondering if that plotline was ever necessary. It would seem that Elena has some innate obligation to choose to side with her race rather than their gender, hence why she’s so adamant about her best friend winning custody despite all other factors. But this isn’t to say that Mia and her character’s trope of blackness are exempt from critique. Without a doubt, Mia is deeply flawed; her resting bitch face will always be a questionable decision. But nonetheless, she has to be mindful of race and its implications because her identity rests upon these constructs.
At the very core of friendship is vulnerability. Going forward, the two need to be honest about the implications of race within their friendship. Hearing each other’s perspectives, while it may be painful, will mean that there’s a real conversation at once and that someone is being heard. Now I don’t know how to go about this, and honestly, I have no clue what mess may occur in the writers’ room in this attempt—but it’ll be worth it to critique these characters.
The on-screen relationship between black and white women will always be complicated to maneuver, but to be in any fruitful relationship with anyone, at the very least one cannot see the other as a typecast. Elena’s inability to empathize with Mia pretty much solidifies her role as the antagonist—every conversation is a fight for who is more oppressed, even when it’s clear as day that Elena is the textbook example of white privilege. And so the question with Little Fires now becomes, what is so damning about a functioning black and white female friendship?
This is a broad question of social commentary that many have posed for years, but this series raises the stakes in a manner never seen before. The veil has finally been lifted to expose the toxicity of many female friendships that the media has grown to idealize. This isn’t to say that mixed-race friendships aren’t to be cherished, but it’s troubling to move on with so much left unsaid. Progress is found in discomfort, and maybe for us to finally see a balanced relationship between Elena and Mia is to have a scene of total authenticity. Necessary dialogue helps make a more honest future possible. And granted that Elena’s behavior is less than mortifying, it’s hard not to have a shred of remorse for her ignorance.
The series ends with so much left to understand. Elena kicks Mia out of Shaker as the plotline converges, and past secrets are exposed. As a parting gift, Mia leaves behind a sprawling piece of art depicting Shaker Heights in its true color—pristine white. Interestingly, one of Mia’s last scenes is an attempt to make Elena aware of the reality of a race-driven America run to the ground with secrets and sunken desires. The gift definitely perpetuates the narrative that it’s up to black women to guide everyone to a world of social awareness—which is anything but true. But still, it’s a dramatized jab at Elena’s terrible character development, effectively shattering her bubble of perfection.
Little Fires Everywhere is a show that forces one to reflect on the limits of our own views and consider the intricacies of connection, struggle, and privilege that we, too, curate. The show poses a multitude of unanswerable questions, leaving us to reckon with the idea that some individuals benefit from the words left unsaid. Perhaps reminding white people of the power of their whiteness may never end well. It seems to destroy their very sense of self: with her growing awareness alone, Elena’s loosely strung sanity came crashing. And maybe people of color cannot exist in peace, as Mia departs from Shaker just as scarred as she originally entered—unfazed by the oppression she’s faced because she knows it won’t end. We deserve to see where eight more episodes may leave us. While the book has a definite end, the series must go on. Hopefully, Hulu will do what network television has never attempted: a brutal on-screen conversation between a white and black woman that doesn’t end in an explosive scene of performative fragility.
By Kimberlean Donis