In Little Fires Everywhere, people are constantly talking about how they would never “make something about race.” They often say it with shocked indignation — they don’t see color, how could you think that? — because they think of themselves as good people, in the way only wealthy white folks can. You know the kind of people who describe themselves as “comfortable?” Little Fires Everywhere is a show about that very specific demographic, and what happens when their carefully constructed world starts to tear at the seams. People are challenged with the notion that maybe they aren’t as progressive and open-minded as they think they are.
Hulu’s adaptation of Celeste Ng’s excellent novel is set in Shaker Heights, a real-life suburb of Cleveland. Taking place in the ‘90s, the story follows the well-to-do Richardson family, outlining the events that would lead to their house being burned down by their youngest daughter, Izzy (Megan Stott) — the event that kicks off the show. The eight episodes (the first three are out now, the rest weekly) that follow illustrate how the Richardsons got here, starting with the arrival of Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood), two people who get hopelessly tangled in the Richardsons’ lives, inadvertently exposing their worst traits.
Mia, an artist, leads an itinerant life and has arrived in Shaker Heights with the hopes of giving Pearl a stability they’ve never had together. She leases an apartment from the Richardsons, and over time, she and Pearl slowly become more integrated in their daily life. Pearl attends the same school as the four Richardson children, befriending middle son Moody (Gavin Lewis) and pining after his older brother Trip (Jordan Elsass). Meanwhile, misfit Izzy begins to strike up a relationship with Mia, as Mia and Elena Richardson, the family matriarch, become increasingly wary of the influence each has on the other’s children.
From here, Little Fires Everywhere slowly starts to simmer, putting each of its cast of privileged white characters in situations that gradually escalate until they are forced to finally ditch their preferred euphemisms. Each encounter exposes another way in which they believe themselves to be good and decent because they’ve built a world where their sense of selves are not challenged. Elena’s daughter Lexie thinks herself virtuous for dating a black classmate, Brian, although she swears it doesn’t enter the equation. Elena hires Mia as her housekeeper, willfully ignorant of the race and class dynamics at play by hiring someone who pays her rent. Bill Richardson (Joshua Jackson), Elena’s husband, admonishes her for not getting a background check before offering the apartment to Mia. Elena, repeatedly, compliments herself for what a good thing she’s doing by helping the Warrens.
Over and over again, the Warrens collide against the polite racism of those who pride themselves as not racist, and those small collisions slowly build to something catastrophic, as a friend of the Richardsons adopts a Chinese baby whose mother suddenly resurfaces, demanding her child back. It’s a crisis that compels the people in it to directly say what they’ve spent their lives talking around, and the results are not pretty.
While Little Fires Everywhere has its sights set squarely on being a withering takedown of petty suburban class dynamics, it’s also remarkably understanding of the people within it. While its heart lies with the Warrens, every major player is considerably complicated. Elena Richardson is perfectly played by Reese Witherspoon — every passive-aggressive action cheerily delivered, and every boundary violation couched in the language of good intentions. As deft as the characterization is, the series is also interested in the forces that produce it — how a woman’s ambitions are stifled by societal pressures, and how she ultimately can end up reinforcing the boundaries that initially penned her in.
That depth extends in every direction — Mia, as played by Kerry Washington, is a quiet force of nature, slowly realizing that she has just enough leverage to upend the neatly ordered worlds of the people who don’t know how much power they indiscriminately wield. As her past becomes less of a mystery, viewers begin to understand why she would apply that pressure. Through Pearl, Mia’s heartbreak is felt when the fault lines that she sees are clearly exposed for the first time. Through each of the Richardson children, the costs of perpetuating the life their parents made for them begin to manifest in unexpected ways.
This is what Little Fires Everywhere most clearly conveys: there are no easy answers, but there are people who benefit from the questions that go unasked. And when things get hard, there will always be people who have the option to make good choices and those who do not. Most times, the world counts on these questions going unasked, under the guise of manners. It’s not polite to remind white people that they might benefit from whiteness or that people of color are not afforded the same opportunities. How could you make this about race? They would never.