Slow Burn

‘Little Fires Everywhere’ Over-Remembers the 90s

Little Fires Everywhere, the eight-episode Hulu adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling book of the same name, takes a little bit too much fun in reminding you this story takes place in the 90s. You would be drunk by the end of the second hour-long episode if you turned all the cultural references into a drinking game. But aside from the dial-up and Liz Phair mentions, this story could be taking place right now. In some communities, it probably is.

It’s the 1990s in the planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio. Bill Clinton is president. Beverly Hills 90210 is a cultural phenomenon, Ellen DeGeneres just came out as gay, and someone intentionally set fire to Elena Richardson’s house one night and no one knows why.

Reese Witherspoon’s ever prim-and-proper Elena Richardson is the type of person who schedules her sex life—“It’s so much more fun when it’s planned”—and refuses to pick Memoirs of a Geisha for book club reading because of who suggested it. She instead opts for the “less controversial” pick of The Vagina Monologues, but only if she doesn’t actually have to say the word “vagina” during discussion.

Her husband Bill (Joshua Jackson), a lawyer, dotes on Elena and their four children: Lexie, Elena’s mini-me (Jade Pettyjohn); Trip, a popular jock (Jordan Elsass); Moody, who is…moody (Gavin Lewis); and Izzy, the youngest and the rebel of the family (Megan Stott).

The Richardsons are in stark contrast to Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood), a mother-and-daughter unit who have moved more times than they can count. When Elena sees the Richardsons sleeping in a car, she finds them and offers to let them stay in her family’s old duplex down the road from her house. Elena also gives Mia, a struggling artist, a job as her house cleaner. “I don’t just want to help them…I want to feel good about it,” she tells Bill after she offers up the duplex.

As the two families learn more about each other, the secrets that everybody has fought to keep hidden come out into the forefront. And when another rich, white, Shaker Heights family adopts a Chinese baby that a co-worker of Mia’s left at a fire station, ideological and familial lines are drawn and neither family will be the same.

Little Fires Everywhere is primarily about an adoption case, sure. But that’s merely the plot mechanism that Ng (who has a production credit) used to explore themes of motherhood, sexual identity, sexual politics, familial roles, race, class, adoption, abortion, nature vs. nurture, and the duality and complications that live in each of us. The book shows the binary constructs that govern much of modern American life and then gleefully asks the reader to camp out in the middle.

The book is an English nerd’s dream. Every character has a foil, every character has a double, there are allusions to past literary works (there is a reason Mia’s daughter is named Pearl) and it’s filled with prose that always reminds the reader about juxtaposition:

“All up and down the street the houses looked like any others—but inside them were people who might be happy, or taking refuge, or steeling themselves to go out into the world, searching for something better. So many lives she would never know about, unfolding behind those doors.”

“But the problem with rules, he reflected, was that they implied a right way and a wrong way to do things. When, in fact, most of the time there were simply ways, none of them quite wrong or quite right, and nothing to tell you for sure which side of the line you stood on.”

The first three episodes of the show take those themes and make a visual meal out of them, especially through cross-cut montages and when contrasting Mia and Elena’s homes and home lives. Writers Liz Tigelaar, Raamla Mohamed and Nancy Won successfully adapt the inner thoughts of Ng’s book into a show with a visual language of its own. Each episode presents a new possible arsonist, but the show (like the book before it) is more concerned with the journey than the destination.

Each scene in Little Fires Everywhere gives us something to examine that either opposes or heightens a scene we just saw, making it harder to pick a side in the adoption plot. Fans of the book may pick up some visual foreshadowing cues as well.

Witherspoon and Washington (both of whom also produced) carry the show as two women who are both doing the best they can with the lot they drew in life, in different ways. Witherspoon is in Tracy Flick/Madeline Mackenzie mode, where she hints that Elena’s perpetual Type A personality hides a lot of regrets and sadness about how she ended up. Washington does the opposite and takes a character that is initially sympathetic and turns her into someone with a potential for darkness.

You don’t watch Little Fires Everywhere for the plot, you watch it for the family drama and the “little fires” in the lives of the characters. While the first few episodes are a bit of a slow burn, it’s entertaining to watch the embers fall.

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Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

One thought on “Slow Burn

  • March 26, 2020 at 1:47 am

    Interesting take, have you ever seen Imitation of Life?


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