‘Little Fires Everywhere’: Slow burn uncovers layers of the family archaeology
Gavin Lewis and Lexi Underwood

Hulu Network’s compelling miniseries Little Fires Everywhere bursts into flames across the television screen. It ignites viewers’ curiosity from the very first shot. The flames engulfing Elena Richardson’s imposing Georgian mansion burn brilliant red against the dark night sky. The material comfort and achievement of her life, as well as the home to her family is destroyed as she watches in shock.

Who set the fire is a mystery to be worked out in eight episodes. Before she passed away this spring, director Lynne Shelton successfully helmed the generally loyal translation of Celeste Ng’s searing novel to the small screen, featuring superb performances by Reese Witherspoon (as Elena) and Kerry Washington (as Mia Warren) and a breakout turn by Lexi Underwood (as Pearl Warren).

Even as the flames burn, three of Elena’s high-school-age children—Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Trip (Jordan Elsass) and Moody (Gavin Lewis)—are quick to note that their mother will most likely blame the youngest, rebel Isabelle (Izzy, played by Megan Stott). But as the layers of the family’s archaeology are stripped back, blame will not be easy. Clearly this is less psychological frisson than conflagration of simmering combustibles.

Izzy, the usual suspect, is by far the most interesting of the Richardson brood. Painfully socially awkward and self-consciously bohemian, she craves acceptance while cultivating conflict. The other three kids are more stereotypical upper-middle-class Shaker Heights, bright, well-scrubbed, more traditional achievers. Lexie’s upward arc is boosted by the work of others. Trip’s less aspirational, closer-to-the-earth flight is still ripe for settling into bourgeois comforts. With Moody there is the glimmer of more far-reaching vision. But all three are carefully shaped by their mother’s strict regimens.

Into this carefully sculpted life barge wayward artist Mia and impressionable daughter Pearl. Mia’s bohemian, edgy life style is a sharp contrast to the military discipline of the Richardson household. Still, good liberal Elena offers the hospitality of middle-class America to Mia and Pearl—on Shaker Heights terms.

Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington

The Ng/Shelton work explores the extent and terms of acceptance that are afforded to people of color, the working class, artists and nonconventionals. Of course, as middle-class mores wash up and over those who do not conform, we learn even more about those who would impose their values on others. What are the limits of Shaker Heights liberalism? Whose rights are more important? How do the powerful and homogeneous react when their values and wishes are contested?

These issues are framed as the Warrens and Richardsons, as individuals and units break apart and collide. Will the families stay together or implode? Who will win or lose? As Elena’s lawyer husband Bill (Joshua Jackson) ruefully explains, as he fights against Mia’s immigrant friend Bebe Chow (Huang Lu), “Women like that never win.” Or do the flames consuming the Richardson family mansion suggest that outcomes are not always guaranteed by the courts?

Ng’s powerful work could have been honed by cutting unnecessary flashbacks and enhanced by developing a few ancillary characters more fully. But it is hard to argue with a product that through its brilliant acting and writing confronts values and choices of all of its protagonists in such a painful, unblinking sweep.


CONTRIBUTOR

Michael Berkowitz
Michael Berkowitz

Michael Berkowitz, a veteran of the civil rights and anti-war movements, has worked on Wisconsin recalls, Occupy and other local movements that give promise of social change. He has been Land Use Planning Consultant to the government of China for the last 18 years. After studying at Yale and Stanford, he taught Chinese and American History at the college level, worked with Eastern Kentucky Welfare Rights Org. with miners, and was an officer of SEIU. He has served as a supernumerary with the San Francisco Opera for years without getting to sing a single note on stage!

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