“She’s the bad guy here, not me,” Elena Richardson says of Mia Warren late in the new Hulu miniseries Little Fires Everywhere. Elena — perfectly rich and blonde — cannot conceive of a story in which she is the villain. She considers herself a paragon of liberal virtue, someone who, for instance, proudly tells anyone who will listen that her daughter Lexie has an African-American boyfriend. How could she possibly be the bad guy?
The problem — for both Elena and, to a degree, for Little Fires Everywhere — is that Elena is the villain of her story, and it’s obvious from the start.
An adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling 2017 novel, the series follows the uncomfortably interlocking lives of wealthy Shaker Heights, Ohio, queen bee Elena (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia (Kerry Washington), a nomadic artist and single mom who moves to town with her teenage daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood). The newcomers settle into a rental house Elena owns a few blocks away from the palatial home where she lives with her husband, Bill (Joshua Jackson), and their four kids. In the book, which already dealt with race, class, and politics, Mia is white; casting a black actress in the role adds additional layers to the story, further complicating almost every interaction the two women have. At one point, Mia becomes Elena’s part-time housekeeper, mostly so she can keep an eye on Pearl after she befriends all the Richardson kids. Mia later tells Elena, “White women always want to be friends with their maid.”
The tension between the overbearing, self-satisfied Elena and the secretive, indignant Mia generates plenty of sparks to live up to the show’s title. But as the story expands to deal with the relationships among their respective children — including Pearl growing more comfortable around Elena than her own mom, and Elena’s angry younger daughter Izzy (Megan Stott) doing the same with Mia — plus a tragic backstory for Mia’s new friend and coworker Bebe (Liz Huang), the series’ sympathies are so totally with Mia that everything feels imbalanced. Elena is, indeed, monstrous in her pushiness and need to control everyone and everything she surveys. At one point, she turns a Christmas card photo session into a savage fight, because Izzy isn’t wearing the sneakers Elena picked out for her. But this becomes a lot to take over the course of the miniseries, as one offense piles atop the next, and the next, all while Elena remains hypocritically oblivious of how awful she’s being.
Some of this problem falls on the casting — or, rather, the typecasting. Mia’s guarded, furious nature doesn’t feel that far removed from Olivia Pope on Scandal, but the character is complicated enough, and so much more clearly Elena’s victim than vice versa, that it’s a pleasure to watch Washington lean into her well-known strengths. But where Witherspoon has done a smart job finding other recent parts (including Big Little Lies‘ busybody Madeline) that feel like interesting variations on her most familiar roles, here she’s picked one that is almost exactly a middle-aged Tracy Flick. She’s a great actor who has a number of standout moments here — there’s a lovely one where Elena confesses to Mia how much she needs her children’s love — but I wonder if Elena would have felt slightly more human played by a performer less strongly linked with this type of sunny manipulator.
This is a Nineties period piece, allowing for a soundtrack filled with Gen X’s greatest hits, and story beats that would be impossible in today’s more divided, angrier, and scarier world. Bebe, who emigrated illegally from China, becomes something of a cause célèbre around town, when her undocumented status would give her reason to stay anonymous in 2020. And Elena’s constant brags about her part-time job as a columnist for the local paper ring even more hollow to us than they do to Mia.
Writer Liz Tigelaar (via Ng) explores a lot of interesting questions about motherhood and racial appropriation, and the supporting actors are all excellent, even as their characters are, by design, eclipsed by Elena and Mia. But the story also moves at a very measured pace — with Elena’s unbearable nature making proceedings feel even slower than they probably are. It also doesn’t help that the series’ occasional stabs at humor tend to come courtesy of Elena failing to read a room, and then not caring. The title, the literary pedigree, and the presence of Witherspoon all conjure thoughts of Big Little Lies. For all the problems that show had in its second season, it had a surer sense of how to tell its story, and how to use Witherspoon. These Little Fires ultimately don’t burn hot enough.
Hulu is releasing the first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere on March 18th, with installments premiering weekly after that. I’ve seen seven of the eight episodes.