Through Elena’s relationships with her mother and her own daughters, “Little Fires Everywhere” strikes at the oppressive cage of white matriarchy.
By Roslyn Talusan
This story contains spoilers for the entirety of the Little Fires Everywhere miniseries.
I wasn’t surprised when Little Fires Everywhere finally revealed the identity of the arsonists responsible for igniting the blaze featured in the cold open of the series. Though all hints pointed to the youngest child having set the house ablaze, I was pleased to see that the three eldest children were the ones who agreed to burn everything down. What did surprise me, however, was who ultimately took responsibility for the fire.
Based on Celeste Ng’s bestselling 2017 novel of the same name, Hulu’s limited miniseries follows Mia Warren (Kerry Washington, executive producer) as she and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) move to Shaker Heights, Ohio in August of 1997. The series picks up as Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon, also an executive producer) decides to rent her duplex to the pair. Unbeknownst to them, Elena agrees to rent to them out of guilt for having pulled a Permit Patty on them earlier that morning for the crime of being Black and asleep in their car.
There were so many scenes like this where I had to pause to vent my frustration after Elena’s infuriating embodiment of the Karen archetype, taking deep breaths while pacing around my living room or yelling into a pillow. This frustration pays off in an incredibly satisfying way, however, as Elena watches her “perfect” life of security burn down before her eyes in the finale. The blaze is what finally gets her to show a modicum of self-awareness and reflection, deciding to protect her children by admitting to the sheriff and her husband (Joshua Jackson) that she was the one who started it.
I mean, she’s not really lying. The series makes it clear that it’s Elena’s white entitlement and massive, unchecked ego that spark the events leading up to the fire that ravages the Richardson family mansion. Through Elena’s relationships with her mother and her own daughters, Little Fires Everywhere strikes at the oppressive cage of white matriarchy.
The show presents the Richardsons as the epitome of the White American Dream; a picture-perfect nuclear family with dual incomes and a big house. Elena’s perfectionist, Type-A personality is key in the solid foundation of their success. She maintains a rigid schedule for herself and her family, meticulously planning their days to the hour on a color-coordinated calendar in their kitchen.
Following the rules and having a plan are all that Elena knows, and it’s this fundamental part of her personality that causes a majority of the conflict in the show. During a flashback, a younger Elena (AnnaSophia Robb) explains to her then-boyfriend, Jamie (Luke Bracey), why she can’t stay in Paris with him. Her plan is to finish college, move back to Shaker, get a job, get married, have kids, and “be happy ‘til death.” Or rather, that’s what her mother has planned for her — they’re supposed to move into her parents’ rental property and take up the starting positions her mother has secured for them at the Shaker Times. Jamie reminds Elena of her bigger dreams of writing for the New York Times to convince her to stay with him, but she ultimately chooses the life that her mother has laid out for her instead, a choice that she later comes to regret.
Years later, sticking to her plan has seemingly worked out, living in her parent’s rental property with her lawyer husband, Bill Richardson, with three children of their own. However, just as she decides to go on birth control to finally focus on her career, she discovers she’s pregnant with Izzy, their fourth child. Her disappointment is palpable and she contemplates aborting the pregnancy. Of course, her mother (Jessica Tuck) essentially negs her out of it, telling Elena that abortions aren’t “for (perfect, successful white) people like them.”
Without the critical thinking necessary to push back against her mother’s nonsensical classism and white patriarchal ideals, Elena carries her unplanned pregnancy to term. After sacrificing her career, of course, she resents having made this choice. Yet rather than coming to the realization that she was wrong to follow her mother’s (mis)guidance, Elena spends her time working out her resentment on the people around her. Her refusal to sit with the negative emotions around the choices she’s made out of her desire to please her mother gives way to an unhealthy obsession with policing and controlling the behavior of others.
Elena’s unwavering adherence to the white patriarchal status quo is finally challenged through the relationships she has with each of her own two daughters. She sees Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) as her perfect, Yale-bound mini-me, and Izzy (Megan Stott) as the rebellious, troubled child of the family. Lexie has strived for her mother’s approval from a young age, yearning to follow in her footsteps, while Izzy simply wants a mother who sees and loves her for who she is. Instead of building genuine, loving connections with her daughters as individuals, Elena repeats the mistakes of her own mother, treating them only as extensions of herself.
Thankfully, Izzy and Lexie each find the strength to break this cycle of emotional abuse. Through tears, Izzy confesses that she found in Mia a mother who actually loved her, a mother who was nothing like her own. “Do you think I wanted a daughter like you?” Elena sneers. “I never wanted you in the first place!” Izzy rightfully storms out of the house once and for all, while Lexie demands that Elena go after her, to fix it, having aborted her own pregnancy in a previous episode. Of course, Elena refuses, doubling down on the notion that Izzy and Mia are the problem, not her.
“You think Izzy is the fuck-up of this family but she’s not. I am,” Lexie confesses, finally admitting to Elena that she got into Yale after appropriating Pearl’s experiences and falsely using her name at Planned Parenthood. “There’s all this pressure to be all of these things, to be fucking perfect, but I’m not fucking perfect!” To this, Elena seemingly unhinges her jaw, shrieking, “Yes, you are!” before slamming her door on her three remaining children. She’s reassuring herself here, of course; a last-ditch attempt to cling to the false image of perfection she’s hidden behind for so many years. Yet as her children decide to burn down everything around them and start again, it’s clear that the illusion that Elena is perfect, a good person and mother who puts her children’s needs above her own has been thoroughly shattered, and her overinflated ego has been decimated.
Thank the goddesses.
While I had a twinge of empathy for young Elena as she struggled between pleasing her mother and realizing her own passions as a journalist, it was frustrating to watch her, a whole, grown adult, throw such large stones from her glass house. It was so easy for her to lecture Mia on being a “terrible mother” (despite singing her praises just days beforehand) only to run off to New York City to self-sabotage with her ex, while sticking her button nose into Mia’s past just as Lexie endures terminating an unwanted pregnancy. Elena Richardson is the embodiment of every liberal white woman who gets off on criticizing and judging the people around her for their (perceived) flaws, while remaining willfully ignorant of the rancid dumpster fire in her own backyard. Rather than handling their mistakes and inner turmoil with maturity, they weaponize their issues against those around them to maintain their belief that they’re “good people”.
Little Fires Everywhere is a reminder of our responsibility to learn and grow from the mistakes of the generations before us. It demonstrates that perfectionism is a myth made up by white supremacists, and exposes the dehumanizing, destructive nature of this style of motherhood. Though created by our own flesh and blood, our children are not just simply extensions of ourselves. They’re human beings with their own individual needs and desires, and every human being deserves to be treated with dignity, compassion, love, and respect. The series also asks us to extend compassion to ourselves, so that we can finally break the cycles of abuse and oppression running through our blood.
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