Amazon UK TV review: Little Fires Everywhere (spoilers)
Helen Archer | On 31, May 2020
Warning: This contains spoilers. Not seen Little Fires Everywhere? Read our spoiler-free review of the opening episodes here.
From the vantage point of 2020, the 1990s can seem like a different world. The adaptation of Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel Little Fires Everywhere, set in 1997, harks back to a cosier-seeming era. Viewers expecting the kind of zinger-laden storytelling or flashy stylism associated with contemporary dramas are likely to be disappointed – this is more akin to the aesthetic of Party of Five. And yet within those parameters, this eight-part series advances a rather knottier narrative.
It’s an odd mix, a throwback that nonetheless embraces some of the more nuanced questions asked in dramas of today – questions of class, race, and privilege, many of which were overlooked in the TV-land of the 90s. After a slow start (read our spoiler-free review of the opening episodes here), the plot cranks up, as Shaker Heights newcomers Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) disrupt the cosseted world of the Richardsons, and the sparks which fly culminate in full-blown arson.
When Mia and Elena Richardson (Reece Witherspoon) give up any pretence of friendship – “White women always want to be friends with their maid. I am not your maid. And I was never your friend,” says Mia, putting race front-and-centre of the coming narrative – all of Elena’s “good intentions” are exposed. The two women are pitted against each other, and Elena goes all out, Dynasty-villainess-style, to ruin Mia’s life. Instead – satisfyingly – she ruins her own.
Witherspoon is playing as unsympathetic a character as she ever has, as Elena’s obsession with Mia turns her into a monster. But this is very much a family saga, and the Warrens provide the lightning rod through which all of the Richardsons’ hypocrisies are exposed. Moody (Gavin Lewis), apparently a “good guy”, has a deeply problematic relationship with Pearl, whom he feels he can lay claim to, stripping her of agency. Idealistic and politically-aware Izzy (Megan Stott) is taken to task by her beloved Mia after blacking up her dolls to make a point about racism. Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), throughout the series, appropriates Pearl’s experience as a young black woman to her own advantage, although she is constantly challenged by her boyfriend Brian (Stevonte Hart, in a mature and confident performance), and ultimately has to face her shortcomings. Bill Richardson (Joshua Jackson, playing against type) ultimately redeems himself slightly, by refusing to do his wife’s bidding in making Mia’s past public knowledge. It is perhaps Trip (Jordan Elsass), the oldest of the clan, who is the least worst of the family, even as he steals the affections of Pearl from his brother, Moody.
But everyone is flawed here. Pearl finds herself seduced not only by the beautifully lit house owned by the Richardsons, but by the more conventional parenting style of Elena, while Mia is perhaps a little too invested in her friend Bebe’s problems. Both women’s backstories are explained in Episode 6, where we are introduced to Elena and Mia as young women, played by AnnaSophia Robb and Tiffany Boone, respectively. We find out why the eternally disappointed-by-life Elena blames her perceived failures on her youngest child, and why Mia is always on the run, and estranged from her parents – as well as the provenance of her $400,000 photograph. And all this is before we even get to that dramatic staple, the courtroom battle, where custody for baby May Ling is being fought over between birth mother Bebe (Lu Huang) and hopeful adoptive parents Linda and Mark McCullough (Rosemarie DeWitt and Geoff Stults).
In among the social commentary are characters you come to care about, despite their shortcomings. And, thanks to solid performances across the board, it never feels as though we are being preached at. The whole thing is lightened by some humorous intertextual touches – Brian notices that Elena brings up marching with Martin Luther King every time he sees her, bringing to mind the self-proclaimed Obama fans of Jordan Peele’s Get Out, for example. There is subtlety within the direction, too, with repetitions within the show that almost wordlessly demonstrate how white privilege works – Bebe is treated with contempt for being 70 cents short of being able to buy formula, while Izzy is effortlessly forgiven for being the same amount out. Even our introduction to Mia and Pearl, woken by a policeman as they sleep in their car and being told to move on, is contrasted with Elena in the same position, asleep in her own vehicle, being treated solicitously by the cop who wakes her. And while the more cynical amongst us would doubtless sneer at some of the obvious music choices – plinky-plonky versions of Alanis Morissette and The Cure – they somehow work here, on a very basic level.
What emerges, like a Phoenix from the flames, is a nuanced look at not only race, but also motherhood, regret, and the impact the choices we have make on our lives. While some of the plotting wouldn’t be out of place in Jane the Virgin, that pastiche of overblown Latin American telenovelas, Little Fires Everywhere proves to be not only thoughtful but also highly entertaining – and all the while retaining the scorching white heat of a fire which is started from the inside.
Little Fires Everywhere is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a Prime membership or a £5.99 monthly subscription.