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Hulu’s ‘Little Fires Everywhere’ takes a match to civility

Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon shine in a show about motherhood – and who has the luxury to make choices in their lives

Kerry Washington and Reese Witherspoon have come a long way since Save the Last Dance and Pleasantville.

Little Fires Everywhere, an adaptation of the best-selling Celeste Ng novel that began streaming on Hulu Tuesday, shows us how far.

Co-executive produced by Washington and Witherspoon, the series stars Washington as Mia Warren, an itinerant artist and single mother to a whip-smart high school sophomore named Pearl (Lexi Underwood). Witherspoon plays Elena Richardson, a well-off part-time journalist and mother of four living with her attorney husband and four high school-aged children. The show follows what happens when these two women meet after Mia and Pearl move to the idyllic bedroom community of Shaker Heights, Ohio, in 1997 and their lives become intertwined because of the relationships their children form with each other. It is a show that illustrates why, with the best of intentions, it’s so difficult for us to “all just get along.”

Kerry Washington (left) and Lexi Underwood (right) play mother and daughter in Little Fires Everywhere.

Courtesy of Hulu

Witherspoon and Washington are both 43, and they both grew up as high-achieving girls who received elite educations. Washington attended The Spence School in New York, then George Washington University, before becoming an actor. Witherspoon graduated from Harpeth Hall School, an all-girls academy in Nashville, Tennessee, and attended Stanford University in California. Washington studied anthropology and sociology and Witherspoon studied English literature. In the past 10 years, both women have reshaped their acting careers, forming their own production companies and exerting more control in the projects they choose.

Steered by showrunner Liz Tigelaar, Little Fires Everywhere feels like a smart, commanding culmination of where they both started as actors in their early 20s, but more developed, with stronger, more complicated tannins.

Pearl Warren (Lexi Underwood, left) and Moody Richardson (Gavin Lewis, right) in Little Fires Everywhere.

Courtesy of Hulu

In 2001, Washington played a teen mom living in Chicago’s South Side named Chenille in Save the Last Dance, her second feature film. In it, she has a scene with Julia Stiles, who plays a sheltered white ballet dancer named Sara. Sara is dating Chenille’s brother, Derek (Sean Patrick Thomas). Sara struggles to understand why she’s received such a chilly reception from Chenille and her friends, including a girl named Nikki (Bianca Lawson), who spits at Sara, “White girls like you. Creepin’ up, takin’ our men. The whole world ain’t enough, you gotta conquer ours, too.”

“You come here — white, so you gotta be right — and you take one of the few decent men we have left after jail, drugs and drive-bys,” Chenille explained to Sara. “This is what Nikki meant about you up in our world.”

“There’s only one world, Chenille,” Sara responded.

“That is what they teach you,” Chenille says. “We know different.”

It’s a torturous, overwrought scene in a torturous, overwrought movie, but it’s also emblematic of the roles to which Washington has returned again and again. (There’s a scene in Little Fires Everywhere with Elena’s daughter, Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), and Lexie’s black boyfriend, Brian (Stevonte Hart), that feels reminiscent of this one, though far better executed.)

Whether it be American Son or For Colored Girls or Django Unchained or even The Lawn Chair episode of Scandal, Washington has chosen roles that allow her characters to say something about racial injustice. It’s a through line in her life as well — Washington was a campaign surrogate for both Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Then there’s Witherspoon, who, be it with Legally Blonde, Sweet Home Alabama, Pleasantville and The Morning Show, has long shown an affinity for projects about women who subvert narrow expectations about how they should behave. That, too, is reflective of Witherspoon’s personal interests — she’s a former high school cheerleader who insists that women can be frilly and fun and also smart.

In Little Fires Everywhere, those archetypes not only take center stage, but they combust when the two women find themselves on opposite sides of a custody battle between an impoverished undocumented Chinese woman, Bebe Chow (Lu Huang), and the white family who has adopted her child, May Ling.

Little Fires Everywhere is a show about mothering, about the choices and compromises women make in their lives. But it’s also a show that deftly dissects which women are afforded the luxury to make choices and to make compromises, and how their lives are shaped by that luxury or the lack of it.

Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon, left) and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington, right) in a scene from Little Fires Everywhere.

Courtesy of Hulu

The sheltered Elena simply can’t, or won’t see herself as anything except a victim of the social pressures handed down from a gin-swilling mother who largely rejected the calls for liberation Betty Friedan extolled in The Feminine Mystique. She clings to her identity as an evolved, well-intentioned white woman. (“Jesse Jackson says ‘African American’ and he’s on television,” she says during a dinner table conversation over whether to say “black” when referring to a person.) She claims she doesn’t see color, turning evermore nasty when confronted with evidence that not everyone, especially Mia, appreciates her well-intentioned meddling. Though Witherspoon has played a number of snippy, know-it-all women, this might be her best yet, in part because she plays Elena without so much as an ounce of irony or comedy.

Unraveling the implications and denials of white innocence has been a prevalent theme lately in pop culture. Slave Play uses satire to make its points, while Get Out employs allegory. Both are studies in heightened exaggeration. Little Fires Everywhere is stunning in its directness. The show is extraordinary in its skill in conveying a uniquely white lack of self-awareness, the kind that allows so many to think of themselves as “the good ones.” That alone is not enough, however. It’s Washington’s Mia and her steadfast refusal to offer the small concessions that her neighbors consider to be indications of civility that makes this adaptation hard to stop watching. (Well, that and the fact that all of the supporting characters, especially Pearl and the Richardson kids, feel distinct and deeply considered.) Mia doesn’t have to shout to make white people uncomfortable or to be heard, and she knows it. But she also knows when it’s advantageous for her to tell them what they want to hear, to appeal to their better natures. Washington folds a lifetime of careful mannerisms into her performance, and a contrast develops in the subtleties between her and Elena.

If Elena is defined by a lack of self-awareness, Mia is the inverse — she’s hyperaware of her presence in the world at all times.

Such a project marks an impressive, if somewhat unexpected, development in Witherspoon’s career, which she rebooted by seeking stories written by women to option and adapt. Witherspoon spun her reading habit into a successful book club called Hello Sunshine, and she founded a lifestyle brand called Draper James, which describes itself as “steeped in Southern charm, designed for real life, and unapologetically pretty.” Witherspoon demonstrated an ability to connect with white women, especially modern, Southern white women. She could appeal to them without challenging them too much, if at all, about race. She produced and starred in the 2014 release of Wild, which was based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed. The next project that had everyone talking was Big Little Lies, based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name.

The first season of Big Little Lies, which followed the lives of a group of monied Monterey, California, moms in the lead-up to the murder of one of their abusive husbands, was almost universally well-received, but it had a blind spot. Its weakest-written character, Bonnie, played by Zoë Kravitz, was also its only black one. Bonnie’s story expanded in its second season, but it was largely for naught — the season was mostly pilloried for drawing out a nearly-perfect story and failing to live up to the expectations set by season one.

Little Fires Everywhere is a welcome and surprising course correction. While Witherspoon’s snarling, unhinged clashes with Meryl Streep in Big Little Lies offered a handful of delicious Bette Davis-versus-Joan Crawford moments, her face-offs with Washington go deeper. Little Fires Everywhere feels like a richly complex follow-up to the themes in Pleasantville (1998), a film that also explored the suffocating strictures of suburban idealism. It’s just that Little Fires Everywhere complicates that exploration with the intersecting additions of race, class and immigration status. And Witherspoon is banking that her fans will follow her to an uncomfortable, needle-sharp edge.

The tension between Mia and Elena roils beneath a placid surface of polite niceties. An entire library of history and sociology lies embedded in their interactions, and Washington and Witherspoon revel in a controlled, passive-aggressive civility that becomes the driving force behind the plot.

Take, for example, a moment in episode two, Seeds and All. Mia has taken Elena up on her offer to become the Richardsons’ “house manager,” which is just a fancy word for “maid,” though Elena is loath to admit it. She’s setting out wine for a meeting of Elena’s book club, which, to Elena’s horror, has decided to read and discuss The Vagina Monologues. It’s too much for the prim homemaker with the perfect husband and the perfect family who lives in the perfect house in the perfect planned community of Shaker Heights.

Elena can barely bring herself to utter the word “vagina.” “Can’t we say ‘Virginia?’ ” she asked.

But Elena, the queen bee of Shaker Heights, finds herself in danger of being usurped in her own house during the book club. She sputters her objections to the Eve Ensler play, which mostly amount to being offended by the playwright’s use of words such as “coochie-snorcher,” and the fact that, in her eyes, The Vagina Monologues do not include enough about the role vaginas play in motherhood.

The women of Elena’s book club turn to listen to Mia talk about The Vagina Monologues in Little Fires Everywhere.

Courtesy of Hulu

When the other women begin to object to Elena, Mia, the only black woman in the room, steps in to rescue her with a mic-dropping analysis. In the vastness of the Richardson house, Mia is simultaneously invisible and alien, clad in a black outfit that includes a cutoff David Bowie tee. She’d blend right in on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, but in Shaker Heights she might as well have come with a danger sign. Everything about the scene is saying more than it appears to be, including the blocking. Mia, who is there in a service position, is the only woman who is standing when she begins to speak. Offering up her intellect becomes part of her labor for Elena.

“I think Elena’s touching on something that speaks to the heart of the piece,” she says. “I mean, I had the same thought when I read it, actually. That big events happen all the time to vaginas, but we, as a society, have a deep discomfort calling them by name, let alone regarding them with respect or actually seeing them. … I think Elena — and please, correct me if I’m wrong — I think Elena is talking about vaginas as a metaphor for our own discomfort with the parts of us that make us most uniquely and primally who we are. Have you really looked at your own? Or has anyone here? I think that that is Elena’s point. How can we see ourselves when we’re afraid to look at who we really are?”

The looks exchanged between the homeowner and house manager tell a much different story than the words Mia offer. Elena is simultaneously mortified, stunned and grateful, while Mia is clearly modeling a graciousness she doesn’t think Elena deserves.

Elena chose social and economic security and convinced herself that she had no other options, an attitude she’s passed down to her daughter, Lexie. Lexie is a cheerleader who dates the high school’s black quarterback. She’s a likely future Yale student, a mini-Elena and a model of what Elena considers to be a meritocracy. When Elena’s youngest daughter, Izzy (Megan Stott), struggles to thrive under the same good girl expectations that her sister and mother have enthusiastically embraced, Elena has but one piece of useless advice: “If you follow the rules, you’ll succeed.”

It’s no wonder that Izzy identifies a kindred spirit in Mia, who has long come to understand that rules were never crafted with her in mind. Even with this in mind, Little Fires Everywhere offers complicated zigzags for both Elena and Mia. Neither is a complete hero, nor a complete villain, but they’re both wholly American women.

For Washington and Witherspoon, Little Fires Everywhere feels like a culmination of a trajectory that began decades ago, a television apotheosis for two women and their parallel journeys through Hollywood.

Soraya Nadia McDonald is the culture critic for The Undefeated. She writes about pop culture, fashion, the arts, and literature. She is the 2020 winner of the George Jean Nathan prize for dramatic criticism, a 2020 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in criticism, and the runner-up for the 2019 Vernon Jarrett Medal for outstanding reporting on black life.