If you ever say something and then find yourself thinking, “Was that racist?”, odds are, it probably was. That self-awareness of prejudice and microaggressions may seem reflexive to some in 2020, but in 1997, that may not have been the case for everyone. And it certainly isn’t for the characters of “Little Fires Everywhere.”
Set in the Shaker Heights suburb of Cleveland, “Little Fires Everywhere” follows two families separated by class and race. In the summer of 1997, the wealthy, white Richardson family begins renting one of their properties to struggling artist Mia Warren (Kerry Washington, “Scandal”) and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood, “If Not Now, When?”). Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon, “Big Little Lies”) immediately seeks to befriend Mia, whom she rented to in a moment of white guilt after accidentally reporting her to the police for trespassing.
Despite Elena’s fumbling attempts at gaining her friendship, Mia resists making ties with anyone in the exceedingly planned community, as she has spent her entire life moving from city to city every few months. While tensions heighten between Mia and Elena, their children, now attending the same school, become close friends and bring their families together. Soon, Mia agrees to take a job as the Richardsons’ housekeeper in order to protect Pearl and study the hidden rifts in the seemingly perfect family’s relationships.
The first few episodes released of “Little Fires Everywhere” have been a lengthy flashback meant to set up the eventual arson of the Richardson’s mansion months after Mia and Pearl’s arrival in Shaker Heights. With this knowledge in mind, the audience is left wondering who would set a house on fire with a family of five still inside and what would drive them to such violence in what appears to be a picturesque community?
“Little Fires Everywhere,” while full of artful suspense and beautiful writing, also places viewers in a constant state of discomfort with dialogue rife with awkward attempts at political correctness. Elena, insecure in her internalized racism, frequently brands herself as accepting despite her intense distrust of Mia and inherent biases as a highly privileged white woman.
Based on the best-selling novel of the same name, this miniseries examines not only the racial tensions of the late 1990s but also the very American tragedy of suburban living. Mia, who prides herself on going with the flow and remaining unattached, finds herself in the middle of a neighborhood so orchestrated and organized that it feels as if the oh-so permanent walls are closing in. Despite her resistance to embrace the Shaker Heights philosophy of complete control over chaos, her love for her daughter tethers her to what she sees as a prison of tranquility.
Because of this commitment, Mia and Pearl are stuck inside a system of weakening social strata as the threat of the eventual fire looms over the audience. With each strained interaction between them and the Richardsons, “Little Fires Everywhere” shows how the build-up of intense pressure can lead to a destructive explosion.
This show, while only beginning, has already constructed an intricate web of personal relationships and largely owes its success to the incredible performances of Washington and Witherspoon. As the series continues to unfold and the characters further unravel, Elena and Mia’s complex dynamic will remain the center of a thrilling story and pose questions to viewers about how even sparks can start wildfires.