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The Brilliant Fault Lines of Little Fires Everywhere

The Hulu show is a drama of misplaced intentions, exploitation, and white fragility.

Courtesy of Hulu

Elena Richardson is pretty, white, and rich; a mother to four children and a wife who schedules sex with her clean-cut, hardworking husband as if she were scheduling a haircut. She has one son inexplicably named Moody, and another son called Trip. She is blonde in the very specific way that women like Elena Richardson tend to be blonde, which is to say that it is futile to imagine her hair any other color; she gets dressed in the very specific way that women like Elena Richardson get dressed, as if she is a living mannequin from Coach or Tory Burch. She shares her Slimfast with her daughter, and she measures out the calories in her wine, ensuring that no woman in the family Richardson is forced to suffer the indignity of a thick waistline. She is firm in her convictions, whether they are minor—“everyone,” she insists, “looks far better with a tan”—or major, not to mention majorly offensive. “Being gay,” she tells her husband, frowning sweetly as if she were trying to understand exactly what “gay” meant, “is a very weird thing.”

Until a mysterious new tenant moves into her rental home, Elena’s most immediate problem is the fact that The Vagina Monologues has been assigned to her all-female reading group. “You know Elizabeth—ever since she started at Planned Parenthood she’s just been so political,” she grumbles, primly. “And I hate that word. Couldn’t we just say The Virginia Monologues?” It feels inevitable that Reese Witherspoon has been cast as Elena Richardson in Hulu’s adaptation of Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere, and not just because Witherspoon is an executive producer. Almost nobody plays pretty, high-functioning bitches better. As Elena, she draws on some of her previous characters—the preppy pep of Elle Woods; the competitive, neurotic ambitiousness of Tracy Flick; the ritzy obliviousness of Evelyn Williams; the wealthy alpha vibe of Madeline Mackenzie—the way Dr. Frankenstein drew on dead bodies: She has created a new and startling monster, a composite with familiar parts.

Little Fires Everywhere has familiar parts itself. It is a story about “race and class and privilege,” according to its author, and is set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, a place so in thrall to order that the grass there is not permitted to grow above six inches. (One assumes cutting is scheduled with the same exacting regularity as intercourse between the Richardsons.) The mysterious new tenant that I mentioned earlier is a luminous, bohemian single mother, Mia Warren, played by Kerry Washington with a beautifully modulated mix of fury, guardedness, and hipster chill. Mia smokes weed, makes art, and sleeps with whomever she feels like sleeping with, moving from town to town and sometimes living in her car. Her teenage daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood), has never met her father and is less keen on their nomadic existence than her mother. She has also not yet learned to be mistrustful of the illusory softness of families like Elena’s, leaving her vulnerable to the subtlest forms of exploitation. “You’re letting some rich spoiled white girl turn you into her dress-up doll,” Mia tells her, horrified, when she befriends Elena’s elder daughter, Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), maybe because Mia knows that ownership sometimes starts out looking like admiration.

Exploitation, along with the supposed subjectiveness of what it means to be exploited, is one of the primary themes of Little Fires Everywhere. Ask the Richardsons about the Warrens, and they might position themselves as the would-be saviors of a wayward, penniless, and desperate family. Ask the Warrens what they think about the Richardsons, and the picture may change a little. More than Little Fires Everywhere’s soapy and somewhat predictable twists and turns, it is the interplay between its two leads that generates the most worthwhile heat—a pas de deux between a white woman who cannot keep herself from being racially insensitive and a black woman socialized to smile politely up until the point of detonation. The show’s biggest storyline—a legal dispute surrounding a baby who was once abandoned by a desperate, stone-broke Chinese immigrant, and who has since been taken in by an affluent family who are friendly with the Richardsons—is itself a Rorschach test for viewers, asking whether the best mother is the mother who can provide financially or whether money does not matter in the face of familial love and blood ties. Should the baby be called May Ling Chow or Mirabelle McCullough? Your perspective may have something to do with your voting history.

Is Little Fires Everywhere a subtle show? It is unsubtle enough that in the first episode, Elena offers Mia work as a glorified housekeeper for no good reason, setting up a situation that allows the two differing matriarchs to hang out, butt heads, exercise passive aggression and, finally, go to war. Elena, if the show did not take itself very, very seriously, might just as easily appear in a pitch-black suburban tragicomedy by Todd Solondz; we know that Mia is subversive, meanwhile, because she likes listening to The Velvet Underground. The series rarely leans on subtext when broad, boldfaced text will do.

It does not help that people who live like the Richardsons do tend, even in life, to rely on patently unsound reasoning and false equivalences in order to justify their own superiority, making fictional WASPs harder to write without descending into outright satire. Still, Witherspoon and Washington are skilled performers, lending their respective characters some necessary depth. When Elena hears that Lexie’s chosen college is requiring her to write an application that includes a personal essay about hardship, she is thrown. “Your father and I worked very hard to prevent you from having any hardships in life,” she says. “They’re gonna punish you because you have good parents that make good choices?” Her suggestion that her children face discrimination for the crime of being too white, rich, and expensively educated would seem too far-fetched if it did not appear on social media, in comment sections, and in op-eds with a regularity too chilling to be actually funny.

Elena no doubt thinks of herself as a decent person, in the way that people who mistake politeness and decorum for true kindness often do. It does not occur to her that meeting a black woman and asking whether she would like a new job as a maid is not just racist but unhinged; when she tells two black teenagers that they must “have so much in common” at a party, she presumably imagines she is being a good host. (When she remarks to Mia that her grandmother was on the local board that voted for desegregation, her eyes all but whisper: “By the way, I would have voted for Obama for a third term if I could.” ) Elena is the kind of woman who might identify as “socially liberal but economically conservative” or declare that she’s incapable of “seeing color,” making her the perfect physical manifestation of white privilege. She cannot understand why Mia likes to “make things about race.” “You made this about race the day you stood on the street and begged me to be your maid,” Mia spits back. “White women always want to be friends with their maid. I was not your maid, Elena. And I was never your friend.”

That inability to see why somebody who is not white might choose to “make things about race” inflects a scene where Pearl and Moody Richardson, having been caught trespassing and reported to neighborhood watch, are driven home by a man wearing uniform. Mia is terrified at first because she thinks he is a cop; Elena, figuring that teenagers do teenage things, has no idea why any of this is a big deal. It made me think of April 2013, when Reese Witherspoon was flagged down by the cops for driving drunk and, on their dashcam, was recorded yelling things like: “I’m a U.S. citizen, and I’m allowed to stand on American ground,” and: “Do you know my name?” and: “You’re about to find out who I am!” “I told [the cop] I was pregnant,” she said that May, in an interview on Good Morning America. “I’m not pregnant! I said crazy things. You only hear me laughing because I had no idea what I was talking about, and I am so sorry. I was so disrespectful to him. I have police officers in my family.” The specific patch of American ground she stood on when she railed against the officer arresting her was in Atlanta, the same place where more than one officer has been charged with murder for the shooting of an unarmed black man in the last few years. In her mug shot, she looks down as if embarrassed, but she has the tiniest smirk.

Little Fires Everywhere starts with the final act, ensuring that its opening shot is also its most striking and most histrionic: A McMansion, burning, looking like a cross between a Christmas ornament and an extremely bougie harbinger of the apocalypse. On the lawn, a small blonde woman gazes up at the inferno. The TV show and the novel take their name from this destructive, catastrophic incident, the narrative then winding back to illustrate exactly how the Richardsons’ impressive home has ended up engulfed in flames. (The series, incidentally, does that thing of having a character say the title in the first five minutes: “Guys say when they went in,” a cop tells the family, plainly, “there were little fires everywhere.”)

For the most part, the show’s aesthetic is attractive but not interesting, as blandly handsome as most other prestige dramas in the age of online streaming; its being situated in the 1990s has more of an effect on its soundtrack than its visual style, down to a baffling appearance by “Tubthumping” in a high-school party scene. Whether or not it is intentional, the sight of the Richardson mansion lighting up the perfect sky above its perfect, tree-lined street in perfect Shaker Heights, Ohio is its most radical, unsettling image. It suggests a burning of the status quo. Funny, how destruction sometimes seems less stifling—brighter, more like progress—than the continuance of everyday life.