If the pilot episode of “Little Fires Everywhere” asked the question “What is it like to move into a wealthy, all-white community?” the second question asks a simpler and more direct one: “Have you looked at your vagina lately?”
The second episode of Hulu’s new miniseries is mostly structured around the latest book club meeting hosted by Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon). “Well, it’s not really a book, it’s a play. Actually, it’s not even a play, it’s a monologue,” Elena bemoans when talking about the group’s choice of literature, “The Vagina Monologues.” With Mia (Kerry Washington) now fully employed by the Richardson family as their house manager, the rules of engagement are being determined. Elena jokingly asks Mia to read “The Vagina Monologues” before her, before realizing she’s stepped over the line that’s just now being set. This gives Mia a bargaining chip. “Afternoons are my window,” she tells Elena. Her mornings are spent getting Pearl (Lexi Underwood) to school and working on her art. Nights are at Lucky Palace. Elena fights her on it, but Mia remains strong. In a way, Mia runs the Richardson house.
The Richardson house isn’t the only place where battle lines are being drawn. It’s the first day of high school for all the kids. Yes, all four of the Richardson kids! Elena and Bill (Joshua Jackson) must’ve had a marathon run back in the 80s. Reese lookalike, Lexi (Jade Pettyton), and Ryan Phillippe lookalike, Trip (Jordan Elsass), return to the top of the social scene. Moody (Gavin Lewis) and Pearl seem excited to get back to classes. Unfortunately, Pearl gets stuck in a lower level math course. She goes to speak to the Principal Peters (Austin Basis), advocating to test into the honors program, as she had already taken that level of math at a prior school. Principal Peters doesn’t believe Pearl. He even remarks that Pearl’s previous schools weren’t up to Shaker Heights level. The class and racial divide rears its ugly head yet again.
Izzy (Megan Stott) also has a tough first day at school. Upon opening her locker, she sees that kids have posted Ellen Degeneres’ iconic “Yep, I’m Gay” cover inside. She shuts the door quickly, embarrassed. Things only get harder in music class. As her teacher singles her out for her expert violin skills, the other girls taunt her with homophobic jabs. It hasn’t been revealed whether or not Izzy is gay yet. However, it’s easy to empathize with the bullying happening at school. At home, she only further distances herself from Elena. Understandably, Izzy doesn’t exactly think Elena would be supportive or receptive to listening, far from PFLAG mother of the year. Luckily, Mia finds some of Izzy’s artwork as she’s cleaning her room. “I love weird,” Mia tells Izzy.
While Mia works and the kids go to school, Elena puts on her investigative hat. No, not for her job as an actual reporter. She wants to investigate Mia and her lack of a reference. Mia gets her boss at Lucky Palace to call Elena, pretending to be her previous landlord. Rather than put Elena at ease, the call pushes Elena to go to the police. She asks them to check Mia’s name against the criminal database and send her anything about any criminal past she might have.
After a hard day investigating her friend and house manager, Elena rushes home for yet another cringe-worthy family dinner, plus Pearl. Lexi mentions that her Yale personal statement on “greatest hardship in her life” will be about being cast in the “South Pacific” chorus, rather than in the lead. This gives Elena the perfect entrance for a monologue against affirmative action. “I, for one, have a real issue with this Yale essay topic,” Elena starts. “Your Father and I worked very hard your entire life to prevent you from having any hardship. Now you have to go and try to dream one up.” This speaks volume about Elena’s parenting style. She tries to pave the way for her kids to succeed at everything, but she only knows how to pave one path.
Moody does the right thing and tries to refute Elena’s assumptions and check her privilege. Unfortunately, Elena doesn’t actually hear or register any argument against her. Instead, she continues her rant. “If you’re not raised by a crack addicted mother who can barely make end’s meat, you’ll get punished for it,” she says. The white victimhood is strong with Elena, visibly making everyone uncomfortable. It has to be said, Reese Witherspoon is giving us a really specific and cutting version of a 1% ‘90s socialite. While great, it’s a shame she gets far more screen time than anyone else.
Back at the Warren home, Pearl tells Mia about not getting into advanced math. Rather than get worked up about it, Mia encourages Pearl to go back and talk to the Principal Peters. “Ask for a placement test, you know how to advocate for yourself,” Mia says. While Elena wants to steamroll over obstacles for her children, Mia wants to teach Pearl to jump over obstacles. It’s up to her to get into the higher level math class if that’s what she wants. The show illustrates this parental dichotomy really well in these paired scenes.
Rather than approach the Principal Peters again, Pearl mentions the dilemma to Elena. As someone who loves to get her way, Elena marches to the school and easily gets the Principal Peters to bump Pearl to the more advanced class. In the middle of her crusade, Elena sees Izzy hauled off to the principal’s office. Once again, her music classmates accosted her with homophobic jokes and she decided to stand up for herself. Even if she’s in the moral right, Elena certainly doesn’t take this news well.
Luckily (for Izzy), Elena gets a call that the police has faxed their findings on Mia Warren straight to her home. Elena makes a frantic dash home, hoping to retrieve the papers before Mia finds them while working. Unfortunately, Elena does not race home quick enough. Mia not only finds them, realizing that Elena had gone to the police. Even though there were no records for any criminal activity, it’s clear from Kerry Washington’s defeated eyes that this level of skepticism stings.
It’s finally time for the book club, and none of the women seem happy about what they read. Elizabeth (Jamie Rae Newman), the woman who suggested “The Vagina Monologue,” stands by her decision. Sensing a pile up on Elizabeth, Mia walks into the discussion and does the unexpected. She sides with Elena, though in a way that also compliments Elizabeth on her choice. “How can we see ourselves if we’re afraid to look at who we are,” Mia says about women not seeing their vaginas. The point may be lost on the women of the book club, but is certainly not lost on the audience. Mia is talking about these women not seeing their own privilege because they’re scared to look at their own actions through those lenses.
Once everyone leaves, Mia comes clean. She admits that she called in a fake reference because she had to unexpectedly break her last lease. “You’re different, and I should’ve seen that,” Mia apologizes, though does she need to? Who knows if she’s trying to puff Elena up, or if she genuinely means it. It’s a bit unclear to see what steps Mia is trying to take in this 3D chess board of class relations. Still, this prompts the women to get drunk and share a heart to heart.
It turns out, Elena has never seen her own vagina (shocking). Meanwhile, Mia did a whole art series about her’s in her twenties (shocking). This comical, almost rote, “moms get drunk and dish” scene improves when Elena monologues about her relationship with Izzy. She tells Mia to treasure Pearl’s love, because its hard to look at your daughter and know she hates you (regarding Izzy). It’s one of the first times we’ve seen Elena acknowledge her vulnerability and Reese plays it wonderfully.
This nice moment turns sour when Elena lets it slip that she was the one to appeal to Principal Peters about getting Pearl into the higher math class. Mia returns home to ask Pearl how the issue of math classes resolved. Pearl lies, telling Mia that she handled it all on her own. Mia returns to her room, resigned. Her daughter is now lying to her and seeking help from Elena.
“What’s wrong with a little controversy if it elevates the conversation,” Elizabeth asks when talking about the book. It feels like the show asks its critics that as well, almost in defense of itself. It wants to talk about race and class through the prism of the late 90s, but only does so in fits and starts. Hopefully the perspective and points crystalize in the coming episodes. If not, the little bits of controversy might not be doing much to elevate the conversation here. “Little Fires Everywhere” remains incredibly watchable and fun. Yet, this episode fell short of the pilot and seems to take us down a more conventional and safe road.
We haven’t talked much about Huong Lu as Bebe Chow, Mia’s co-worker at Lucky Palace. Mia notices Bebe having a rough time during a shift at work and offers to take over from her. By the end of the episode, we learn that she used to have a baby, but no longer does. Was this baby put up for adoption? Will this factor in to the other episodes? Since we end the episode on the revelation, it stands to reason this will be an important plot point coming soon. For what it’s worth, Huong Lu gives a really affecting performance in just a few scenes. I’m excited to see more of her,
- How strange was the opening of this week’s episode? It seems to be sometime in the 80s, as Pearl is a baby. Mia is busy screwing someone we do not know in her car. Mid-tryst, Pearl wakes up, causing Mia to switch her attentions from the man to her daughter. What is this trying to tell us? Will this man come back in later episodes? Was the show trying to slut shame her? There wasn’t a clear perspective or takeaway from this opening and it isn’t mentioned later. This seems clumsier than usual for the show.
- This week on Rosemarie DeWitt watch, there’s nothing new to report. We have our much-anticipated “Vagina Monologue” book club. Rosemarie’s Linda offers a few uncomfortable glances. Mostly though, she insists that she voted for “Memoirs of a Geisha” for book club. We get it Linda, you wanted to read “Memoirs of a Geisha.” But let’s not pretend that book doesn’t have any trauma. I’m anxious for wonderful actress Rosemarie DeWitt to finally get a character to play. In related news, has Reese Witherspoon watched “Rachel Getting Married?“
- Elena just busts into Mia’s home, unannounced, during the middle of the day. What is that about? Surely there has to be some sort of law against that. Right? Hopefully?
- Joshua Jackson’s Bill trips over the phrase “Put a face to the name” in such a strange way when he meets Mia. Is he hitting on Mia or having an aneurysm?
- Didn’t talk much about Moody and Pearl smoking weed. At least the two of them are burning through every teenage cliche in the book. Both Gavin Lewis and Lexi Underwood are charming enough, but they aren’t the most exciting subplot on display.
- Elena says she only allows herself four ounces of wine in a given night? Nice try.
- This book club certainly loves books that are also movies (or that would be turned into movies). Some of their past/future options include “How Stella Got Her Groove Back,” “Primary Colors,” “The Horse Whisperer” and the aforementioned “Memoirs of a Geisha.” I hope Rosemarie DeWitt finally gets to read that book she’s been anticipating by the series’ end.
Best Line Reading
This almost went to the laugh a drunk Elena let out when she finally saw her vagina. Reese Witherspoon’s adorable cackle was a great note to end Elena’s storyline on for this episode.
Realistically though, Reese continues to deliver the best line readings on TV. It’s almost as if she relishes Elena’s oblivious nature. During the WASP-dinner-from-hell, Elena backs up Lexi’s claim. She was robbed of that “South Pacific” lead role. “I remember that, honey. It was very political,” Elena chimes in. It’s hilarious how Elena both remembers this incident and agrees that it might qualify for “greatest hardship” essay material. Going even further, it’s fascinating to see how Elena treats Lexi compared to Izzy. She’s ready to indulge Izzy’s ego at the drop of a hat, but says nothing but cruel and belittling things to Izzy. In short, Elena is quite a piece of work. I’m so happy we have an actress as precise and specific as Reese Witherspoon to bring her to life, warts and all.
Kerry Washington continues to be the MVP of the show. It would be fantastic to see her earn an Emmy nomination for Best Actress in a Miniseries for her work as Mia. Yet, in the spirit of highlighting more performers, we’re going to give Megan Stott the MVP trophy for her work as Izzy. There’s a sweet vulnerability behind all of Izzy’s thorniness. Deep down, Izzy wants to be loved and accepted. Her scene with Kerry Washington was a highlight this episode. Hopefully Mia continues to encourage Izzy’s self expression through art and music, rather than setting her hair on fire.