After keeping them in the background for all of the season, the episode finally leads with the McCullough family. We first flashback to one of Linda’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) previous pregnancies. The doctor and her fratboy-looking husband, Mark (Geoff Stults), tell her it will all be all right. We know better. With her adopted daughter Mirabelle, one year old, Linda refuses to leave the house after Bebe (Huang Lu) tried to take her. Linda and Mark have pursued legal action, but their court date is a ways away. Rosemarie DeWitt has been unleashed, and it’s great to see her have some soapy material to deliver. Finally, “Little Fires Everywhere” has deployed its secret weapon.
The Bebe vs. Linda drama pushes Elena (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia (Kerry Washington) to their breaking point. Elena tries to broach the topic with Mia, asking if she drives a Chevy hatchback (the car that drove Bebe to Mirabelle’s party). “Yes, like every other broke ass in America,” Mia fires back. “You want to talk? Then talk,” says Mia, cutting to the chase. Elena doesn’t take the bait. She lets Mia go, but she won’t stay silent for long.
At the behest of the McCulloughs, Elena visits Bebe with a proposition. She thanks Bebe for doing the “responsible” and “selfless” thing by leaving May-Ling/Mirabelle at the fire station. After buttering up, Elena gets to the point. She’s offering Bebe money and a proper immigration attorney if she drops her custody case. “Do you have kids?” Bebe asks. “Four,” Elena answers proudly. “How much would you sell them for?” The gloves come off. Elena tells Bebe she should’ve gone to jail for dropping May-Ling off in the cold. She and the McCulloughs intend to fight for the child.
At this point, the only Richardson Mia tolerates is Izzy (Megan Stott), who acts as Mia’s art apprentice. Izzy feels a freedom around Mia that she doesn’t at home, where her sexuality has finally reached Elena’s consciousness. “Being gay is a very rare thing,” Elena says, clinging to her last bit of denial. Elena cuts out an article about Lillith Fair and places it on Izzy’s bed, saying “she knows” even though she can’t say the words. Izzy comes to Bill (Joshua Jackson) with this development, as she’s confided in him before. “This doesn’t change how your mother feels about you,” Bill tells Izzy. “No, it cements it,” Izzy fires back. She knows there’s no way she and her mother will see eye to eye, even if she tries.
In the teen drama department, we have a love triangle afoot. Moody (Gavin Lewis) wants to woo Pearl (Lexi Underwood). Yet, Pearl has her eyes fully set on Trip (Jordan Elsass), his older brother. Trip takes Moody to a Halloween party and gives him terrible girl advice (treat her poorly and she’ll come to you). Needless to say, Pearl doesn’t come closer to liking Moody after this. Instead, Pearl volunteers herself to be Trip’s math tutor, after discovering he needs help. They don’t do much tutoring when alone though. Pearl kisses Trip. One thing leads to another and the two of them wind up having sex, or at least trying to. Trip can’t achieve an erection, feeling bad that he’s stealing his brother’s crush.
The big Elena vs. Mia showdown finally happens toward the end of this episode. Elena wants to talk, and she talks. In fact, she calls Mia a bad mother, telling her moving Pearl around and sleeping in her car are the marks of her delinquency. Mia fires back, saying essentially the thesis of the better version of the show. “You didn’t make good choices, you had good choices, options that being rich, white and entitled gave you.” Ever tone deaf, Elena chimes in, saying, “That’s the difference between you and me, I would never make this about race.” Time for Mia to come in for the kill. “Elena, you made this about race when you stood on the street and begged me to be your maid.”
This confrontation feels appropriately epic, as two A-list actresses battle to win the scene. Any bit of frustration Mia has swallowed up to this point spews out of her with such conviction. Kerry sells every word of dialogue, making them feel like bombs against the Richardson opposition. Meanwhile, Reese properly conveys Elena’s self-righteousness. She believes that she’s a better mother, that she’s made better choices and that she has never made anything about race. An unstoppable force meets an unmovable object, but both are fantastic actresses.
The fallout comes as expected. All the Richardson kids compete for who is most saddened. Pearl doesn’t just miss the Richardson family. She also tells Mia she sides with Linda in the great Linda vs. Bebe debacle. After their argument, Pearl runs to the Richardson family, to make sure she’s welcome in their house. Mia chases after her, but to no avail. Thus, she turns to the one thing she feels she has control over, art. After crying at old pregnancy photos of herself, she cuts a large photo of what appears to be Elena. Then she takes these strips and sets them on fire. Portrait of a Lady on Fire, indeed.
Linda finally musters the courage to step outside with Mirabelle, only to be accosted by reporters. If Bebe and Mia can’t amass more money than Elena and Linda, they’ll go for sympathy through the press. Future episodes promise a legal bloodbath over the custody of Mirabelle/May-Ling. Still, the episode worked best when it let its two lead actresses duke it out. The custody battle is, at best, perfunctory or a distraction. If the drama isn’t good enough, remove the guise of plot. Give your actresses an arena to do proper battle.
- “I know she’s the mother, because I’m a mother,” Linda says about Bebe. Speaking as an adopted child, the topic is rather tricky because the mother who gives birth to you is not the mother that raises you. It’s nice to hear Linda vocalize the duality somewhat, even if its not given much credence. Though making this custody battle the centerpiece of the show feels like the wrong move. If the show wants to examine how race and class are the great dividers between people, I’m not sure Bebe getting Mae-Ling/Mirabelle would be the triumph it wants to be.
- Mia dreams of Linda taking Pearl away from her. It appears her stake in Bebe’s trial has more to do with her past than her sense of social justice. Did Pearl nearly get taken away from Mia?
- It appears Mia has stolen a good number of things from Elena’s house and also planted a ring on Izzy’s nightstand. Izzy recognizes this toward the end of the episode and regards it as a nice gesture. However, the intentions behind Mia’s stealing and the significance of the ring are lost on me. Perhaps I missed something, but it’s still bothering me. Anyone have the answer?
- This week’s 90s reference of choice has to be Trip’s question to Moody – Carmen Electra or Jennie McCarthy?
Best Line Reading
We are very happy Rosemarie DeWitt gets more to do, even if Linda’s storyline is less than perfect. During her opening scene, Elena attempts to relate to Linda, which provokes a biting response. “Elena, you have four healthy children, that came to you easily, that no one can take away from you. So don’t tell me you know how I feel,” retorts Linda. Her motivation is very clear. She adopted a baby and wants to continue being her mother. There’s no room for coded niceties with Elena. Linda cuts the shit: Elena can’t relate to her.
Bebe and Linda may be fighting, but the real heavyweight fight is Kerry versus Reese. As we’ve said before, Reese doesn’t get enough credit for the shading she does to Elena’s obtuse nature. Yet, Kerry wins the war. She starts the episode overly confident, thinking she has Elena in the palm of her hand. When Elena fights back, Mia gets taken aback, but doesn’t let is shake her. She demolishes Elena, in her own kitchen no less. Still, that doesn’t mean Mia has her home life under control. Kerry sells Mia’s anguish as she calls after Pearl at the end of the episode, “Get in the car.” Every scene, Kerry makes a compelling case for why “Little Fires Everywhere” should be all about her.