With all this intrigue, we were due for some answers. What better way to answer questions than with a bottle episode flashback? It was only a matter of time before “Little Fires Everywhere” sent us further into the past… the ’80s. You don’t hire AnnaSophia Robb just for one flashback to Paris. Not all of the answers were what we were expecting, exactly. However, our sole Reese-and-Kerry-less episode may have been one of the better ones of the season.
After meeting Mia’s parents’ last episode, we’re now transported to the early 80s while Mia (now played by Tiffany Boone) is still at home. She’s off to the “Big Apple of sin,” as her Mom remarks. Meanwhile, her trusted brother, Warren, prepares for a potential career in the NFL. “One of our kids can honor us with a successful career,” says Mia’s father, another dig. Luckily, Warren isn’t as pessimistic as their parents. He gives Mia some of the money he’s been saving so she can survive college.
Upon moving to New York, Mia meets two crucial figures. Paula Hawthorne (Anika Noni Rose) teaches, “Either put something new into the world or use what you have to show me what is terrifying, repulsive, or uncanny about you.” Mia impresses her early, earning an invitation to Paula’s show. On the way, we spot the infamous “mysterious man on the train who may or may not be Pearl’s Father” (Jessie Williams) eyeing Mia. He follows her off the train in a way that thoroughly reads as creepy and stalker-esque. Instead, he introduces himself as Joe Ryan he and his wife, Madeleine (Nicole Beharie) are kind people looking for a surrogate. No time to fully contemplate this offer, Mia has to make it to her teacher’s show.
Mia and Paula’s student-teacher relationship develops quickly. In no time they are doing bumps of cocaine and Mia is sleeping over in a “Stonewall” T-shirt. By the end of the ordeal, Mia knows she needs to stay in school. Unfortunately, Warren’s money can only extend her so far, and she needs $12,000 to cover the next year’s tuition. Feeling desperate, she agrees to the surrogacy.
Meanwhile in Shaker Heights, Elena (now played by AnnaSophia Robb) wakes up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed as pop music plays. She gives instructions to a babysitter on how to deal with her three bundles of joy – Tripp, Lexi, and Moody (aka Michael). After one day back on the job, she comes to a terrible realization. She’s pregnant again. Still, plans with Linda (Alona Tal) and Mark (Andy Favreau) stand. Linda catches on that Elena is pregnant again and is immediately depressed. She hasn’t told Elena and Bill (Matthew Barnes) about her recent miscarriage and deeply envies Elena’s incredible fertility.
Enough of Shaker Heights (we’ve spent five previous episodes there), let’s get back to New York. About to be inseminated for her surrogacy, Mia confesses she’s still a virgin. Months pass, and Warren visits. He’s surprised to see Mia pregnant, but she tells him how she’s using surrogacy to pay for college. He seems more concerned about her living situation at Paula’s home. Warren believes Paula has more in mind than just mentoring Mia. That turns out to be accurate, as Mia and Paula kiss in the darkroom. Thus begins their romantic relationship. You love to see it. (We’ll look past the student-teacher dynamic).
This isn’t the only questionable relationship going on this episode. It’s now 1983, and Elena cannot handle her new, more massive brood (now including Izzy). “Four is different than three,” she hisses to Bill, who was excited for his family only to get bigger. After a particularly hard day, Elena takes off once Bill gets home. At first, we think Elena is just going out for a drink alone. She’s not alone for long, though. She calls Jamie (Luke Bracey), who drives six hours to meet her. He’s just begun writing for The New York Times, which only further exacerbates Elena’s depression. She goes to a motel with Jamie but has a crisis of conscience before anything can happen. The next morning, sober and ashamed, she returns home, barely acknowledging where she was. “I needed a minute,” she tosses off when Bill and Linda express their worry.
Mia’s family asks her to take more than just a minute. We cut to Mia, visibly pregnant and dressed in black, preparing to attend Warren’s funeral. Mom disinvites her from the funeral, worried that questions about her unwed pregnancy will upstage Warren’s farewell. Overcome with emotion, Mia writes to the Ryans and claims a miscarriage, tells Paula she’s staying home with her parents for awhile, and takes off. After Pearl is born, she gives Paula a call, but learns Paula died of ovarian cancer. She had planned to tell Mia in person. As a parting gift, she left Mia the infamous pregnancy portrait, which she can use to sell for money at a later date.
- Elena’s gin-loving mother wants to give them a bigger house, but Elena doesn’t want to take her up on her money. There’s a great moment where Linda and Elena joke that they don’t want to end up like their martini-swilling mothers, content to just hang around the house. The scene between Elena and her mom comes at an uncomfortable moment, as Elena has been warring whether or not to terminate her pregnancy. Elena’s mother tells her that she didn’t expect Elena to work even this long, especially with three kids. Her fourth pregnancy is just a further extension of the life she decided for herself when she left Jamie in Paris.
- It was very strange watching “Little Fires Everywhere” without 90s references anywhere. They refrained from mentioning songs, TV shows, or other cultural touchstones to remind us which year we were continually, save for Ruby Amanfu’s cover of Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” toward the end.
- Speaking of timing, the episode structure made sense from a character perspective, but less in terms of chronology. We jump from 1981 Shaker Heights to 1983, so we can see how Elena handles four toddlers at once. Yet, when we switch back to Mia, it seems only eight months have passed. Once we’re done with Mia’s story, the final montage suggests Mia headed to Shaker Heights with Pearl once she was five or so. From the first episode, it seemed Mia and Pearl were new to Shaker Heights. Will we get more detail on how Mia and Pearl migrated from New York to Shaker Heights in the coming episodes?
Best Line Reading
Without Reese Witherspoon or Kerry Washington delivering broad, shady one-liners, it’s hard to pick the best line reading. Thus, we’re giving the prize to the slowed-down cover of “Bitch” that ends the episode. “Little Fires Everywhere” loves a dramatic montage comparing and contrasting Mia and Elena’s lives and options. Many times, this comes off almost parody-level self-serious. However, this episode was strong enough (and the song is perfect enough) that it achieves its intended gut-punch.
Mia’s story is so much more interesting than Elena’s domestic worries. It is set in New York in the 1980s, involves a lesbian student-teacher relationship and a transactional surrogacy plot. Yet, AnnaSophia Robb delivers the best performance of the bunch as the younger version of Elena. She manages to nail Reese Witherspoon’s fast-paced line readings, without feeling like comical mimicry. When dealing with her gin-soaked mother, she shows us where Elena’s “holier than thou” mentality originates from. She’s been the rock for her mother and the rock for her six-person family. If she can handle her responsibilities, she doesn’t understand why other people need help or assistance. She’s too consumed with her own life to have empathy towards any other person’s situation.