“Little Fires Everywhere” has always been about motherhood. Elena (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia (Kerry Washington) have been fighting and testing their daughters’ allegiances since episode one. Episode three brings us more stories of motherhood. We learn more about Bebe Chow’s (Huang Lu) love for May-Ling, the daughter she left at a fire station. Also, Linda McCullough’s (Rosemarie DeWitt) difficult journey towards having a child finally takes center stage.
If the last episode’s main event was an uncomfortable Book Club (more like “Monologue” Club, right Elena?) at the Richardson home, this week’s climactic event was a war between Prom and an uncomfortable 1st birthday party for Linda’s daughter, Mirabelle. Before we jump to the “Chinese themed” birthday party (Elena can’t go through one scene without a racial faux pas), let’s shift to the kids. Prom gives both Elena and Mia opportunities to properly (or improperly) mother their daughters.
Izzy (Megan Stott) continues to get taunted with the new nickname Ellen (referring to DeGeneres). Unfortunately, the name doesn’t just stay at school. When Izzy offhandedly makes a Lillith Fair joke (calling it “Elena’s worst nightmare”), Trip (Jordan Elsass) calls her Ellen at the dinner table. Elena doesn’t get the reference, but everyone else knows the open secret. On the way to school, Elena tries her best to have a heart-to-heart with Izzy. Unfortunately, Elena’s story of padding her bra to avoid bullying doesn’t really resonate. Yet, one piece of advice sticks with Izzy. You don’t need a man to go to prom with. Instead, you can go with friends. Izzy approaches Pearl (Lexi Underwood), Moody (Gavin Lewis) and clearly gay Carl (Micah Nelson) about going to Prom as a group. Moody would rather watch “Before Sunrise” with Pearl, but they all agree to go.
Izzy isn’t the only Richardson child who gets a lot of screen time this episode. We finally get extended scenes with Elena’s eldest daughter, Lexi (Jade Pettyjohn), and her African American boyfriend, Brian (Stevonte Hart). In fact, Lexi reads her Yale college essay to Brian while she jerks him off in a car (very Tracey Flick of her). She writes about the plight of women through the lens of not getting into a higher-level math class, co-opting what happened to Pearl for her own benefit.
This plagiary all comes out once Brian joins a Richardson family dinner that Pearl also attends. “Oh, you’re going to love each other. I’m sure you have so much in common,” Elena says to them, kicking off a night of micro-aggressions. Pearl and Elena mention how Elena talked to Principal Peters (Austin Basis) to get Pearl into the correct math class. Brian demands that Lexi apologize to Pearl. Thus, Lexi takes Pearl to look at prom dresses. She half-heartedly tries to apologize to Pearl, right before buying her an incredibly expensive prom dress. No matter the intention, Lexi’s content to sweep her misdeeds under the rug with money and a wide, white smile. She really is her mother’s daughter.
Mia is none too happy with Lexi’s extravagant gift to Pearl. The two get into a great “everything-and-the-kitchen-sink’ type of an argument. Pearl asks why Mia won’t tell her who her father is. Mia accuses Pearl of being Lexi’s dress-up doll. Pearl ends the argument by asking Mia, “Why are you working in their house?” If we’re to believe Mia in the first episode, it’s just to keep an eye on Pearl. Yet, all told, it seems like Mia is doing little else than cataloging reasons to hate Elena. Granted, she’s found many already.
It’s the night of the Prom and Mirabelle McCullough’s vaguely racist first birthday. On the prom front, all of the usual prom drama rears its ugly head once everyone arrives. Struggling to prove her heterosexuality, Izzy moves Carl’s hands to her butt while dancing. Moody confronts her about this and gives her an adorable pep talk about being true to herself. Izzy doesn’t care, she storms off.
Don’t worry, there’s plenty more drama back at the baby’s birthday party. Elena is so excited to host this party for Linda, as Linda struggled to conceive for so long, while all the other ladies in their friend group had kids at the same time. Mia finds out that Linda didn’t have Mirabelle, but instead adopted her when she was left at a fire station. Mia puts the highly convenient pieces together and concludes that Mirabelle is May-Ling, Bebe Chow’s girl. Once Mia verifies that Mirabelle is, in fact, May-Ling (thanks to a birthmark on her head), she gives Bebe Elena’s address. Bebe arrives and makes a scene trying to get May-Ling back from the McCulloughs.
Up until this point, “Little Fires Everywhere” has been an imbalanced, but entertaining look at racial and class tensions in a 90s wealthy suburb. The handling of Bebe Chow and May-Ling’s storyline has been particularly clumsy. Huang Lu sells Bebe’s anguish over having to give up her daughter. Yet, taking this storyline to a place where she’s going to potentially “Fatal Attraction” stalk this family and child feels ham-fisted and cheap.
The title of the episode, “Seventy Cents,” refers to how society is more likely to help out a white person than a person of color. When Bebe wants to get food for her and her child, she’s denied a helping hand because she is seventy cents short. Meanwhile, when Izzy is seventy cents short of a bus ticket, the bus driver helps her out. “Little Fires Everywhere” should concentrate more on these everyday bits of prejudice, rather than turning its one Asian character into a “boogeyman” type character.
Izzy finally makes her way home, but not to her family. She shows up at Mia’s front door, officially choosing her over her mother. I’m really excited to see how Izzy and Mia’s relationship develops, especially now that Mia’s experiencing friction with Pearl.
- This is the first episode that properly questions who Pearl’s father is. Mia balks at revealing his identity, which makes me think he’ll be a late-season twist. Does anyone have a guess as to who it is? Could it be someone we’ve already met – Creepy Glance Bill Richardson, Frat-boy Mark McCullough, Principal Peters?
- Lexi trudges over many other racial boundaries when she insists that Pearl is mixed. She even refers to Mia later on as looking “like Denise from ‘The Cosby Show’.” Shows have dealt with tensions around colorism, with “Black-ish” doing an outstanding job last year. I worry that “Little Fires Everywhere” lacks the nuance to dramatize this properly. This speaks to yet another reason why focusing more on Warren’s perspective rather than the Richardson’s would’ve been a smarter choice.
- For all of the foibles between Izzy and Elena, it was genuinely nice to see Elena help Izzy do her makeup for prom. I’m glad these two get at least one good memory.
- We’ve finally got something for Rosemarie DeWitt to do! She’s taking this, admittedly strange, storyline and runs with it. We feel her love for Mirabelle, even if she can be blinded by her own privilege. Now that the gears are turning on her storyline, hopefully, she’ll get some more juicy scenes.
- Geoff Stults makes his first appearance as Mark, Linda’s douchebag husband and the one who saddled Mirabelle with her convoluted last name. Naturally, it only takes minutes for him to hit on Mia.
- Joshua Jackson continues to play Bill as both absent and shifty. What’s he hiding? What’s everyone hiding? What secrets lie underneath the little fires that are everywhere?
- She may not even be in this episode, but these ladies love to hate Elizabeth (Jaime Ray Newman). Apparently she “hates kids” and “doesn’t know how empty her life is.” Way harsh! I stan Elizabeth. She’s my runner up for MVP without even being on this episode.
- Will Moody ever watch “Before Sunrise?”
Best Line Reading
Kerry Washington continues to excel at the exact type of line delivery that makes “Little Fires Everywhere” dramatic, but not quite campy. The miniseries resembles an ABC/NBC dramedy, a la “Desperate Housewives” with stronger production values. Washington modulates her fight with Pearl just right. “You’re letting some rich, spoiled, white girl turn you into her dress-up doll,” Mia bellows at Pearl. “She doesn’t own you! You don’t belong to Lexi Richardson!” Washington lays Mia’s opinions and fears bare for Pearl to see, but still retains control of the scene.
It’s time to recognize Reese Witherspoon for her sharp characterization of Elena. On first glance, it appears she’s recycling some of Madeline’s quirks from “Big Little Lies.” Yet, there’s something crafty and more sinister behind Elena’s scheming, particularly when it comes to protecting Linda’s baby. Still, Witherspoon never makes her an outright monster. She tries, in her own way, to make strides with Izzy, even though she doesn’t have an open enough mind to meet her halfway. There’s a tragedy to Elena’s parenting. She’ll never be as good at it as she thinks she is.