“Little Fires Everywhere” is Disappointing

This is a statue of a child sitting with their knees to their chest and their hands wrapped around their calves in sadness. The image seems to have been taken at night. It represents Pearl and Mia's victimization in "Little Fires Everywhere".
K. Mitch Hodge

The characters feel rushed and immediately streamlined in their respective roles with little nuance

Every story has the harsh reality of a situation which is at odds with a perspective coloured by bias and positive self-image. As a result, some people are unable to conceive of a reality where they are toxic, where they are the problem within their relationships and where they are causing harm. Considering this, it’s very difficult to align sympathies with a character that is neither introspective or a “good victim” especially when they have been wronged. Since, in every case of injustice, a victim’s characterization and reputation directly impacts how well their pain is received by the public; whether others believe that they are entitled to their pain and trauma and if people care. In Little Fires Everywhere, the victims are very unlikable people and it takes a lot to understand them, especially when the deciding party is bigoted. Bebe Chow (Lu Huang), a Chinese immigrant and mother who abandons her child, was a horrible victim and so was Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), a disapproving black woman who supported her.

Last year, Christine Blasey Ford, a college professor and research psychologist at Stanford University School of Medicine, accused the then supreme court nominee Judge Brett Kavanaugh of sexual misconduct in their college years. Many decided that she was the perfect victim (if there is ever such a thing), in that she is a white woman, well-educated, and seemingly “feminine” and “delicate” enough in mannerism that was supposed to be enough to persuade people to listen to her story about a terrible incident that occurred between her and Kavanaugh. Although she was asked and tested many time on the events that happened, she was firm in her recollection and repeated the same story many times, even during a televised hearing. The case was, it seems, loosely investigated by the FBI and even though other women spoke up about similar incidents with Kavanuagh—some with worse accounts—Kavanaugh was still sworn in as an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court with the support of President Trump (a person with his own fraught history), into a position that is permanent with the immense power to shape the future of other women.

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Still, Ford’s story almost parallels the egregious injustice to Anita Hill an American attorney and legal adviser to Clarence Thomas, who in 1991 was also in the process of getting confirmed as a Supreme Court Judge before news of sexual misconduct surfaced. Like Ford, Hill is well educated, “feminine” and had a case that should have been considered concrete, but Hill is a black woman. So she faced much harsher scrutiny and was essentially attacked for speaking up. If Hill and Ford weren’t respected and if no one was willing to listen to them, what chance did Bebe Chow have in Ohio in the 1990s? Given this history, nothing about the events that happen in Little Fires Everywhere is surprising and it’s sad.

Based on a 2017 novel by Celeste Ng, Little Fires Everywhere is a story about how a white family in Shaker Heights Ohio is affected by the introduction of Mia Warren, a single black woman and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) into their largely white community. But it’s really a story about who has the right to be a victim and who is allowed to make mistakes and owed a second chance.

Everything about the show feels heavy and loaded. In truth, Mia is a very aggressive person, representing all the stereotypes dawned onto black woman. She is devoid of sexuality, but also hyper sexualized; she is financially unstable, a single mother, angry, intensely anxious, and sadly for her, a nonconformist in a town with rigid expectations of its people. Her daughter Pearl on the other-hand is annoyingly naive and devastatingly trusting, a very typical teenager. When Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon), a reporter and house manager of a rental property, sees Mia and Pearl for the first time, she reports them to police then later, out of guilt and because of a saviour complex, rents her house to them.

Throughout, the micro-aggression in the show is glaring for almost every minority but especially for Bebe, and Mia. Coupled with a lot of silenced tension within the community, there’s the Richardson’s and their friends, trying to one-up each other on who can be the most charitable. Elena offers to hire Mia as a maid to “help her” but it turns out her friend Linda McCullough (Rosemarie DeWitt) is adopting Bebe’s daughter to check off the box of becoming a mother despite interfering with Bebe’s ability to be one too.

Little Fires Everywhere is one show that is very divisive and unappealing but also monstrously memorable. It tramples its way into your consideration with charged themes and outrage, steady teases of suspense with intense emotional moments meant to shock and jar you. But in the end, when you take a second to really examine the events that took place, it’s a very unsophisticated story with a whole lot of whitewashing, or at least a lot of room for improvement (depending on who’s watching). It’s definitely not for everyone.

For instance, Mia is extremely harsh with Pearl and prone to love bombing her, only to neglect her when it suits her and yet she never gives Pearl or anyone the opportunity to criticize her or question her decisions out of a need to “protect” Pearl. Elena is racist, her husband is a coward and complicit in this racism and as a result their children are benevolent racists or at least coloured with extremely harmful and negative biases against black people, but also, at random, they has good intentions. This dichotomy, although humanizing feels so disingenuous to their actual impact because despite their intentions, both Mia and Elena are horrible people (a fact that almost escapes the producers of the show). This is true for nearly every character in the show which can lead to narrative angst since it seems, the show supplements true character development with toxicity and hysterics to distract from the very superficial look at their maturity and their stories.

In Little Fires Everywhere, the characters feel rushed and immediately streamlined in their respective roles with little nuance: Elena is automatically the villain and Mia the victim which immediately colours how the audience will receive each character in every scenario. As the antagonist early on, even when Elena is well-meaning or right in certain instances, opposed to the very violent force of Mia, her racist behaviour is written as if it’s a given. It means, throughout the show, it feels uncomfortable to be in align with her since she’s meant to represent all the terrible traits of all the Karen’s in the world. Likewise, Mia is right even when she’s wrong simply because she’s a black woman. There is no space for viewers to examine her parenting and decisions beyond a few moments when Pearl admonishes her. So, even when she is clearly destructive, the screen writers draw on the audience to fill in the lapse in character lines to afford a greater meaning to her actions and absolve her of accountability. Even Bebe is faintly reviewed. This narrows the characters to stereotypical social scripts and slowly convinces people to associate minorities with negative characteristics and with the misinformed understanding that minorities will use their race to absolve them of evaluation.

Little Fires Everywhere is glib because it’s supposed to address the complexities of these characters and their biases yet it fails horribly in achieving its goal. It feels like there is never enough attention given to creating a rattling psychological narrative meant to analyze their threatening nature (think My Brilliant Friend), or most importantly, of their racism. Yes racism is bad and terrible but can you show why? Can you show how sly and subtle it can be? Can you help viewers to understand how damaging it really is or really feel its effects? Instead in Little Fires Everywhere, every reaction is predetermined and contrived, so it doesn’t leave room to really reflect on the problems with the show or to build a natural kinship with the characters. In the show, every event is swiftly followed by a terrible violation with no moment of pause. So, the whole thing feels excessive and ultimately, the story falls flat which is primarily because the entire story is centered on the white perspective with little context to the concerns of the minorities in the story and so some people will view Mia’s outrage as race baiting and that is a problem. This is one drama that asks its viewers to take a hard line, either you like it or you don’t. It’s not a terrible show but it feels like it’s missing something substantial and honestly, it’s quite anti-climactic. There’s nothing special about it. It says everything that has already been said before.

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