The Streaming TV Experience: “Little Fires Everywhere”
It’s difficult upsetting times in 2020, with an isolating lockdown mentality being played out and a very important Black Lives Matter movement jumping to the forefront of the news cycle. I wish I was out there protesting, with a mask on and a sign held high, but I find myself stationed solidly and safely in my familial home with my elderly parents in the town and neighbourhood (Canadian spelling) that I grew up in. And although it is not the same, it does look somewhat similar to the idyllic suburb outside of Cleveland where “Little Fires Everywhere” (available for streaming on Hulu in the States, and on Amazon Prime in Canada) burns bright. My hometown, London, Ontario, Canada has a similar feel, where front yard appearances and gardening plans are important but multi-cultural ties are (somewhat) embraced.
Not to worry, I will talk about Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere” eventually, but I feel the need to address a few things before I get to that fascinating television series that I just finished streaming over the weekend. As #BlackLivesMatter protests raise their fists to the sky demanding change all across the world, Canada finds that it is not without its own problems when it comes to discrimination, just check out my piece on TVO’s documentary, “The Fruit Machine“. Canadian’s like to embrace the idea that as a country, we are a forward-thinking progressive society and accepting of others, and always have been. Universal health care aside, there is a whole lot of darkness in Canada’s history books, particularly in terms of systematic racism, LGBTQ+ discrimination, and indigenous people prejudice. Encompassed in that wide framework, two arenas that I am personally and intrinsically connected to are my homosexuality and my Indigenous First Nation Status as a member of the Mohawk.
Within this country’s history, the government of Canada has systematically destroyed lives at the hands of their own government and their hate-filled policies. These state-sanctioned acts play out still within the police force, the RCMP, and the Armed Forces, where much more than just inequality, but brutal racism, prejudice, and homophobia live and breath just as strong as many places around the world, costing thousands of Canadians their sense of self, their pride, their dignity, and sometimes their lives. In terms of the indigenous people of Canada, the RCMP claim their intention is “to protect the rights of Aboriginal people” but more and more it is clear that they were created not to protect, but to control that population. Just recently, it was reported that a prominent First Nations chief, Chief Allan Adam of the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation, and his wife were assaulted by an RCMP officer over an expired license plate. Similar to the continued violence against POC at the hands of the police in the United States, video footage of the assault has come to light finally after months of denials and refusals. “I could feel that I was going unconscious and all I can remember is the blood gushing out of my mouth,” says Adam (courtesy of The Guardian). The video (click here to watch it) shows the uncalled-for assault, along with Freda Courtorelle, Adam’s wife, and many bystanders pleading with the officers to put a stop to the violence.
Naturally, because we are getting used to this kind of restructuring, the RCMP stated that Adam was resisting arrest and that the two officers’ actions were “reasonable“, but the video tells a different story. “We need to know what happened here. We deserve answers,” stated Assembly of First Nations Alberta chief, Marlene Poitras. Footage of the assault was just released by the RCMP, and it doesn’t look good. The Indigenous communities across Canada are notably and rightly outraged, demanding legal action against the RCMP and its officers, particularly after the previous deadly assault by the RCMP of Chantel Moore, a 26-year-old Indigenous woman, who was gunned down by an Edmundston Police Force officer during a wellness check-in on June 4th. Enough is enough, and enough was a long time ago, to be frank.
It’s the same bitter flavors that stem from the same systematic racism stew that are brewing around the globe, and action and reform are being demanded. London, Ontario gives off the vibe that we are distant and removed from the stance and the protest, but in reality, it doesn’t feel all that far from the insular little town where Celeste Ng’s 2017 bestselling book (Ng also serves as producer and co-writer) “Little Fires Everywhere”, takes place. Systematic racism is a clever deceitful rat, that hides just under the surface and slyly peeks its nose out in micro-aggressions that do their damage before vanishing into the thin air, with a “who me?” kinda look from the perpetrator. Produced by Ng, alongside its star, Reese Witherspoon (HBO’s “Big Little Lies”), the compelling series, as adapted for television by Liz Tigelaar and directed by Lynn Shelton (4 episodes), Nzingha Stewart (2 episodes, and Michael Weaver (2 episodes), digs into the complex structure of white privilege and unpacks just how deceptively clever it can be when hidden beneath the pretty veneer of rich white Liberalism. Witherspoon delivers the subtleties with an ease that is deadly disturbing, finding chipper control in her archetypical wealth and status, and without Kerry Washington’s epic turn as Mia, she might have lived her privileged life believing in her “I don’t see color” blind attitude. As the sharply defined queen bee of the town, Witherspoon’s character finds a disturbing obliviousness in her sanitized liberal-minded agenda and wide-eyed astonishment when the curtain is pulled down exposing her racism as clear as can be for her own eyes to see. It’s a well-crafted construct, thanks to Ng and Tigelaar, that slips in the deceitful snaps of white privilege almost as cleverly as they are hand-delivered by the expert cast and crew.
The flames begin to crackle with the slack-jawed Elana Richardson, played impressively by Witherspoon, standing silently watching her majestic mansion go up in flames. It’s an awe-inspiring image to take in, as three-quarters of her high-school-aged children sit huddled in a car staring and studying the scene. They watch intensely as their father, Bill, played magnificently by Joshua Jackson (Broadway’s Children of a Lesser God), talks with the fireman, and we all wonder, who is responsible? And how did all these “Little Fires Everywhere” get ignited? It’s clear it was intentionally set, and it’s also clear that the fire is an attack on Elana Richardson. She is obviously to blame for all this, and the intended victim, but the ‘whys’ and the ‘hows’ are left floating in the air like ash floating in the smoke-filled air from an out-of-control fire.
The show jumps back to where the unraveling first sparked up, in August of 1997. Elena appears to have the suburban dream all stacked up in accordance with what is right in her world. Her kids file in with an authentic ease and a sly discomfort. Popular senior student Lexie, played to clever perfection by Jade Pettyjohn, looks and acts like a pint-size carbon copy of her mother. High school junior Trip, slyly portrayed by Jordan Elsass, has all the advantages his privilege holds dear. He’s handsome, athletic, and casually charming, but a bit of a self-important dick to the world, and his younger brother Moody, well crafted by Gavin Lewis, who has little of those obvious rich entitled white man perks. But he has a poetry and fragility that is endearing, maybe not to his fellow classmates, but for the viewer, he’s the one we feel most engaged with and protective of. Then there’s the black sheep, Izzy, sharply portrayed by Megan Stott, whose sole purpose seems to be to get under her mother’s skin and to set alarm bells off in our head. The lack of tenderness between Izzy and her own family is uncomfortable to watch, and it’s no better for her at school, where she is bullied for a transgression that remains unknown to us for most of the early episodes. But we know it’s damaging and daunting, and will never fit nicely into Elana’s crisp well-designed world. And the more we know about Elana, the more we feel for and understand the difficult path Izzy has before her.
But that’s just the set-up and a somewhat obvious one as we watch Elana make a call to her buddies in the police department when she sees a dirty luggage-filled car parked in a city parking lot. It doesn’t fit in with the clean and tidy town they live in, especially when she sees what appears to be a black woman and her daughter sleeping in the front seat. That just doesn’t work for Elana, and she needs this infraction to be investigated, not because they are black, she lies to herself, but because that kind of behavior is just not allowed in her town. This is Elena at her best worst; entitled, privileged, connected, and oblivious to her racist stance. This is the focal point of conflict, these two persons she calls the police on; the nomadic tense artist mother, Mia Warren, played with a wild dynamic edge by Kerry Washington (Broadway’s American Son) and her wildly appealing teenage daughter Pearl, achingly played by the beautiful Lexi Underwood. Her depiction of Pearl shapes the emotional core of “Little Fires Everywhere”, and without her intensity and clarity, this fire wouldn’t burn so bright, nor so deep.
Elana finds the two standing before her later that same day, looking to rent an apartment that Elena owns. You see the conflict and the undercurrent of judgment rolling around just behind her eyes. She doesn’t really want to rent her the flat, but she also has a deep need to be seen as the non-racist and non-judgemental savior, so in the end she does. She can’t help herself, not particularly out of care for another, but because it fits the ‘enlightened’ view of herself that she wants to present and be seen as. The reasonably wary Mia takes hold of the space against her better judgment, signing on to the apartment, mainly for her daughter’s education, and a server job to help with the bills as she works on her art. It’s clear from the beginning that the energy in Mia’s two-person family is both intensely strong and tetters on the edge of internal teenage revolt, but the real flame that is waiting to ignite lies somewhere in between the two families, and in the end, that chemical reaction will burn the whole motherf**ken house down.
The combustible kindling is clearly stacked. Moody falls hard for the pretty and smart Pearl, but it’s the handsome and iconic Trip that she secretly longs for. Lexie is a manipulator, but a desperate one, much like her mother, as she needs with all her heart and cracked soul to fulfill all the familial dreams by getting into Yale, but her privilege, as she sees it, doesn’t come saddled with anything to overcome. How will she get into Yale on that kind of privileged essay? But Pearl has some clearly defined obstacles, so thinks Lexie, that she should feel honored to share one with her. And what’s so wrong about borrowing one of Pearl’s, if it will help? Who’d really care, since everyone always says yes to Lexie, just so they can stay in her good graced circle. Pearl seems pleased to be invited into that clan, so why not. Izzy is drawn to mother Mia’s rebellious and nomadic creative life, which sits strongly as a complete rejection of all that her own mother holds dear. It’s a well-orchestrated rebellious slap in the face to Elana, particularly because, most importantly of all, Mia compulsively fascinates Elana, mainly because Mia doesn’t fall for Elana’s gold-tinged Liberalism. Mia sees the subjective judgment that itches at Elana just under the surface, that is one part elitism and privilege, but also a big slice of envy and a strong need to be seen as most wonderfully open-minded and “colorblind.” Naturally they are repulsed by one another, but obsessed and on guard. Elana can’t help her need to be ‘liked’, and Mia, wisely, will do almost anything to protect her daughter from Elana’s spirited micro-aggressive dream. This is the match that sets the action aflame, and it’s one of the most devastatingly well-designed aspects of this perfectly appointed upper-class home.
One aspect about the series that I did not know when I first watched it, was that in the book, Mia and Pearl’s race is not specified. The decision by the creatives to construct a sharp contrasting framework fits most exactingly into the rebellious times we find ourselves. The fuel has been there for centuries, just waiting for the catalyst to spark the fire that rages across the States and the world. Who could have known that the timing of these “Little Fires Everywhere” would click in the way that it does and that the much-needed conversation of white privilege that smacks around Elena’s head would be so hotly required at this moment in time? And the casting of such powerful actors for the roles of Mia and Pearl adds a powerfully fraught jolt to the polarity of the construct. It illuminates the elitist prejudice and self-righteous rich blindness of the community they live in. It’s inside every micro-aggression that comes forward, making a lot of it uncomfortable to watch at times, but it is in that discomfort and conflict where the art and the brilliance lies. The dialogue drips in micro-aggressions, forcing Elana and her family’s white privilege to be seen and understood in a way that shivers down our collective spine in tight discomfort.
Washington and Witherspoon find the itchy uncomfortable core at the heart of this combustible debate and unearthing. It takes a bit of time to dig into the true art of the piece, as the authenticity sometimes tetters on some heavy-handed clunky dialogue. But the tense anxiety of their intolerance with one another finds its way in eventually, turning the tables on the casual watcher, forcing one to transition into a hypnotized compulsive binger for the last few episodes. The explosions are not surprising, but still burn the skin of all those that stand too close, and familial ruptures find and leave their painful mark. The final proverbial straw comes when Elena and Mia find their compulsive focus in an explosive parental rights case that involves an illegal immigrant, Bebe Chow, beautifully portrayed by Lu Huang, who had left her baby outdoors one night at a fire station’s door during a heart-breaking and tense postpartum depressive act of desperation. The opposition to each other and motives behind their conflict are dutifully played out, almost a bit too tidily, but the argument is clear, and the lines in the burnt sand are expertly drawn. In the tense showdown inside the courthouse, we can feel the heat between the two mothers, almost as sharply as when Elena’s attorney husband Bill forcibly tells his wife to sit down when he does not sink to her manipulative level, in the manner she thinks he should have.
“Little Fires Everywhere” finds its heat in the ideas of motherhood, beaten and dismantled by a tense drama that demands attention. The flames of the conflict lick and singe all that stand too close as it forcibly examines the white coat of flour the cakes the choices a mother makes and the painful secrets they hide. Control is applied and attempted, but the children won’t stay caged performing in a manner that makes a mother like Elana proud. Twigs that are dipped in the fiery myth of color-blindness, white privilege, abortion, and transracial adoption are tossed expertly into the pitiful home just waiting for the “Little Fires Everywhere” to ignite and explode outward. The two women in the center of that fire perform majestically, and bravely, pushing forth an agenda that is more timely than they could have imagined when they laid the groundwork. You’ll want to, like me, rewatch the first scene, and be amazed at the clever craftsmanship of the whole darn thing. It’s not as compelling from beginning to end, like “The Handmaid’s Tale” or “Dead to Me“, but those last three episodes will pull you in hard, and you’ll be unable to turn your head from watching those “Little Fires Everywhere” roar into something too powerful to put out.