A war between mothers in a squeaky clean American neighbourhood forms the basis of Amazon Prime Video’s latest mini-series. Headlined by Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington, Little Fires Everywhere follows the intertwined fates of Elena Richardson and Mia Warren, who exist on opposite ends of the socioeconomic ladder, and the tense and thrilling situations that make these eight episodes totally worth checking out – despite the slow burn narrative.
Adapted from the 2017 novel of the same name by Celeste Ng, and set in the late ‘90s, the story starts at the very end of the battle, with Elena standing outside her stately home mesmerised by the flames engulfing it. A fireman informs her that someone has intentionally done this – does she have any enemies? Were there any lives lost? These are questions we’re handed just as the show rewinds back four months, ready to unfold in a twist-filled, compelling narrative.
Witherspoon, whose recent TV exploits have been nothing if not glitzy (The Morning Show, Big Little Lies), is on top form as the entitled and uptight Elena – a powerful figure in the Shaker Heights community. But back at home she’s a mum-of-four struggling to connect and gain respect from her offspring. Youngest daughter Isabelle is her biggest detractor, whose own plot line involving bullying and an identity crisis provides some of the show’s most affecting moments. There’s also nostalgia for fans of ice-skating kids classic The Mighty Ducks, as Charlie Conway actor Joshua Jackson appears as Elena’s husband Bill.
Underprivileged single mum Mia arrives on the scene with her 15-year-old daughter Pearl, where she takes up residence in Elena’s house-for-rent. We learn that she’s a “mixed media artist” who also works as a waitress at the local Chinese restaurant. A walking enigma, Washington imbues Mia with a mysterious quality that captures the imagination of her new landlord. Their relationship soon expands when Mia agrees to cook and clean for the Richardson family, but there’s always an underlying secretiveness to her. Can she be trusted? This idea seeps into the show’s soundtrack, with The Velvet Underground’s ‘Femme Fatale’ softly playing in the background of one scene.
Elsewhere, the racial and personal divisions between Elena and Mia are exacerbated during a subplot involving the latter’s colleague at Lucky Chow, Bebe Chow. Adoption, poverty and inequality are all analysed intelligently – and the fact that superiority is often measured in wealth is never shied away from.
If there’s one major complaint to be made about the show, it’s that there’s no artistic identity to speak of. Three directors are in rotation – the late Lynn Shelton, Michael Weaver and Nzingha Stewart – but Little Fires Everywhere pales in comparison to other dramas which boost their weighty themes with some visual razzle-dazzle. Motherhood, race and art all come to the foreground, but the images on-screen can, at times, feel drab. Later, when the show attempts some foreboding flashbacks, they come out looking more like a student horror film. The opening credits sequence is merely used as a time-filler, despite these being something of a creative statement in many recent TV productions (Game Of Thrones, Westworld). This one just has random objects – apparently significant to the narrative – floating past covered in fire. Press the ‘skip’ button.
Overall, Ng’s original novel has enough twists to keep it afloat as a mini-series, but Witherspoon and Washington’s on-screen conflict can sometimes feel slightly damp. There are fireworks here, but the peripheral characters and their unravelling lives are the ones that are more likely to stay with you.
‘Little Fires Everywhere’ is now available to stream on Amazon Prime Video.