Editor’s note: spoilers for the plot of the Hulu original series Little Fires Everywhere.
Hulu’s buzzy limited series Little Fires Everywhere is almost near the end of its eight-episode run, captivating viewers while we are self-quarantining. The 1990s period piece chronicles the intertwined fates of the picture-perfect Richardson family, led by Elena (Reese Witherspoon), and the alluring mother-daughter duo, Mia and Pearl Warren (Kerry Washington and Lexi Underwood) who upend their lives. As the network explains, the story explores “the weight of secrets, the nature of art and identity, the ferocious pull of motherhood and the danger in believing that following the rules can avert disaster.” The series is headed fast toward a boiling point in this week’s penultimate episode as its characters continue to unravel.
Though the series is a mostly faithful adaptation of the novel of the same name, the series adds a component that elevates the story beyond class strife: race. In the novel, Mia’s race is not explicitly stated. Fans of the novel have interpreted the character to be white or Asian, but not Black. Threading race into the story immediately raises the stakes, showing that, despite class privileges, race is the non-negotiable factor of oppression in a white supremacist world.
From the beginning, Elena, the matriarch of microaggressions, inserts willfully ignorant jabs into most conversations she has with Mia, culminating with her suggestion that Mia, a traveling artist and single mom, is not a good mother. Mia finally reads her for fifth, clapping back with the fact that Elena didn’t make good choices, she had good choices due to being “rich, white and entitled.” And while a similar scene could take place just solely on the basis of class, the show digs into how race and class not only intersect but compound oppression, and therefore cannot be interchangeable.
This point is best highlighted in the interactions between Pearl and the other principal Black character in the series other than her mom, Brian. The character, played by Stevonté Hart, is the boyfriend of Elena’s oldest daughter, Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn). A son of wealthy Princeton grads (who, in the novel are nicknamed ‘Cliff and Clair’ after the Huxtables) and regularly the only Black kid around, Brian is well-versed in the racism of the Richardsons and their school environment. Yet, when he tries to tip Pearl off to the microaggressions and racism, Pearl is not trying to hear it or bond with Brian over the shared experience of racism.
In their first interaction, Elena tells Brian and Pearl that she believes they should have “so much in common.” When Elena leaves, Brian jokes to Pearl, “No way…you must like rap and basketball too, huh?” Pearl just slightly grins and looks away, indicating she doesn’t want to be a part of that sort of banter. This continues for several instances throughout the series, which makes the viewer wonder if this is Pearl being oblivious to these situations due to her nomadic upbringing or if that she understands what’s going on but wants so much to be a part of this white, affluent world that she ignores it.
“She definitely understands it,” Underwood said to Shadow And Act, coming from her perspective for portraying Pearl. “I think it’s more of wanting to be a part of this world and wanting to be tight with the Richardsons and wanting Elena, Lexie and Tripp and everyone to like her. When Brian does make those comments, kind of like dissing the Richardsons, she kind of brushes it off like ‘Cool…whatever, but you’re not going to mess up my chances at getting close to this family’ because she’s never had that before. She’s never had the perfect dad, she’s never had the perfect best friend who’s popular and lends her clothes. And she’s also never had the perfect mom who will really truly give her all. She’s craving this life that she’s never had before, so when Brian tries to go against the grain, she’s not with it.”
Regardless, Pearl will eventually begin to realize–like Brian eventually realized–that she’ll never be a part of their world because she’s Black. When overhearing Pearl’s trouble with getting placed into an advanced math class, even though she’s qualified, Lexie takes this idea and uses this as the basis for her admissions essay for Yale. This infuriates Brian, who can’t believe that she would use the experience of a Black student as her own. Lexie doesn’t get why he cares so much as he doesn’t know Pearl like that, not realizing that there is a collective Black experience that Brian understands, which is why he goes out of his way to assist and take up for Pearl.
Worst of all, when Lexie gets an abortion, she also puts Pearl’s name down, to protect herself from Elena’s wrath because her friend works at the clinic. She blatantly appropriates a young Black woman’s experience and uses stereotypes to her advantage by making use of Pearl’s name as a would-be teen mother. Her white supremacy and misogynoir entitles her to appropriate and dismiss Pearl’s Black life as less valuable because Pearl is both a Black girl and (presumably) poor.
Though Lexie never tells Brian about using Pearl’s name for the abortion, the breaking point of their relationship comes when she says, “This is exactly what happens when they don’t go to college,” referring to Black fast-food workers after she believes her order to be wrong. It seems to be the culmination of a journey for him as well. Before Pearl came to Shaker Heights, it may not have been as apparent, but now it’s clear that he’s not different. He can be a part of a wealthy family, have the “perfect” girlfriend, be the “perfect” student-athlete, and work twice as hard to get half of what Elena’s sons have and still, in the end, they’ll always be Black.
On Pearl starting to reckon with reality, Underwood said, “By the end, or really by Episode 5, you really see a shift in Pearl where’s she’s coming to terms with Shaker Heights not being as perfect as she thought. It’s gut-wrenching and heartbreaking because she’s been idolizing them [the Richardsons]. She’s had this perception in her mind that they were perfect. It’s almost like if you had a person that you idolize and you think that they’re perfect and everything they do is perfect. [You get] a standard of how you should live your life and it shatters,” she said. “You have to go beneath the surface. When you think everything is perfect and this person is perfect, if you go beneath the surface, they’re just trying to stay afloat. When you go on the inside, we’re just all trying to figure out what’s happening.”
Little Fires Everywhere is currently streaming on Hulu. The series finale premieres next Wednesday.