Fighting Fires

Kathleen Murdock

A friend of mine recently recommended Little Fires Everywhere, both the bestselling novel by Celeste Ng and its limited-series adaptation on Amazon Prime Video. Naturally, I spent a weekend becoming one with my couch as I binge-watched all eight episodes.

The show casts Reese Witherspoon (Elena) and Kerry Washington (Mia) as two very different mothers. Elena the suburban mother controls everything in her life—her husband may only make love to her on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Mia wanders the country making art, never staying anywhere too long (she may or may not be running from her past). Mia and her daughter are new to town, and Elena demonstrates her white saviour complex in the complicated ways she welcomes them in. The series tackles many thorny subjects—racism, white privilege, sexuality, misogyny, postpartum depression, abortion, and transracial adoption—but despite the abundance of themes, the show is somehow both busy and boring. Characters aren’t fleshed out enough, making many of their choices feel unrealistic or melodramatic. I found myself squinting at my television, desperately searching for someone to root for. The characters seem more like portraits than people, as—despite their flailing—no one moves. Not a single character develops or grows over the course of the series. I’ve heard that the novel’s conflict is understated, nuanced, and complex. In its shiny TV adaptation, the conflict is constant. Mid-series, it seems like the writers decided to crank certain characters right up to villain status, just in case we missed their earlier, more subtle wrongdoings. For some, Little Fires Everywhere may still be worth a watch to provoke discussion on racism and white privilege. But believable characters could have saved the plot from burning out.

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