This interview includes spoilers for Wednesday’s season finale of “Little Fires Everywhere.”
The Hulu mini-series “Little Fires Everywhere” reached its blazing conclusion on Wednesday, with the Richardson children setting the family home aflame after their mother, Elena, evicted the Warrens and practically disowned her own daughter Izzy.
But arriving at that climax, which diverges significantly from the one in the best-selling Celeste Ng novel that inspired the series, took plenty of hard thought and emotional conversation in the writers’ room.
The book approaches race sideways, with most of its politics rooted in class struggle, predation and privilege. This changed when Kerry Washington was cast in the role of Mia Warren (joining Reese Witherspoon, already installed in the role of Elena). So before starting work on reconfiguring the story, the showrunner, Liz Tigelaar, assigned her writers to read another book, Robin DiAngelo’s “White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism.”
Among other things, DiAngelo’s book discusses interlocking forces of oppression — “the cages we’re in, and our inability to see the bars of the cage.” Tigelaar found that image to be visually resonant within the context of Ng’s story, including Mia’s photo-sculptural art pieces, especially the last of them, a white flour-covered representation of Shaker Heights, Ohio, that uses a literal bird cage to communicate how she sees Elena and the Richardson home.
On the last day in the room, the writers debated what should happen when Elena sees Mia’s piece. “What if we make it a comment on race and class?” Tigelaar asked her diverse group of writers. Attica Locke, one of the writers, noted that “The fact that you can separate race and class from motherhood is a privilege.” There was talk about having Witherspoon’s Elena dismantle the bird cage as an act of liberation, but another writer, Shannon Houston, objected: “I really don’t like a story that ends with a white woman destroying a black woman’s art.”
Tigelaar said “it was a truth that’s hard to hear, and it really changed how we viewed the ending.”
During a phone interview, she discussed why the writers diverged from the book at key moments (the ending, the abortion story line) and how an act of arson freed the characters from themselves. Here are edited excerpts from the conversation.
In the book, readers learn right away that Izzy set the “little fires everywhere” that burned down the Richardson house. But in the show, Izzy intends to start the fire but it’s her siblings who actually ignite it. Why did you make that change?
Celeste Ng’s book is so beautifully nuanced, and it was a real challenge to figure out how to bring to life the interior thoughts, the prose, the back stories. I felt like the ending was a place where we could go even deeper into the layers and the complexity. While we certainly didn’t want to rule out the possibility that it could be Izzy, we had an opportunity to create this mystery — that it could have been anybody. At first, I started kicking around the idea that it could be Elena, because that would be taking a character to the furthest point. But we wondered if that would be believable. So then I kicked around different ideas about the siblings: Could it be Lexie? Could it be Moody? Could it be Trip? And then I thought, “What if it didn’t have to be one person? What if it was all three?”
So instead of one person realizing her blind spots, now the rest of the family members realize theirs, too.
When I suggested this idea, it made me so emotional — I dug my fingernails into my fingertips. Arson is a big deal. Even if someone wants to start over, most people would find a different way, which is why in the book it makes so much more sense that a misguided teenager does it. So for all of them to do it, it becomes a pack mentality, to finish what Izzy started. A bunch of teenagers with the right feelings in their hearts get caught up in this over-the-top, crazy thing. And I loved that for so many different reasons. It was an opportunity to give them even bigger, more sweeping arcs. I loved what it said about the idea that we don’t have to become our parents. I loved that Izzy, in her misguided way, was trying to tell them something all season, and in this moment, they’re finally able to hear it and to see themselves through her eyes. I loved that the rest of the siblings were really sending up this kind of smoke signal to Izzy, that if she came back to their scorched earth, things would be different.
At the same time, Elena takes ownership of it. When the cops ask, “Who started the fire?” she says, “I did.” No, she didn’t get the gasoline, and no, she didn’t light the matches. But is she deeply responsible on some level? She pushed over the first domino that led to everything collapsing. To me, that’s the more realistic version of Elena starting the fire. We talked a lot about wanting hope in the ending. In the pilot, we set up the house on a grassy hill that looks like the epitome of the American dream — family, stability, success — and then we explore the house and all its trappings as a cage. We think of Elena as the house. What we start to see is that she’s in this cage, too. If her children do away with this cage, it actually means that she’s free.
So Mia is in a constant process of burning down her cages, because she’s starting over every time she moves.
Exactly. And we get to layer all of these pieces in with how Mia burns her art. It’s not the thing that’s of value, it’s the picture of the thing. That’s the art. So everything she leaves behind doesn’t matter. Elena lives in a house with heavy things — everything is so rooted. It takes her seeing Mia’s life to wonder, “What if you weren’t rooted?” I mean, what do all these things matter if you don’t have the people you love most? What’s the good of creating a home if your children are not happy inside of it?
One of the issues in the finale is Lexie’s abortion. Elena tries to weaponize the right to choose in her fight against Bebe, but she’s so judgmental when she thinks it was Pearl who had the abortion. Yet Elena wanted an abortion when she became pregnant with Izzy.
Everybody wants people to make the same choices they made, because it validates them. When someone does something you’re unable to do, sometimes you double down on the judgment because seeing that other way becomes unbearable. So Elena’s dismissal of Pearl comes from that, from wanting to paint Mia as the “bad mom.”
One thing we wanted to explore with this story is the idea of how we view abortion — even if we believe in choice, we sometimes still judge the circumstances in which you make the choice. Elena’s mom has that mentality: “We believe people should have choice, but we wouldn’t get an abortion.” If you have money and resources, why would you not want to have another baby? So it’s this idea that not wanting another baby can be a reason. Is it OK if I’m content with the family that I have? Is it OK if I don’t want more?
Lexie knew her choice the minute she knew she was pregnant, and she didn’t pull back from that choice. And it was important when she admits to Elena that she’s the screw-up in the family — when she goes through the laundry list of her sins — that it didn’t sound like having an abortion was one of the things she did wrong. What Lexie did wrong was writing Pearl’s name down at the clinic. What she did wrong was appropriate Pearl’s hardship story as her own.
This story takes place in the 1990s, when it would have been much easier for Lexie to get an abortion in Ohio than it is now. Did the state’s various restrictions to access affect your decision whether or not to shoot there?
We always knew we were shooting the show in L.A., but we did debate whether we should try to shoot exteriors in Ohio. It made more sense for the budget, production schedules, and everything, to shoot everything in L.A. But I was glad that we weren’t shooting that story line in a state that wouldn’t allow that story line to occur. It’s very sobering to look at that now and see how much we’ve regressed.
In the show itself, as well as the online discussion, motherhood is on trial. Elena insists she’s a good mother and that Mia and Bebe are bad mothers, but she doesn’t see the whole picture. For example, both Elena and Bebe experience postpartum depression and run away from their responsibilities, but one of them has a safety net.
We loved showing those parallels. When we were prepping to film the courtroom scene where Mia takes the stand, Kerry really wanted to add a line where she said, “They can both be good mothers.” We don’t have to paint one as a bad mother. It’s like Attica Locke’s line: “You didn’t make good choices. You had good choices.” They’re thematic lines that really resonated with us. Elena’s lowest point is different than Bebe’s lowest point because Elena can walk away knowing that her husband is there, her best friend will come to help, her children will be safe, and nothing will happen to her. There will be no consequences. For Bebe, the stakes are having a child or not having a child. There is so much inequity in that.
Fatherhood isn’t debated to this extent, even when it’s a plot point.
If a little girl shows up to school with her hair in braids and it looks a mess, if her mom did it, it would be like, “What’s wrong with that mother?” But if her dad did it, it would be like: “That’s cute. He tried.” You want to be like: “Hey, we’re all trying. We’re all just trying to do our best.” That’s what I love about these characters. They fiercely love their children. They want what’s best for their children. They’re just blind sometimes, as we all are, to the inadvertent damage they might be causing.