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Elena Richardson’s ferocious sense of control is about to go up in flames, along with her mansion, and it won’t be pretty. (Viewers know from the first moments of the show that her house will burn down, but they don’t know who did it.)

Reece Witherspoon plays the tightly wound Elena with nuance and, at the end of the series, shocking anger, in this riveting though disturbing limited series adaptation of the bestseller book Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng.

Elena is a picture-perfect mother of four and lawyer’s wife in the idyllic suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio. She works part-time at the local newspaper—her dreams of a big-city career were waylaid by the surprise appearance of her fourth, unwanted child. She also manages a family rental property, which is how she meets Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), a nomadic artist and photographer, and Mia’s teenage daughter, Pearl (Lexi Underwood). From the outset, the two mothers rub each other the wrong way, though each is intrigued by the choices of the other. Elena is all about perfection—or the illusion of it—with her color-coded family calendar and her barely concealed sky-high expectations of her four children. Mia, on the other hand, is close to living out of her car and seems fine with taking a waitressing job at a Chinese restaurant to pay the bills while she works at her photographic art.

Yet Mia isn’t relaxed, though her standards are. She has secrets and works hard to conceal them, a fact that makes her just as uptight as Elena.

Further upping the stakes is the fact that Pearl is drawn to Elena’s traditional mothering, and Elena’s youngest, Izzy (Megan Stott), is drawn to Mia’s open disdain for anything traditional.

Kerry Washington is stunning as Mia. You find yourself holding your breath, wondering what she will say or do next. Interestingly, neither of the leads is particularly likeable, yet both are so compelling they mesmerized me nonetheless.

In one scene, the two let down their massive walls for just a brief interlude, to share glasses of wine and talk about their daughters. While Mia’s relationship with Pearl is mostly strong and loving (except for the secrets between them), Elena and Izzy (Megan Stott) can barely be in the same room together. It was Izzy’s birth that derailed Elena’s journalism career, and though that is not her fault, she has become a difficult teen, fighting tooth and nail the prescribed roles and behaviors set out for her by her perfect, preppy mother. In this scene where the two mothers briefly connect, Elena is wistful and maybe even regretful, musing aloud how she misses Izzy as a little girl who needed her. The scene made me cry, and I marveled at Witherspoon’s ability to stir so much emotion for such an unlikeable character.

An adoption plot further stirred—or even agitated—me. Mia befriends an undocumented Chinese coworker at the restaurant where Mia works nights. Bebe (Huang Lu) is looking for the baby she left outside a firehouse while distressed with postpartum depression. As an adoptee and an adoptive mother myself, it was hard to watch what happens next. In fact, I have so far resisted reading the book, although it may be next on my TBR stack. Friends who have read the book say it is more layered and humane and less sexually explicit than the series. Fair warning: The series earns its TV-MA rating and is not suitable for young teens. Showrunners threw in some additives, such as a heavy race storyline absent from the book. The creatives at the helm also made two main characters LGBTQ who were straight in the book. There is no nudity but several sexual scenes and frequent cursing. 

For me, the main value of the series was in its exploration of motherhood and parenting teens. So often, parents of teens implicitly or explicitly demand that their children conform to their own ideas of who they think they should be, not who God made them to be. After watching the torching of these families, literally and metaphorically, I resolved anew to meet my children in love and acceptance. I prayed again to accept them as they are, not as I sometimes think they should be. I relinquished control again to God’s loving, omnipotent care for them. Really, Mia, Elena, and Bebe (plus another (spoiler) mother in the mix) are all cautionary tales of how not to parent your children. They all made me want to be better, do better, and rely on God for my strength. 

Ultimately, this series hits home the truth that striving hard after achievement, privilege, and living life on one’s own selfish terms like these characters will only end in emptiness, if not little (and big) fires everywhere. (Hulu)

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