By Meaghan Kirby
March 18, 2020 at 01:22 AM EDT

Little Fires Everywhere is full of layers. It’s about families and secrets and lies and the lengths people will go to protect their secrets. It’s also about how privilege and entitlement affect society. In episode 2, the series is still pulling back its outer layers. However, the events that lead to the devastating fire are falling into place.

The episode begins with a flashback to May 1983, as Mia has sex with an unknown man in the front seat of her Chevette. An infant Pearl cries and Mia kicks the man out the car and goes to dote on her.

In September 1997, the first day of school further demonstrates the differences between Elena and Mia: Elena does color-coordinated lunch bags and back to school photos, while Mia paints Pearl’s nails with homemade nail polish. Pearl loves her mom, but she’s drawn to the Richardsons’ seemingly-perfect, routined life. This, in turn, prompts Mia to accept the housekeeper role — a move that frustrates her daughter.

While Shaker Heights prides itself on being a manufactured beacon of opportunity for success, it’s not absent the economic and social imbalances that plague the rest of society — no matter how hard it pretends to be. Due to her many moves, Pearl’s a math level ahead of her class and, not wanting to repeat a full year of geometry, she requests to move up to algebra II. But her guidance counselor doesn’t believe she’s up to it — using thinly-veiled excuses, like his assumption she’s a commuter from Cleveland (because she’s black) — as to why she wouldn’t succeed in the class. He refuses to grant the change, but this is hardly over.

Meanwhile, Izzy’s facing a different set of obstacles at school as the ostracization she experienced over the summer has spiraled into full-blown bullying. Her classmates, including April, tease her about being gay, leaving photos of famous lesbians in her locker and making cruel comments within earshot. Feeling like the black sheep in both her family and now at school, Izzy doesn’t know where to turn, internalizing her increasingly-simmering anger.

It’s not just the first day of school for the kids, it’s Mia’s first day working for the Richardsons. Everything about the way Elena and Mia think and operate is polar-opposite; they just can’t get on the same page. This was clear before Mia accepted the position, but while neither trusts the other, they both have a stake in maintaining the facade — for now. It requires them to make concessions — Elena must abide by Mia’s schedule and for Pearl’s sake, Mia has to put up with the Richardsons and their friends’ oblivious privilege — but they come to an agreement.

Despite Bill’s insistence they get to the bottom of Mia’s missing reference, especially now that she’s working in their house too, Elena doesn’t know how to bring it up… until she unexpectedly shows up at the apartment and sees Mia smoking pot while working on an art piece. It’s yet another small but emblematic instance of their worlds clashing — for Mia, it opens up her creativity, but for a carbon copy of a suburban white woman in the ‘90s like Elena, it’s a sign of disorder and chaos. The confrontation gives Elena the push she needs to ask Mia about the reference, who chalks it up to a wrong number. Elena’s not the type to let things go, so Mia attempts to rectify the situation by having her boss Scott call and pretend to be her former landlord. But his praise is too glowing, raising more red flags for Elena, who decides to do some digging of her own and asks a source on the police force to discreetly run a background check.

Erin Simkin/Hulu

Later, Mia wanders through the Richardsons’ empty house. Under the immaculate surface, including an insanely-organized family calendar, she sees how they really live — a prescription of Valium here, a Penthouse magazine there. Izzy’s room is the only place brimming with authenticity. Izzy catches Mia looking at her doodles and while she tries to play them as nothing, Mia doesn’t let her. While Izzy struggles to find common ground with her mom, there’s something about the way Mia speaks to her that makes her feel seen and she confides in her about the bullying.

At dinner, when Elena asks about the kids’ first day, Izzy’s quiet — and it goes unnoticed as the conversation turns to Lexie’s college essay. The prompt is about overcoming a hardship, but all Lexie has to offer are trivial matters and she thinks it puts her at a disadvantage to those with real hardships to write about. Unable to contain herself, Elena goes on an unsettling rant about how the essay is punishment for kids whose parents are good people who make good choices; essentially, people like her. The Richardsons are representative of the type of people who believe themselves to be open-minded but possess an innate entitlement that allows them to feel outraged whenever they feel challenged by something. It’s one of a number of stark moments in these first few episodes where Elena flips a switch and her surface-level perkiness gives way to something crueler — and it’s something Reese Witherspoon does terrifyingly well.

Pearl and Mia have dinner at Lucky Palace — a place Pearl chose as a cost-cutting measure. She tells her mom about the incident with the guidance counselor, but Mia’s distracted by her coworker Bebe, who runs off in tears after briefly playing with a baby. This frustrates Pearl, who is looking for guidance and solidarity, but Mia lectures her about advocating for herself before going to find Bebe and offering to finish the shift.

Unsatisfied by her mom’s help, Pearl writes a note to the school and asks Elena to read it over. But Elena’s determined to see this through herself, noting the school’s abhorrent discouragement of students of color taking higher-level classes. The school’s discriminating against Pearl is a legitimate hardship — something Lexie clocks, stealing Pearl’s forgotten note on the counter.

While Izzy’s a gifted violinist, one of her orchestra classmates struggles, and is essentially the teacher’s verbal punching bag. After one too many taunts from April, her anger is ready to burst — and it comes after her teacher berates her classmate for a second time. She may not know what to do about her bullies but she can take action against someone else’s.

While Elena hoped to discreetly run the background check on Mia, the plan hits a snag when they’re faxed to the house — where Mia is working — due to the newsroom’s glitchy fax machine. Mia gives no indication of having seen the files and book club night starts without a hitch. Elena and most of the other ladies find The Vagina Monologues to be crass and controversial, though its lone supporter uses that to stoke the conversation. It devolves into a debate about motherhood and what it means not to have kids — or biological kids for that matter, a point that hits close to home for Linda McCullough, whose road to motherhood has been rocky. Rattled by the direction the conversation’s gone, Elena struggles to land her point, but Mia saves her, turning her unfinished thought into a metaphor about discomfort.

Afterward, Mia confronts Elena about the background check and comes clean about lying about her reference and explains it was because she broke her lease, which wasn’t month to month. We already know about Mia’s aversion to the police, so this shakes her. She appeals to Elena’s need to be liked, explaining how hard it can be for a single black mom to find a place.

Pearl and Moody hang out at the apartment and get into Mia’s weed. He’s never smoked before, and before we know it, the pair are high, writing Kurt Cobain lyrics on their arms. They talk about their parents, with Moody jealous at how laid back Mia is. But for Pearl, it’s not all that it’s chalked up to be, as she notes that Mia is full of secrets, which can make things difficult.

For the first time, Mia and Elena hang out and open up to one another. They chat about art — specifically the semi-distorted black and white vagina print over Mia’s fireplace, prompting Mia to circle back to the metaphor about the parts of themselves people are afraid to examine, figuratively and literally. Elena asks about Mia's relationship with Pearl, revealing her own struggles with Izzy. They seem to genuinely bond about motherhood, until Elena mentions helping Pearl secure a place in geometry class. For Mia, Pearl — and their partnership — is everything. For her to turn to someone else, Elena of all people, is a genuine betrayal. Mia immediately shuts down and leaves, leaving a wine drunk Elena none the wiser.

Mia returns home and asks about the math situation, which Pearl lies about, saying she took care of it herself. Elena’s intervention hits at something deep within Mia; she feels like Pearl’s being pulled away from her. While she previously brushed Bebe off, when she tried to explain she was crying about her lost daughter, Mia inquires about her daughter, May Ling.

Most Overt ‘90s references:

  • East Shaker has dial-up internet, which is a very big deal in 1997.
  • Izzy’s bullies tape Ellen’s Time cover, which was released just months prior in April 1997, inside her locker.
  • Among the notable musical stylings is Beck’s “Where It’s At.” Izzy also quotes Fiona Apple’s now-iconic MTV VMAs speech.
  • Lexie’s on the phone with a friend chatting about a Buffy re-run, which had just aired its first season that summer.

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