Much like Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel, Little Fires Everywhere begins at its end: firefighters combatting flames engulfing a mansion while its owner, Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon), watches from the curb. After the house has been reduced to rubble, the fire captain explains the situation to her and her husband Bill (Joshua Jackson!!), while three of their teenage children, Lexie, Trip, and Moody, watch from the car. Izzy, their youngest child, is missing — and that’s a problem.
The chief reveals that in the house, firefighters found “little fires everywhere.” The titular fire. But in addition to shouting out the series title, it also means the cause of the fire is arson. And we learn two things right off the bat: 1. The Richardson’s daughter Izzy is the prime suspect and, 2. Elena was in the house when it started.
That’s what happened. How did we get here? We go back four months to August 1997...
Pre-fire, the Richardsons live a comfortable modern Pleasantville existence that likely would have mortified Witherspoon’s character in the film. Elena, specifically, lives a very regimented life — tracking her weight, measuring her wine, scheduling sex. Over breakfast, we get a glimpse at the family’s dynamic: well-meaning dad Bill is a busy lawyer, elder children Lexie and Trip are popular, while Moody is more awkward. Izzy, the rebellious black sheep of the family, is late to breakfast, and when she finally shows up, she’s decided to wear pajamas to orchestra camp — a no-go as far as Elena is concerned.
A little bit later, on her way to work at a local paper, Elena spots a packed parked car in an empty lot and is naturally suspicious of it, reporting it to the police from her office.
By contrast to the Richardsons, Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), whose car Elena reported, and her daughter Pearl live a very nomadic lifestyle, never staying in one place for too long. They’re new to Shaker Heights and are sleeping in their car as they search the classifieds for an apartment. As the police cruiser approaches in the lot, Mia reminds Pearl to keep her “hands visible.” It’s a subtle but stark reminder that the Richardsons and Warrens live very different realities.
They freshen up in the grocery store bathroom and shop for basic essentials before going to check out the rental… which happens to be Elena’s. Things between Mia and Elena are tense from the start. Elena all but tells Mia that the rental is her personal charitable cause, saying it’s purposefully well below market because the Richardsons don’t need the money but want to “help others.” It’s not helped by her oblivious belittling of Mia’s art career. Pearl wanders around the apartment, marveling at the idea of having her own room, and Elena offers them the lease. But Mia is adamant about going month to month, citing her work as the reason they move around often. They appear to reach an impasse, but when Elena discovers it was Mia’s car she reported to the police, she relents and offers them the place on the spot.
Pearl immediately buys into the Shaker Heights — the real planned community in Ohio where Ng grew up — promise, but Mia scoffs at its many stringent regulations. That night, Mia has trouble sleeping, plagued by nightmares of a man (Grey’s Anatomy’s Jesse Williams) watching her on the subway.
The next morning, at Elena’s suggestion, Moody goes to the Warrens’ to say hi. He and Pearl immediately hit it off and they’re soon hanging out every day. While painting her room, Moody sets to move onto the next wall but Pearl stops him, explaining she only paints one wall. It’s what the free sample can of paint covers and is easy to cover up before their inevitable move.
Meanwhile, Elena struggles to connect with Izzy. Elena’s always “fit in” and doesn’t understand why Izzy can’t just go with the flow. Later, her friend Linda McCullough (Rosemarie DeWitt) notes how much Lexie, who’s been watching her new baby, reminds her of a young Elena. They’re interrupted by the sound of Lexie screaming and Elena rushes in to find Izzy’s burned off a large chunk of her hair (which Elena had just called her best feature). Elena’s concern quickly turns to anger as she accuses Izzy of intentionally setting her hair on fire.
Izzy and Elena argue over which ‘90s icon to emulate with her new cut — Drew Barrymore or Rachel from Friends — and Elena steps out to run an errand. She sees Mia, loading her car with old bike parts, wearing the uniform for Lucky Palace Chinese restaurant. She starts making (unwelcome) suggestions as to how Mia can use her art to make money, namely with portraits. Mia rebukes the idea of posed photos, saying she prefers to capture people as they really are. Elena then takes a brisk exchange to an extremely uncomfortable level, offering Mia a job at her house — not as a maid or housekeeper, but rather “house manager,” a.k.a. the same thing but with a cozier name. And Bill says as much when Elena explains how Mia balked at the offer.
Pearl and Moody eventually make it over to Moody’s house. Everything about the Richardsons and their house is the antithesis of what Pearl is used to — from the size of the place to the inviting energy of their full household. She stays for dinner and the family peppers with college questions — though she’s only a sophomore. Lexie, intent on Yale, comments on how Shaker students always go to good schools, so she’ll have a leg up. She adds that with affirmative action, Pearl won’t have any problem with college. Pearl’s visibly uncomfortable by the remark, while Moody admonishes his sister, who defends herself by claiming boyfriend Brian, who is black, said it first. (A recurring theme throughout the episode — and I’m assuming the series — is the Richardsons’ obliviousness to their privilege and the stream of microaggressions leveled towards Mia and Pearl.)
On the drive home, Elena and Pearl bond over their love of writing and Elena reiterates that Pearl is welcome at the Richardson house any time.
The next day, Moody shows up at Pearl’s with a bike. She needs one to get to the special place he’s been wanting to show her, which is an outfitted old van in a junkyard. The two hang out and talk poetry, losing track of time.
In the bathroom before her orchestra recital, Izzy — wearing the preppy clothes her mom forced her to wear — asks a classmate, April, why they’re no longer friends. April coldly says Izzy knows why and calls her a freak. Izzy’s face hardens and she pulls out a black marker. During the concert, she sits still, refusing to play. First staring April down, Izzy turns to the audience with “not your puppet” written across her forehead.
Moody and Pearl’s junkyard hangout is interrupted by neighborhood watch, who catch them just before they clear the fence. The watch patrolman — a friend of Elena’s — brings the pair to Mia’s. Elena, fresh off the incident at the orchestra concert, is disappointed in Moody, but Mia is irate at Pearl’s carelessness. She reminds Pearl that they’re not like the Richardsons. They have something at stake if police get involved. Pearl doesn’t understand and the two fight, with Pearl saying she wants more than “one wall” and Mia sends her to the room she’s wanted so badly. Still hurt and angry, they do their special knock, indicating it’ll all be okay.
The next day, Pearl goes over to the Richardsons’ to return the bike. Moody isn’t home but Trip invites her to hang out with him and Lexie. While Moody’s definitely into Pearl — he’s already read Adrienne Rich for her — based on the look she gives Trip, she’s has a crush on someone else. Later, when Mia arrives to pick Pearl up, she stumbles across Izzy on the front lawn with spray paint. Mia makes a paint recommendation — from one artist to another — which catches Izzy off-guard. Inside the house, Mia sees how comfortable Pearl seems to be in the Richardsons’ home. Elena’s arriving home as they leave and in a tension-filled exchange, she accepts Elena’s job offer.
As a peace offering, on the way home, Mia tells Pearl they’re picking up more paint so she can paint all four walls. Mia has a second surprise for Pearl: she built her a bike. Mia and Pearl reconcile but Elena doesn’t know how to talk to Izzy. She takes a long pause outside Izzy’s door, unsure of what to say. Inside the room, with the remnants of her message still on her forehead, Izzy intently watches her mom’s lingering shadow, looking disappointed when it moves away.
That night, Mia’s awoken by the recurring dream, but this time, the mysterious man on the subway turns into Elena. Elena, meanwhile, is awoken by a phone call from the reference she’s been trying to get ahold of. Only, he tells her he’s never heard of Mia Warren.
The first episode doesn’t have too much going on plot-wise, but it firmly sets the stage for the domino effect to come, introducing nearly all its major players in their complicated dynamics.
Most overt ‘90s references:
- While, by the late ‘90s, car phones were starting to fade into obscurity, Elena’s Lexus is outfitted with one. However, her use of the excuse “I’m over on my minutes” to end a conversation may be even more iconic than the phone itself.
- Memoirs of a Geisha, published in 1997 (a month after being a finalist for Elena’s book club), and The Vagina Monologues are the group's final selections.
- Mia buys Pearl the latest issue of YM magazine, a popular now-defunct teen magazine, with the Spice Girls on the cover.
- Elena’s interview with Janet Reno, Attorney General under President Bill Clinton’s administrations, comes up numerous times throughout the episode.
- Pearl and the Richardson kids watch The Real World: Boston, which began airing in July 1997, and they make numerous references to the show’s acclaimed (and beloved) San Francisco season.
- Among the very ‘90s music featured in the episode are “ Bird” by Annie Lennox, Erykah Badu’s “On & On,” and “Rain King” by Counting Crows.