By Meaghan Kirby
March 18, 2020 at 02:06 AM EDT

While the opening two episodes have been brimming with tension, the first major dominos fall in episode 3, as Mia makes a startling discovery that has ramifications for the entire Shaker Heights community.

The flashback opens in December 1996, as Bebe Chow struggles to provide for her newborn. She’s 70 cents short on formula and the shopkeeper isn’t sympathetic. It’s a life-altering 70 cents as the desperate new mom, unable to feed her baby or provide adequate shelter, decides to bring the baby to a fire station.

In the present, Not knowing the can of worms she’s about to open, Mia encourages Bebe to take her search for May Ling public. But as Bebe’s undocumented, she’ll be deported if she raises too many questions. Taking matters into her own hands, Mia goes directly to the fire station but is told the best way to get an answer is through the police — a no-go for Mia, who resolves to find another way. She even inquires with Bill about immigration lawyers but naturally, he doesn’t know anyone who does pro bono cases.

Homecoming is rapidly approaching and the kids have wildly different responses: for Lexie and Trip it’s a rite of passage they’re not missing; Moody’s skipping in favor of Before Sunrise, though Pearl expresses interest in the dance; and not looking for another school-related activity to be ostracized from, Izzy’s also out.

At school, Lexie reads her essay to her boyfriend Brian, passing off Pearl’s battle with the administration over her math class as her own experience with sexism at school. Brian is surprised she didn’t tell him about the incident and she gets defensive.

Lexie brings Brian over for dinner, and it becomes clear why he avoids the house like the plague. Brian’s smart, popular, and from a good family — acceptable boyfriend material. But he’s also black, and therefore not immune from the everyday unconscious — and occasional overt — acts of racism by the white Shaker families like the Richardsons. He and Pearl, who's also at dinner, experience this twofold, first when Elena assumes they have a lot in common (they don’t!) and then when both Elena and Lexie take the “I don’t see color” approach to talking about racism. Lexie’s oblivious entitlement is something that clearly weighs on him and their relationship, which is why he’s furious to learn Lexie lifted her college essay off Pearl’s experience at East Shaker.

Erin Simkin/Hulu

Elena is finally clued into Izzy’s issues with bullies at school after Trip lets something slip. The next morning, she insists on driving Izzy to school so they can have a heart to heart. But dealing with bullies appears to be a completely foreign concept to Elena, whose best advice is to change the narrative. Izzy gives this a go by deciding to embrace the homecoming experience, convincing Pearl and a reluctant Moody to join her.

Under the guise of hanging out, Lexie takes Pearl shopping for a homecoming dress, but she secretly has an ulterior motive. Her co-opting of Pearl’s experience has become a point of contention between her and Brian, and she’s using this shopping spree to smooth things over. But Lexie doesn’t actually believe what she did was wrong. She not only tells Pearl she simply inspired the piece, but she also seems to believe it too. In a move that gets to the heart of Brian’s frustration, she starts asking Pearl loaded and personal questions about her dad, completely oblivious to how inappropriate and upsetting it is to Pearl.

While Mia’s been discreetly looking into the missing baby, an unexpected person finally gives her a lead. She’s helping Elena prepare party favors for Mirabelle McCullough’s first birthday. No longer quite so suspicious of Mia since book club night, Elena spills the beans on how Linda and Mark adopted the baby after she was left outside a fire station. The news rattles Mia, who realizes the party favors are “Chinese” themed because Mirabelle is Chinese. She takes some time to think about her next move but the answer is pretty clear, she needs to confirm Mirabelle is May Ling.

Pearl unsuccessfully tries to hide her new dress from Mia, who expresses concern over Lexie buying her clothing. Lexie’s entitlement makes her dangerous and she doesn’t want Pearl to be Lexie’s new toy. But Pearl has her own bone to pick with Mia. Though intrusive and inappropriate, Lexie’s questions aren’t so different from her own. There’s so much about her own life that Pearl doesn’t know due to Mia’s many closely-guarded secrets. Pearl’s time with the Richardsons has changed the way she views her own family, sparking a fight in which Pearl tells Mia she wants more than their nomadic, frugal life.

Mia’s offered to take photos of Mirabelle’s first birthday, hoping to sneak a glimpse at the birthmark Bebe has her looking out for. Elena’s upset about an attendee showing up without a proper RSVP but it runs a lot deeper than that — the woman is April’s mom. The two have a heated exchange and Elena learns Izzy’s ostracization and bullying stems from an incident that happened over the summer, which April’s mom refers to as a “sexual accosting.”

While Elena’s advice to Izzy was to rewrite the narrative, it appears to also be her coping mechanism, a way of weeding out information she doesn’t accept or can’t make sense of. She tells Bill that the rumors about Izzy have reached the parents and they need to intervene and stop the lies. But Bill is hesitant, implying Izzy confided to him about her sexuality. This comes as an even bigger blow to Elena, as it’s becoming apparent she knows even less about her daughter than she thought.

In changing the narrative, Izzy’s completely changed herself. She goes the whole nine yards in giving herself a makeover for homecoming — frilly dress, curled hair, lipstick — and hangs particularly close to Moody’s friend Carl, kissing him on the dance floor in plain view of her bullies. Moody pulls Izzy aside and tells her she has nothing to prove and that he thinks it’s cool she doesn’t care what people think of her. But it’s more complicated than that to Izzy, who leaves the dance in tears.

Brian uses this opportunity to talk to Pearl about the essay. Brian tells her that she doesn’t have to be okay with Lexie using her story — advice that’s very reminiscent of what Mia said about Lexie. It becomes clear that Pearl didn’t know the extent to which Lexie had been using her experience, and a fed-up Brian ditches the dance, ruining Lexie’s perfect night. She tracks him down in the limo and they’re at an impasse over the essay. But looking to salvage what’s left of her senior homecoming, Lexie decides to have sex with Brian, abandoning her plan to wait a bit longer.

Mia finally sneaks upstairs and confirms Mirabelle and May Ling are, in fact, the same baby. Before she’s able to process what this means, Elena catches her holding the baby, though Mia plays it off.  While she’s mostly able to mask it in front of Elena, Mia’s bursting on the inside trying to contain the rush of emotions. Mia’s unraveling the mystery has been an emotional and overwhelming experience — and Kerry Washington plays it largely in silence with an incredibly moving gravitas.

The search for May Ling is clearly fueled by her own fears about losing Pearl and she flees to tell Bebe she found her baby. While Mia tries to figure out their next move, Bebe needs to see her daughter immediately, crashing the party and making an unsuccessful grab for her daughter just as the McCulloughs and their guests are cutting the cake.

As they’re leaving the dance, Trip invites Pearl and Moody to a bonfire. Pearl wants to go hang out with Trip and Lexie but Moody is adamant they agreed to watch his movie and she relents. It’s a side of Moody we haven’t seen a lot of — possessive over their friendship and incredulous she’d want to hang out with other people, let alone his brother and sister. It’s a supremely bad look for him and certainly not the last we’ll see of it. The two watch Before Sunrise like Moody wanted, but there’s a new distance between them.

No longer maintaining the preppy facade, a crushed Izzy waits for the bus. She’s a bit short on change, but the driver kindly lets it slide. With nobody else to turn to, Izzy shows up at Mia’s door.

At the McCulloughs, Bill and Mark talk to the police, while Elena comforts Linda, who wonders if Mirabelle really is Bebe’s daughter. Neither of them know how Bebe knew where to find them but Elena is determined to find out and I surmise it’s not going to take long.

Most overt ‘90s references:

  • Moody is obsessed with the 1995 film Before Sunrise, which he’s dying to watch instead of attending homecoming.
  • Lexie is a preppy high schooler so of course she watches Beverly Hills, 90210 and wants to emulate the fabulously messy lives of the West Bev teens.
  • Izzy mentions Lilith Fair, the women-led music festival that ran from 1997 — the inaugural festival takes place during the summer the series begins —to 1999, with a 2010 revival.
  • Moody and Izzy debate between Jerry Springer and Ricki Lake, their two after-school mainstays.
  • To annoy his date, one of Lexie and Brian’s friends wears the iconic ‘90s footwear Tevas.
  • A dance calls for a lot of quintessential ‘90s tracks, including Chumbawamba's “Tubthumping,” “Lovefool," by The Cardigans, TLC banger “Waterfalls,” and “It’s Your Birthday” by Luke.

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