By Meaghan Kirby
March 25, 2020 at 12:00 AM EDT

While the first three episodes of Little Fires Everywhere — released in one fell swoop last week — set the wheels in motion for the custody battle to come, episode 4 examines what motherhood means and who’s deserving of that opportunity. The contrasts between Elena and Mia have been pretty stark since the opening moments of the premiere. But as the custody battle heats up and they reveal their opposing loyalties, a personal vendetta is waged and a war of words begs the question: what does it mean to be a good mother?

Following the incident at Mirabelle/May Ling’s birthday party, the McCulloughs are trying to expedite the adoption process. It’s been weeks, but Linda obsesses over the police report, terrified Bebe will return to the house. While the others express doubt that Bebe is who she claims to be, Linda knows she’s telling the truth. But as her road to motherhood has been devastating and full of loss, she’ll stop at nothing — not even the return of the birth mother — to keep the baby.

The McCulloughs aren’t the only party desperate for custody. Bebe lacks their resources, but she’s willing to do anything to come up with the money for a lawyer. Mia and Izzy — who has taken up an apprenticeship in the former’s art studio  — are working when Mia gets a call from Lucky Palace. She arrives at the restaurant to find Scott firing Bebe for stealing from the register. She saves Bebe’s job by threatening to out Scott’s coke dealing side hustle and tries to help Bebe figure out how to come up with $30,000.

While her friendship with Moody brought her to the Richardson house, Pearl’s now spending more time with the other Richardson siblings, namely Lexie — and it shows, thanks to a very telling makeover. While Moody mopes around the living room with Trip, Lexie’s upstairs explaining the magic of sex to Pearl and her friend Serena, who even notes how much she’s glowing — a very loaded adjective in the world of TV teens.

Meanwhile, Elena’s reading up on Lilith Fair in an attempt to learn about Izzy’s interests, still upset Izzy won’t confide in her like her other children. One of Elena’s fundamental parenting flaws — as has been frequently teased — is her somewhat deluded understanding of her relationship with her children. She believes what she wants to believe and right now, that’s 1. three of her children confide in her and 2. Izzy’s been spending time with Carl (and not assisting with art projects at Mia’s). She moves on to the police report they took from the McCulloughs. While noting that their parenting woes pale in comparison to Linda and Mark’s, she notices a bombshell buried in the report: the car Bebe drove to the McCullough house matches Mia’s.

That night, Mia has another nightmare. This time, Pearl’s being taken away by Linda McCullough. Her belief that Bebe should regain custody is intrinsically connected to fear about losing Pearl. There’s a lot we don’t know about Mia and why she and Pearl move around so often — and it seems to be connected to that fear.

The next morning, Mia reaches out to her art dealer Anita, gauging interest for her pieces. Unfortunately, there’s only a single mysterious piece that could fetch the kind of money Mia’s looking for, and it’s not something she’s willing to part with. In her resolve to make some quick cash, she reconsiders her refusal to sell her vagina portrait to Elena.

But any previous thaw between Elena and Mia has firmly frozen back over. Elena is more interested in talking about Bebe driving Mia’s car to crash the McCullough party and how odd it is that Mia hasn’t asked about Linda. Mia sidesteps the car question but the two suspiciously eye one another, nothing really left to say. While the pieces are still falling into place, the battle lines are becoming much clearer — and they are not on the same side.

It’s Halloween, and Pearl’s celebrating — unbeknownst to her mom — with Lexie and Serena at a costume party. Moody tags along with Trip, who attempts to give advice on how Moody should pick up Pearl. His sage advice — which worked on all the Jens in his grade — is a combination of ignoring Pearl and negging. Moody doesn’t believe Pearl would ever fall for moves like that or a guy who pulls those moves — which is not a bet he wants to make with the universe. He tries it anyway, but something between them has shifted and any attempt to woo her falls flat.

Elena and Bill hand out candy to trick or treaters, settling in for a rare night alone. But they aren’t actually alone — they’re joined by a truckload of theories about how Mia Warren could possibly be connected to this brewing custody situation. While Bill begs Elena to stop fixating, Elena’s the type to never let anything go... and she’s not about to start now. Testing her theory, they place an order at Lucky Palace, which Elena picks up and confirms Mia and Bebe work together — pushing the final piece into place.

While she publicly exudes a pleasant Mrs. Cleaver energy, Elena’s vicious and calculating when it comes to defending her interests. Under the guise of writing a story, she demands Scott provide crucial info on Bebe, which she presents to Linda as confirmation Bebe’s looking for a lawyer. Her advice is to talk to Bebe and “make her see” that a life with the McCulloughs would be better. But Linda can’t bring herself to give Bebe the time of day, so Elena takes matters into her own hands.

Acting on behalf of the McCulloughs, she goes to see Bebe herself, cautioning her to do the “right” thing and give up on trying to get custody of Mirabelle/May Ling, offering immigration resources, potential visitation rights, and a check for $10,000. When Bebe rejects her offer, she drops the facade and coldly warns Bebe that she’ll never win.

As much as her counselor tried to block it, Pearl’s thriving in her algebra class. But Trip is struggling big time, prompting Pearl to offer tutoring services. While they’re studying at her apartment, she makes a move and they end up having sex. Whether it’s hit him that he just hooked up with his little brother’s crush or he’s proving his negging theory works, Trip abruptly — and coldly — leaves the apartment, to Pearl’s disappointment.

By the time Elena arrives home from Bebe’s, she is incensed and looking for a fight, which she finds with Mia. Elena feels personally wronged by Mia’s position in the custody matter, despite the latter assuring her it’s not about the two of them, but Mirabelle/May Ling — a baby she believes belongs with the birth mother who wants her badly. Disgusted, Elena calls Mia a bad mom, citing everything from her frequent moves to her minimum wage side jobs.

Mia defends her life and her parenthood, calling out Elena for not making good choices but having them to begin with — being white and rich and entitled. While Mia’s simply reiterating three very basic facts, Elena resorts to a move often pulled when a white person’s privilege is called out. She admonishes Mia for making it “about race.” But, as Mia explains, it’s always been about race; they were never friends, she took the job and was a part of their lives solely to protect Pearl. Elena goes to fire Mia but she’s already quit.

Elena breaks the news over dinner to her family, who are shocked to learn that not only is Mia helping the woman trying to take the McCullough’s baby, but she wants to protect Pearl from them. Izzy thinks Mia has a point and accuses Elena of being the bad mother.

At the apartment, Pearl’s also receiving the news. Only she agrees with Elena — of course the McCulloughs and their money can give the baby a better life than the struggling Bebe. Disgusted at what the Richardsons and their privilege have brought out in Pearl, Mia bans her from going back to their house. At its core, Mia’s devotion to the custody battle is about Pearl and those who would try to take her away, but her investment is costing her the relationship she's trying to protect. Bebe interrupts their fight and, feeling like her mother is choosing Bebe and the baby over her and her shot at normalcy, Pearl sneaks off seeking Elena’s comfort.

Bebe’s struggling to come up with the money and is running out of hope. But for Mia, this custody battle goes beyond Bebe and the McCulloughs. It’s taking a stand against those who use their wealth and resources to intimidate and suppress. She doesn’t care that they’re stacked against whatever the McCulloughs or Richardsons try to throw at them, she’s determined to get Bebe her baby back. Emotional, she decides to sell her prized piece: a large print of her taken while very pregnant with Pearl. When Mia goes to check on Pearl, she finds her empty bed and fuming, she goes to the Richardsons’ to retrieve her daughter.

The next morning, there are new rules in place. Mia drives Pearl to school with the promise of waiting for her when school lets out — making it abundantly clear she’s not allowed anywhere near the Richardson house.

Mia’s sale is enough to secure a lawyer and prepare to strike first, filing a lawsuit and alerting local news stations — it’s a messy story and they need first word on the narrative, which includes the McCulloughs’ or, more accurately, Elena’s attempts to buy her off.

Meanwhile, Mia begins working on her new art project. It’s Richardson-centric, containing items from their house retrieved on her last day of work. The first piece: a blown-up photo of Elena, cut into flaming strips.

Most Overt '90s references:

  • The Spice Girls remain a popular group Halloween costume, but the famed girl group is still together when Pearl (Scary Spice), Lexie (Posh Spice), and Serena (another Posh Spice) dress up.
  • At this point Lilith Fair has gotten more attention in Little Fires Everywhere than it has since the late ‘90s, as Elena reads a Newsweek piece about it.
  • Beloved ‘90s songs from the episode include The Fugees’ 1996 hit “Killing Me Softly” and “Honey” by Marian Carey, which came out in August 1997.

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