Little Fires Everywhere recap: Origin stories
Secrets and lies are embedded deeply within the fabric of Little Fires Everywhere; the secrets we keep from others and the lies we tell to shield ourselves and our loved ones from the truth. Right off the bat, there was a lot to say about Elena Richardson, one of the loudest characters currently on television. But the opposite is true for her counterpart. The series has been slow, often frustratingly so, to delve into Mia Warren’s backstory and present motivations, keeping her shrouded in secrecy while revealing tiny clues about her many secrets.
Mia’s backstory has been so secretive, the crumbs of information dropped often feel convoluted. But more than half-way through its run, the limited series finally pulls back the curtain. We take a break from the late-’90s and flashback to the early ‘80s, as Elena and Bill settle into Shaker Heights with their young family, while Mia embarks on art school in New York City.
Back in 1981, Mia (played here by Tiffany Boone) is leaving Pennsylvania and her tight-knit family for college. She quickly finds friendship with Pauline Hawthorne, an artist and instructor who takes Mia under her wing, helping her hone her artistic style and introducing her to other figures in the NYC art community — including Anita, who we know in the present as Mia’s lone confidant.
We’ve seen him appear in Mia’s dreams throughout the series and now we formally meet Pearl’s father, Joe Ryan, once again eerily watching Mia on the subway. She confronts him one night while he follows her home and he finally reveals why he's been stalking her: he and his wife Madeleine can’t have kids and they're looking for a surrogate who resembles her ... and Mia’s a dead ringer. Naturally, Mia’s shocked but Joe gives her his card anyway.
Meanwhile, Mia’s art school scholarship is axed due to budget cuts, leaving her on the hook for $12,000. Unwilling to give up on her artistic dreams, she agrees to be Joe and Madeleine’s surrogate for the cost of her tuition. Soon Mia’s pregnant — after insemination via turkey baster! — and making moves in the art world, getting the opportunity to display a piece in a show alongside famed artists.
She’s keeping her pregnancy a secret from her family, not wanting to complicate their lives with a baby she doesn’t consider to be hers. Her beloved younger brother Warren comes to visit — as Mia’s fervently avoiding a trip home — and is not only shocked to learn she’s pregnant but is also disappointed that she doesn’t want to keep the baby.
His visit to New York is the catalyst for many of the decisions Mia subsequently makes. She starts to second guess following through with the surrogacy after casually suggesting that the baby could be the thing she creates that changes the world. Until then, the baby she’s carrying was strictly business, a financial resource needed to complete art school.
His visit is also what sparks the change in Mia and Pauline’s relationship. In the novel, Pauline is a platonic mentor to Mia — she and her partner Mal, a character not included in the series, are both important figures for Mia through her pregnancy. But the series depicts their close relationship in a more intimate manner. After being challenged by Warren for their obvious attraction to one another, Mia acts on her feelings for Pauline and they become lovers, during which time Pauline takes the “Duo” portrait.
But it’s also the last time Mia sees her brother, who's killed in a car accident soon after. A heavily pregnant Mia arrives home, shocking her parents. They tell her they love her but don’t want her at the funeral, worried the gossip will take away from the celebration of Warren’s life, which devastates Mia. But they encourage her to honor him in her own way. And knowing how badly Warren wanted her to keep the baby, Mia realizes how she’ll honor him and begins to craft the web of secrets that her baby will be born into.
She tells Pauline she’s staying to help her parents a bit longer and writes a letter to Joe and Madeleine telling them she had a miscarriage. With her parents still at the funeral, Mia departs in Warren’s car, which she continues to drive in the '90s. She drives across the country to Los Angeles where she has Pearl, taking Warren’s name for her new last name. But Mia is soon dealt a final heartbreak. She calls Pauline to update her on the baby but Anita answers, revealing Pauline passed away suddenly from cancer. Pauline assumed Mia kept the baby and ran off, and she’s not the only one. The Ryans are also looking for her.
It’s a lot for Mia to take in — that the love of her life is dead and the couple she deceived is looking for her. But Anita reassures her that she’ll be there for whatever Mia — and Pearl — need, kickstarting their long friendship. But the implication that the Ryans don’t believe her miscarriage cover story also means a life of looking over her shoulder. In a beautiful montage, set to a cover of Meredith Brooks’ 1997 hit “Bitch," we watch Mia and Pearl journey across the country, moving from town to town, before finally landing in Shaker Heights.
On to Elena (now played by AnnaSophia Robb), who, by 1983, has a trio of young children. Despite her journalistic ambitions, her career has largely fallen by the wayside due to having Lexie, Trip, and Moody in such quick succession. And an incredibly sexist boss. But fresh off her third maternity leave, Elena is done having kids and is ready to make some serious moves at her local paper.
Except there’s one major hiccup: Elena’s pregnant... again. It’s devastating news for her. Their living space, the apartment later occupied by Mia Warren, is already too cramped for their family of five, though Bill is reticent to give up his aspirations as a public defender. Elena brings up the idea of terminating the baby to her mother, who makes it clear that she, as a good pro-life woman, doesn't have that choice.
So Bill takes a job at a high-paying firm, Elena has Izzy, and they move into the house her parents picked out — and helped pay — for them. In the novel, Izzy's born prematurely, which traumatizes Elena and leads to her overbearingness towards her youngest. But that appears to be a major change to the series, which doesn’t indicate any complications surrounding Izzy’s birth.
Instead, Elena, left alone with the kids while Bill puts in long hours at the office, is struggling with postpartum depression. She reaches her breaking point one night and looks up her old boyfriend Jamie while out picking up a pacifier. In episode 5 alone, Jamie’s role is significantly larger than his brief appearance in the novel, during which he’s referenced as Elena’s former boyfriend who went off to fight in Vietnam. But now we learn why he’s so angry with her in 1998.
They meet at a bar in Rochester, New York, (a sizable commute for them both!) and Jamie’s clearly concerned for Elena, who says she just wants to catch up — a clear lie considering she called him sobbing from a payphone. He asks her if she’s happy, which she is clearly not but deflects. They dance and kiss and end up back in a hotel room. But before things go any further, Elena decides to end it and leave. Before she goes, Jamie tells her he never stopped loving her, he just didn’t want her plan. And he doesn’t think she wants it either.
But Elena lashes back, doubling down in her belief that she made the right decision choosing her plan over their life together. She argues, unconvincingly, that she’s happy and storms out. By the time she gets home from Rochester, greeting a panicked Bill and Linda, she’s back to the picture of suburban motherhood, immediately tending to a crying Izzy. Bill finds a receipt with Jamie’s phone number and realizes where she’s been.
“The Uncanny” shines a light on our main characters' biggest secrets, revealing clearly for the first time why they’re so hyper-focused on the custody case. Elena, like Bebe, suffered from postpartum depression, but due to her resources and support, Elena’s decisions don’t have the consequences Bebe’s does. And like the McCulloughs, the Ryans were also willing to do anything to achieve their dreams of being parents. In Bebe, Mia sees a fellow biological mother who changed her mind about giving up her baby to a wanting family.
Considering how much the series is starting to deviate from the novel, it’ll be interesting to see how the final two episodes play out. As we reach the penultimate episode and a return to the late ‘90s, we’ll see how this newfound information is weaponized as the contentious custody battle wages on.