Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere miniseries — an adaptation of Ceste Ng’s 2017 novel of the same name — is being subtlety marketed as a soul sister to HBO’s blockbuster drama Big Little Lies. Both series star Reese Witherspoon, revolve around suburban motherhood, and even feature “Little” in their titles. It’s no surprise then, that Fires, much like its predecessor Lies, is bubbling with domestic squabbles and secrets.
When you enter Fires — which kicks off on Hulu with a three-episode premiere Wednesday, March 18 — there are almost countless tense threads to follow. At the forefront of the series is the dichotomy between Witherspoon’s Elena Richardson, a journalist with 30% less open hostility than Lies’ Madeline Martha Mackenzie, and Mia Warren (Scandal’s Kerry Washington, in her first major role TV role after Olivia Pope). Elena, a mother of four, has used strict rules as the foundation of her life. Mia is an artist and mother without a single tether to the world other than her teen daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood). It is impossible to ignore the cold war brewing between Elena and Mia (or the skeletons Mia is obviously hiding about her past).
Then there are the love triangles and crises dominating the lives of Mia and Elena’s children, who end up entangled in each other’s worlds.
All of these mounting conflicts come into focus at the midpoint of second episode “Seeds and All.” That is when we begin to learn about Mia’s co-worker Bebe Chow (Lu Huang), a Chinese woman who uncontrollably sobs at the sight of babies. By the end of “Seeds,” we learn Bebe had a baby named May Ling, but it is unclear what happened to the child. The cold open of subsequent chapter “Seventy Cents,” begins to solve the mystery of May Ling. At the top of the episode, we see Bebe suffering through postpartum single motherhood in a tiny, power-less apartment. Her wailing baby, May Ling, refuses to latch on to breastfeed and is starving after days without eating.
Desperate, Bebe — who hasn’t eaten in a week — attempts to buy formula at a mini-mart. But, the cruel store owner refuses to help Bebe because she is “70 cents short.” Bebe, now at the end of her rope, puts her daughter in a box and leaves her at fire station, hoping someone will find May Ling a good home. “Seventy Cents” doesn’t tell us what happened to Bebe in the immediate aftermath of losing May Ling, but Ng’s novel explains the new mom was taken in by a shelter and cared for over the course of a few months.
No matter what happened to Bebe in Hulu’s version of Fires, it is confirmed that Bebe hasn’t seen her child in months. It's like she disappeared.
“Cents” puts Bebe squarely back on course to reconnect with May Ling. Mia realizes that Elena’s best friend Linda McCullough (Rosemarie DeWitt) adopted her 1-year-old baby daughter — whom she and her husband named Mirabelle McCullough — following the tragedy of Bebe’s fire station visit. Mirabelle is May Ling. Mia’s visit to Mirabelle’s first birthday party confirms as much when she finds a birthmark on the baby’s head. Bebe told Mia that her child had the same one.
The episode ends with Bebe disrupting the McCulloughs' party, loudly demanding access to her baby. Although Bebe’s words are correct, the upper crust of Shaker Heights is mortified by the intrusion.
This is the moment that delivers Little Fires the structure and intensity it sorely needs. Without the addition of Bebe and May Ling/Mirabelle, the miniseries would be the story of aimless microaggressions and mounting class anxiety, with little payoff. Even unassuming Pearl often doesn’t notice when a member of the Richardson clan serves her a backhanded compliment at best or a knife in the back at worst.
On the other hand, the question of who should mother little May Ling/Mirabelle forces every principal character in Fires to choose a side in a controversy that will unmistakably send harsh ripple effects across the community. Mia is transformed from a cagey lone wolf into a woman with unlimited intense sympathy for another. Elena is finally given a reason to investigate the murky past of her tenant, Mia. Someone is going to lose a baby they consider theirs forever.
Now that is a reason to set someone’s house on fire.