Reese Witherspoon is widely regarded as one of the few celebrities that you can't help but to like. Roles in classics, including Pleasantville, Legally Blonde, and Sweet Home Alabama, have solidified her place as Hollywood's sweetheart, and she just seems like a genuinely good person all around. But with her latest role in Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere, the actress has joined a far different league with her portrayal of unraveling suburban housewife Elena Richardson.
In Little Fires Everywhere, adapted from the Celeste Ng book, Elena is introduced as a well-rounded and well-meaning resident of the small town of Shaker Heights. Elena has everything: a successful husband, four beautiful children, and the respect of her fellow townspeople. However, the foundation of the character's picture-perfect life begins to crumble with the arrival of wanderer Mia (Kerry Washington) and her daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood). As Mia gets closer to the Richardson children, specifically to rebellious Izzy (Megan Stott), Elena begins to break down.
Elena reached the end of her rope during last night's season finale, achieving peak villainry as the storyline came to its climax. Blow after blow was dealt to her perfect world; her marriage to Bill (Joshua Jackson) was falling apart, and Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) was having an existential crisis tied to her future. Worst of all, Elena's oldest children finally realized the level of disdain that their mother had for Izzy.
"Do you think I wanted a daughter like you?" the matriarch spat out after being confronted about her decision to kick Mia and Pearl out of their rental home. "I never wanted you in the first place!"
A deafening silence followed Elena's outburst, her kids looking at her with disgust. Lexie begged her mother to make things right with Izzy, to understand that none of them were perfect.
"Yes, you are!" Elena screamed at the top of her lungs, releasing a terrifying, guttural sound like nothing I've never heard before.
The meltdown took me by surprise. I paused the video and sat back in my chair with wide eyes, holding a hand over my chest. "Oh my God," I murmured. Reese Witherspoon was a monster. She was a monster.
Clearly, it wasn't just me. Witherspoon's flawless portrayal of the master manipulator of Shaker Heights was so convincing that we started looking at the actress herself differently. Yes, it's just acting, but Witherspoon tapped into the character so effortlessly that I don't see Elle Woods (Legally Blonde), Madeline McKenzie (Big Little Lies) anymore — I only see Elena.
It's an occupational hazard that comes with the territory when you're playing the antagonist in Hollywood. If you're as skilled at acting as Witherspoon is, people won't ever forget the way that you made them feel, whether that's good or bad. I call it "The Michael Ealy Effect." In Tyler Perry's 2010 tearjerker For Colored Girls, Ealy starred as Beau Willie, the emotionally unstable abusive husband of Crystal (Kimberly Elise). Driven by paranoia and jealousy, Beau Willie abuses his wife and their children; his blind rage builds to a break in his sanity, and he throws the babies out of the window and to their death as a result.
Guess who still hasn't recovered from the trauma of that moment?
It's been 10 years since the release of For Colored Girls, and Ealy has acted in dozens of other projects since then (and he's played the good guy in most of them), but he will always be the guy who pushed his kids out of a window. Same with the late Lupe Ontiveros — she earned an Emmy nomination for her role in Desperate Housewives, but to me, the actress will always be Yolanda Saldivar, the woman who killed Selena in the 1997 biopic. Josh Brolin suffers a similar fate, his role as Thanos in Marvel's Cinematic Universe eclipses much of his other work because of the character's devastating impact. Witherspoon is clearly in good company here.
The Little Fires Everywhere star knows that Elena distressed fans of the Hulu miniseries, but she enjoyed getting to tap into her darker side for the role. "It was so much fun," Witherspoon laughed in a Twitter Q&A during the show's finale. "I got to be kind of mean — really mean."
Witherspoon also explained that she saw Elena as a cautionary tale. The character was so obsessed with her family's image of perfection that she didn't take the time to connect with them as their wife or as their mother. Even worse, Elena spent all of her time pointing out everyone else's flaws while ignoring her own. It's why she ultimately lost everything.
"I learned that you can't judge people just for the way that they present," Witherspoon shared in the Q&A. "You have to see where people come from, what they walked through — what did their mothers tell them? How were they raised? I think we make a lot of assumptions about people."
There's no telling if we'll get a second season of Shaker Heights' trials and tribulations since Little Fires Everywhere was originally developed just as a miniseries. But if this is indeed the end of Elena's story, then we'll always remember her just as she was: her own worst enemy.