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elena richardson in a polished cardigan Image: Hulu

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The best part of Little Fires Everywhere is when Reese Witherspoon goes full-on ‘May I speak to the manager?’

Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington make the Hulu original a standout

In the pilot episode of Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, character Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) delicately reminds her husband that they can’t have sex that night because it’s not a Wednesday or a Saturday. Later in the episode, it’s Wednesday night but the clock strikes midnight and she pulls away remarking that it’s technically Thursday. Such is Elena Richardson’s life, planned down to the minute.

But this is a story about two women and while Elena’s character drives part of it, Little Fires Everywhere would be nothing without her foil in single mother Mia Warren (Kerry Washington). Mia is an artist who moves around every few months following her whims and artistic passion. Live by a calendar with color-coded Post-It notes, she does not.

The story that unfolds about privilege, motherhood, and class is all the more evocative and powerful because they’re drawn as humans, not caricatures. The performances of the two actresses make them both all-at-once worthy, maddening, and sympathetic foils.

[Ed. note: This post contains mild spoilers for the first three episodes of Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere and also for the 2017 book it is based on]

elena richardson and mia warren side-by-side; elena is smiling cheerfully, while mia looks sullen Image: Hulu

Based on Celeste Ng’s best-selling novel of the same name, Little Fires Everywhere not only adapts the events of the novel, but adds more dimension to the story. The novel follows single mother Mia Warren who moves into the idyllic suburban community of Shaker Heights, Ohio and rents a house from picture-perfect Elena Richardson. Mia and her daughter Pearl find themselves intertwined with the Richardson family as neighborhood drama erupts.

The first three episodes of the Hulu original aren’t step by step recreations of what happens on page. The most notable change is that Mia and Pearl (Lexi Underwood) are now black, something Ng wanted to portray in her novel but didn’t feel like she could accurately depict. The race change makes the tensions between Mia and the rest of Shaker Heights more palpable, Pearl’s desire to fit in more poignant, and the eventual divide between the Shaker Heights community and the outsiders more jarring. It’s almost like a 1990s Great Gatsby in that way, showing how inaccessible the American Dream is for those who don’t exactly fit the mold.

But Elena Richardson fits the mold. She fits the mold so well, it’s almost like she made the mold. Reese Witherspoon trots the line between being overly campy and believably suburbia with finesse.

Both women have faults; both women have strengths. Elena is controlling and condescending, basically the epitome of the “Karen” meme. Despite her husband’s hesitation about renting month-to-month to a mysterious stranger, she lets Mia rent her second home because she feels compassion for the single mother — and can subtly brag about the goodness of her heart to her friends. But she is fiercely protective of her children (and eventually of Pearl) and channels all the fury of a “May I speak to the manager?” mom when someone wrongs them.

Mia, on the other hand, is proud to a fault, even when it puts her relationship with her daughter Pearl in jeopardy. She’s deeply secretive, not just to nosy Elena and people she meets in Shaker, but to her own daughter. She’s uncompromising in her beliefs and principles, which easily alienates her from the Shaker Heights crowd when those beliefs clash. When Elena’s younger son Moody gifts Pearl a bike, Mia reacts extremely, upset that Pearl would dare accept a handout. She’s not chipper like Elena, but sullen and intense. This intensity puts her at odds with the Stepford smiling Shaker Heights community, but Elena’s misfit youngest daughter Izzy finds herself drawn to Mia.

mia seated and unpacking a suitcase Image: Hulu

Both Witherspoon and Washington bring their characters to life so vividly — giving their respective characters moments of likeability and frustration. The fascinating part of the show is watching these two women come together — whether that means their ideals colliding or finding common ground. Elena’s hyper-organized power mom lifestyle is grating, but there are moments when Witherspoon imbues a vulnerability to her otherwise chipper demeanor. She’s losing the connection to her youngest daughter and it’s clear that she’s desperately trying to salvage it, but missing the point. Mia, meanwhile, is easier to identify since she fits the audience perspective of an outsider to this community. but it’s grating when things with Pearl could be so much easier if she just opened up more.

In the second episode, after Mia and Elena both confess to one another about going behind the other’s backs and end up bonding over a glass of wine after a book club meeting. Elena opens up about motherhood and how she feels like she’s losing Izzy, totally sure that Mia and Pearl must be close. Mia, who up until that point hasn’t much questioned her relationship with Pearl, listens and then sighs in agreement, pain etched on her face because she understands. She understands so deeply.

Ultimately, Little Fires Everywhere is a story about mothers and daughters. The first three episodes set the pieces in place. Both Mia and Elena have daughters who are frustrated with them for various reasons; both their daughters are drawn to the other mother, finding in her the qualities their own lacks. Pearl finds comfort in Elena’s steady homelife, the status she has in her community, and her real writing job. Izzy, meanwhile,an outcast at school, is drawn to Mia’s fierce and uncompromised individuality. Elena and Mia are both fully realized characters — two sides of a similar coin — so it’s believable to find the daughters drawn to the strengths that their own mothers lack.

After assembling all the pieces, the third episode ends by pulling the metaphorical loose brick and toppling the whole tower. The tightly wound dramatic tension is about to be unraveled as Elena and Mia stand at the center of it all, Witherspoon and Washington commanding the stories of their own characters.

Little Fires Everywhere is streaming on Hulu now.