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[This story contains spoilers for the series finale of Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, “Find a Way.”]
In the first scene of Hulu’s Little Fires Everywhere, Reese Witherspoon’s Elena huddled in the back of an ambulance as a policeman questioned her about the fire that had just consumed her suburban Ohio home. The finale of the series, an adaptation of Celeste Ng’s book, revisited that titular incident — now with eight episodes of context surrounding the events leading up to the blaze.
The finale featured a series of explosive moments, all set off by the verdict of the custody battle court case for baby May Ling/Mirabelle. Unsurprisingly, the white, well-to-do Shaker Heights McCulloughs (Rosemarie DeWitt and Geoff Stults) were given custody of the child Chinese immigrant Bebe (Lu Huang) had left at a fire station a year earlier. The conflict between Elena and Kerry Washington’s Mia came to an end, too, after Elena told Mia’s daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) the truth about her parentage. Mia explained to Pearl why she’d become so emotionally invested in Bebe’s custody battle — because Mia originally was supposed to be a surrogate for the Ryan family but told them she’d miscarried and raised Pearl herself instead — and the Warrens decided to leave town.
Meanwhile, Elena found out that her golden child Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) had gotten an abortion, that her oldest son Trip (Jordan Elsass) had been sleeping with his brother Moody’s (Gavin Lewis) BFF and crush, Pearl, and got in such a brutal fight with youngest daughter Izzy (Megan Stott) that she told her she wished she’d never had her. Like in the novel, Izzy grabbed a gas canister and poured fuel all over the house — but in a change, it wasn’t Izzy who lit the match — it was each of her three siblings who set the fires after seeing how their prim and proper mother was unraveling.
Bebe didn’t let the court’s verdict keep her from her daughter and kidnapped her and drove her across the border to Canada, while Mia and Pearl set off to their newest destination, one Pearl picked: not New York City where her birth father lived but rather Mia’s hometown to meet her family for the first time.
It was showrunner Liz Tigelaar’s original idea that all four Richardson children should be the ones to light the fires, and after brainstorming with the writers whether it would make sense for another character — like, say, Elena — to have done it, they ultimately knew that was the ending they wanted to go with.
“I love how the ending came together. I felt so much relief that we were able to add it all up,” she tells The Hollywood Reporter of the biggest change she made to Ng’s story. “It’s always scary when you’re adapting a book and you want to honor the book, but you also want to honor what the story has become and your version of the story. I think there was a lot of reconciling that in a really challenging but satisfying way.”
Below, Tigelaar discusses each character’s ending; whether there could be a second season; hiring castmembers from her first series, Life Unexpected, for cameos; and why a potential Dawson’s Creek reunion never came to fruition.
Why have all the Richardson kids burn the house down, not just Izzy, like in the book?
For me, the way it all goes down, I felt like they were finally seeing their mom through Izzy’s eyes and seeing what it must feel like to be Izzy and knowing their own complicity in her isolation. And also having had their own arcs and having really seen clearly who they each were as product of this family and what their family was capable of doing and who they were capable of hurting and why. It became this impulsive pack-mentality act. But what I loved about it was, at the end, I feel like Elena does take responsibility for it, and I feel like it’s not hollow. It’s not protecting them. She means it. I think she feels like she started this and she did this, and, yes, Izzy grabbed the gas canister and the kids with the matches but that she is responsible for this house burning down. And I think that that’s her growth.
At the very end, when you see Elena go into the apartment and look at the art Mia had created, it doesn’t really absolve her of anything, but it does show her realizing what she had done and the consequences of her actions.
It’s that theme of the show, I think — it’s like, how can we know who we really are if we’re too afraid to look at ourselves? It’s the whole beginning of The Vagina Monologues and looking at your own vagina. If we’re not willing to look at the parts of us that kind of scare us to look at, how can we really see ourselves? Really this whole show has been Elena’s memory of what happened. And when you come back to her in that same point that you started, in the back of that ambulance in the beginning, she is now able to finally see herself clearly. This is a woman who has completely unraveled, who has let herself do heinous things. All the things that Mia has talked about, all the things that spider photo represented — the monstrous parts of us that we want to hide, that we don’t want anyone to see — all those parts of Elena have come out, and now she finally can see who she really is. And it doesn’t mean that she’s only those things, but she has to acknowledge that those things within her exist.
And some of those things are pretty heinous and unforgivable. One thing we talked about with Reese was how mothers and daughters scream at each other and how you can get pushed to places that you actually didn’t think you could go, nor probably should you, to your point. But that there is a truth and there’s a reality to that, and we really talked about that with how they screamed at each other and how people lose their shit. Yes, what Elena screamed to Izzy was horrible, but what Izzy screamed to Elena was also horrible, and it’s literally the worst thing a mother could hear. And understanding that in that moment they were both screaming what was true.
The fact that Elena didn’t really want to have Izzy and some people are mothers against their will is definitely not really something that’s talked about in pop culture a lot.
Absolutely. That’s what we really wanted to explore — this idea of, you already have three children. What’s one more? And even this idea of people who believe that women should have a right to choose but maybe don’t think that they have a right to make that choice. Elena knew she did not want to have another baby. And she shouldn’t have had that baby. And luckily, her daughter probably internalized that and learned from her, and when she found herself pregnant, she did not have the same dilemma. She knew she wasn’t having that baby, and she had access. I think it’s looking at that story through the lens of what was expected of her and who is allowed to do certain things societally and who isn’t on all sides.
Sure, and you point out how Joshua Jackson’s character can go for a drive and come back and not really confront any of the things that Elena said to him about how he could have helped her or supported her through having that fourth child whom she wasn’t really ready for.
That was one thing we really wanted to build to because obviously you know all the ways that she’s been in the wrong, even though you know also that she’s been right about everything. She’s been in the wrong, but she has been right. Mia was hiding something. But when he confronts her with the historical lies that she’s told, she comes back at him. What to me is so powerful about that moment is this idea of, you didn’t say anything because this life works for you. What I do works for you. What I gave up enables you to have the life that you have, but you didn’t give anything up to have it. And that is true. To me that’s such a story about every woman, every mother, that we were so passionate about telling. And, for me, I feel so much for her in that moment.
Izzy’s ending is what she hopes to happen, like the book ending. Or is it literal? Does she get in the car with Mia and Pearl?
That’s her dream and her fantasy. She’s having this wish. That was a part of the book I loved — this wish that this door would open and that she could hop in and she could be a part of their family now, but the reality is she wakes up, she’s still on this bus, and she’s not with them, but it’s this idea that I think she’s been changed by Mia, and she’s never going to go back. It doesn’t mean she’s never going to go back to Shaker Heights, because of course she’s going to go back, she’s 15 years old. But it’s more like she’s never going to go back to being the girl who’s going to sit in her Laura Ashley room and put on her flower dress and get her Rachel haircut and wear her tartan Keds. She’s done. She’s going to be who she is because even even trying to be who her mom wanted her to be didn’t make her mom want her any more.
Why was it important for Pearl to choose where she and Mia would go next?
The moment of Mia asking Pearl where do you want to go is definitely a first. I don’t think Pearl has ever been asked that question by Mia before. I think Mia tells Pearl where they’re going. So just even the idea that Pearl is going to have a say in where life takes them and what they do now, and that Mia would even be willing to drive her to the Ryans is huge. And then I think the idea that the Ryans isn’t where Pearl wants to go, that it’s not that family that she’s been longing for, even though she has obsessed with wanting to know about who she is because she has so little to draw on in terms of any other family. It’s that what she longs for is knowing Mia’s family, is understanding where Mia came from, and understanding where she came from. I think there’s also something really beautiful about Mia is willing to take her there, but Mia doesn’t want to go in herself. But of course in seeing what her daughter does, then there’s the possibility that maybe Mia could could do it too. I think that’s also a theme of the show — this idea of, what you can’t do your kids might be able to do for you, be it burning down your house and creating a platform for a whole different life, or reuniting with your parents from whom you’ve been estranged for 16 years. It’s that also our kids can inspire us to be even better versions of ourselves, just as we’re teaching them to be their best versions of themselves.
Bebe taking the baby was what happened in the book, essentially. You didn’t really change much about that particular aspect.
No, the only thing we changed was reading something sometimes can be a little different than seeing something, and in the book she basically disappears to China, but in seeing that, that obviously creates problems with passports, and it opens a Pandora’s box of questions. How is this possible when we’re seeing it? So I love the idea that it was pre-9/11 and that you didn’t need a passport to get to Canada. So we have her on either side of the Canadian border having driven all night with the baby.
This was billed as a limited series, but could you see more of the show?
If you ask me, I feel like this is the story. I feel like in a different version of it we could have probably extended the story. It could have gone on longer, but I feel like this is the ending. I don’t know how Mia and Elena ever are in each other’s orbit again in an organic way. They seem done. Selfishly, of course I would love it to continue. It’s been an amazing experience. We had the best time making it. It’s been amazing knowing that people are watching it and having discussions about it. Of course I would love to keep it going, but I think I think at the end of the day it’s honoring the story that Celeste told, and I think that also means honoring that the story did have an end.
It was fun to see all the Life Unexpected cameos throughout the series.
They were so fun. I loved putting those guys in. Shiri Appleby was away, she was directing, so I couldn’t put her in. And I wanted to put Kerr Smith [who worked with Tigelaar on both Life Unexpected and Dawson’s Creek] in so bad, but the only thing I could do was with Josh Jackson, and I thought it was going to be too distracting for Jack and Pacey [from Dawson’s Creek] to be reunited.
What could have been!
I know, I know. I felt so bad about it, Kerr was like “really?” I was like “I know, but it’s Josh!” Everyone’s going to be taken out of it. Josh has already been in his tighty-whities. So much has happened. It’s going to be jarring. It’s going to be like, “Jack’s here?”
It was for our sakes. Our hearts couldn’t handle it.
Dawson’s Creek was my first job. My heart couldn’t handle it, either.
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