This feature contains major spoilers about the final episode of “Little Fires Everywhere.”
Both Celeste Ng’s best-selling book and the series, set in Shaker Heights, Ohio, begin with the seemingly perfect Richardson family reeling over a fire that has ravaged their home. In the final episode, now available to stream, viewers at last learn the culprit — and there’s more than one. It’s three-fourths of the Richardson children: Lexi (Jade Pettyjohn), Trip (Jordan Elsass), and Moody (Gavin Lewis). It’s a stark deviation from the book, which had black sheep sibling Izzy (Megan Stott) as the sole arsonist.
It’s yet another narrative liberty that Liz Tigelaar, the showrunner and executive producer, and the show’s writers took in adapting the book, which explores themes of motherhood, race and class through the antagonistic relationship between Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington), women who go to drastic lengths to protect their children — or so they believe. Tigelaar hopes the book’s enthusiasts will find that it adds depth and dimension to Ng’s original ending.
“I actually hope it took the end of the book and it just added even more complexity and layers to it because we had the space to do that,” says Tigelaar. “In the book, you know basically from the beginning, on the first page, that [Izzy] started this fire. We liked the idea of doing more of an over-arching mystery, so that we didn’t really have the answer to the end at the beginning.”
Producers/stars Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington reshaped Celeste Ng’s bestselling novel for TV. But she’s not feeling possessive.
Ng is a producer on the series, but she hasn’t been precious about the tweaks and additions to her storytelling in the novel’s translation into a TV series. The ending was no different.
“I felt like it was consistent with who the characters were,” she told The Times, referring to the show’s fire starters. “I’m sure there will be fans who are like, ‘That’s not how it happened in the book.’ But I don’t feel like it’s out of character, for that to happen. I feel like it’s just different.”
“We gave the teenage kids more of a character arc in the show. And the idea is there has to be an arc for everybody. That was sort of the impetus of having the kids start the fire,” Tigelaar says. “The idea with the kids was kind of to create growth and hopefulness and the idea that you can be different than your parents and don’t have to follow the same patterns. That house has been a trap, but the trap can go away.”
But Tigelaar knew changing a critical detail in the story would need to be earned. Inside the writers room — a compact space at the Paramount Studios lot in Los Angeles — the hive mind behind the drama gathered around a conference table in late January 2019 as Tigelaar stood in front of a white board to map out their plans for a surprising ending to a story already familiar to many.
“This is where everything has to line up,” she said, addressing the room.
Helping to line everything up was the show’s female-heavy writing staff: Rosa Handelman, Shannon Houston, Attica Locke, Raamla Mohamed, Amy Talkington and Nancy Won. (Harris Danow, the sole male writer, was not there the day The Times was observing.)
Here’s an edited and condensed snapshot of some of the discussions surrounding the episode’s pivotal moments leading up to and following the house fire — as well as follow-up thoughts from Tigelaar once the episode was completed.
Bill and Elena’s Fight
Tigelaar: Aside from what they have to work out in their marriage, I feel like there’s a way where Bill would feel like, with the trial over, at least we’re done talking about this thing that we’ve been talking about for eight episodes straight. And then the fact that now, [Elena’s] not bringing up Mia, she’s bringing up Pearl! If I’m Bill, I’m like, “When is this going to ... end?”
Won: I feel like she is really clueless and doesn’t care about her marriage. I guess the question is here, does she want to feel like, “Let’s pretend it never happened, let’s get this marriage back on track”?
Tigelaar: Just to get in her head for a second: She doesn’t know that he knows [about New York]. So she doesn’t think she’s done anything wrong. She’s still operating on the idea that, “I’m the victim, why are you acting mad at me?” I don’t see how she doesn’t tell him about a humongous thing that has happened, which is that [Pearl] was impregnated by one of our sons and got an abortion. Or, if you are able to put that aside for later — Raamla, your suggestion, where she hands him a martini to celebrate and he’s like: Now, I can talk about [New York].
Talkington: She could be trying to defend herself: “Yeah, it was for work. I had to get information from him through the New York Times.” And then like, “I can’t believe you’re attacking me because what I really need to talk to you about is Pearl” — and then move into it that way? Presenting it as deflecting from New York and trying to get back to “I’m a victim.” I’m just trying to understand if she has guilt for New York or not.
In the episode, Bill and Elena’s blowout happens at their home after their friends the McCulloughs win the adoption battle that is one of the series’ animating events. Bill, harboring his anger about Elena meeting with her ex in New York, doesn’t hide his irritation as Elena prods him about his silent treatment. Not getting anywhere, Elena reveals to Bill that she’s learned Pearl had an abortion, and shares that she’s learned Pearl has been seeing Trip behind Moody’s back. Bill uses that to allude to her secret dinner in New York. The argument escalates from there.
The verdict from Tigelaar: What we wanted to explore in that moment is this idea that when Elena comes back at him, we want to be on her side — even though she’s done so much that is egregious — when she is saying to him: “I gave up my life so you could get the life that you wanted.” That to me — as mothers, as women — is so true and powerful. And she did. This idea that he told her that four [children] wouldn’t be different than three and that he promised to be there, but that he didn’t change his schedule, he didn’t stop golfing on the weekends, he didn’t start parenting more than 5% of the time. It was all left to her. No time is that more resonant than right now as every mother is at home, trying to clean their house, make dinner, keep their kids educated or entertained and work a full-time job. It’s like, you didn’t say anything to me because your life worked. What you would have lost in confronting me about what you do, would have been giving up your life.
“Little Fires Everywhere” pits Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington against each other in a diverting but broad suburban melodrama.
Elena and Izzy’s brutal words to each other
Handleman: I want to talk about this idea of Elena telling Izzy, “I didn’t want you.” Because we have been talking about how it doesn’t necessarily matter how mothers felt when they were pregnant — it matters how they mothered. Elena’s like, “I didn’t want you, but I felt trapped; I felt like it wasn’t allowed.” And Izzy’s point is like, “But you had me, you kept me, that’s not an excuse. You chose to have me. You had a choice and you chose. And then you were the worst mother.” That is the egregious part — not that you didn’t want me, but that you didn’t want me when I was here.
Houston: To me, to get Izzy to leave, the worst thing I can think of that can be said is, “You’re not my child.” Or if the kids want to go after Izzy, and Elena is like: “She’s not my kid.”
Houston: [Elena’s] supposed to say something here where the kids are like, “We’re setting the house on fire!” To me, Elena has to get a little bit recognizable. I feel like the crack is her slipping up and saying: “I never ... wanted you. I don’t want you now.” Saying the thing that no mom in the history of momhood is ever supposed to say.
Elena terminates Mia’s lease once and for all — learning that it was Lexi, not Pearl, who had the abortion. Izzy soon realizes what her mother has done and, in a rage, gets a container of gasoline from the garage and pours it around her room. As her siblings try to stop her, she tells them that their mom kicked out Mia and Pearl just as Elena walks into her room to see what she’s done. Elena goes off. And Izzy reveals her infatuation for Mia was because she was the only person who cared about her: “I just wanted her to be my mom,” she says. “A mom who actually loved me. A mom who was nothing like you.” Elena: “Do you think I wanted a daughter like you? I never wanted you in the first place!” Trip, Moody and Lexi are stunned. Izzy runs away. Her brothers and sister carry out the fire.
The verdict from Tigelaar: We felt like we had to get that moment right. Because, obviously, the next moment is the fire. Everything is so heightened and this was very important. We talked about this with Reese, about how families scream at each other. How you really lose it. I think what Elena says, we can recognize how cruel that is. But I think what Izzy says to Elena is just as cruel. It’s so deeply hurtful; it’s the worst thing you ever hear as a mom. And, of course, it’s what Elena knows deep down. But it hasn’t been spoken, and so I think what Elena comes back with is an equal truth — I didn’t want to have you in the first place. And that is true. She didn’t.
Of course, it doesn’t mean she should be mean to Izzy. I think what she’s saying is: Everything you feel is right; the subtext is text now. Yes, I didn’t want to have another kid. It’s not that it’s you, it’s that I did something I didn’t want to do and I did it with what felt like no support. Of course, her level of support can be debated based on her class, family and safety net. When she says that, there’s a shift where now all the children can suddenly see their mom through Izzy’s eyes. And for Izzy, it’s just giving voice to what she’s already felt, which is that she was the unwanted one.
The feather in the cage
Tigelaar: Let’s just picture this: Bill and Elena go to the rental property after the fire stuff. I don’t know if it’s night by now. I almost wish Bill wasn’t with her. I feel like Elena walks in the door. She would take in the sight of all this stuff and I guess there’s a way where, if Pearl was going to have a poem, it would be here. Would Moody find it? In the Moleskin he gave her? Are the kids even with Bill and Elena here? Anyway, Elena sees this cage. ... I can’t decide if something should be inside of it or not. Maybe it’s a bird or a feather or whatever it is. It almost looks too beautiful to touch. But she starts to take it apart and destroys it and it’s just this pile and then it’s like the little thing inside is free.
Locke: Have we decided what is inside the cage? Is it a feather?
Tigelaar: There are many things we are changing at the end, but I do like the idea of this cage and the feather at the end because I feel like if you love the book, that is imagery [you] will know.
Talkington: The idea that I pitched was that inside the cage is a nest with an egg in it. It gets into more of overt mothering imagery, but I thought it’d be interesting if there’s a cage that has no door, has no way to access, but there’s a nest with [an] egg. And it’s just like this kind of dark image of clearly the mother separating from the egg. That could stand for a lot of our relationships and our series, and then she breaks it down.
Locke: Is that the end? [Elena] breaking it apart? Because I love that image — the act of trying to break it apart is actually better than landing on it apart. Her trying to get back to some sense of motherhood, some sense of connection, some sense of something and that’s the end. The beginning of Elena’s effort to try to do better.
At dawn, with the fire out, Elena makes her way back to the rental property on her own, hoping she might find Izzy there. As Elena searches the home, Pearl’s poem starts, as does Izzy’s fantasy about getting into the car with Mia and Pearl. Elena slowly makes her way into Mia’s art space, finding the miniature cage with the feather inside as Mia’s voiceover of the poem begins. The closing moments are of Elena taking the feather out, holding it and saying “Izzy.”
The verdict from Tigelaar: We actually created a backstory — we added it in Episode 4, when Mia goes to the house and she’s taking things. She takes this red feather from Izzy’s room. And in the finale we decided to tell the origin story of the feather and use it to show that Izzy kind of cared in this way that her siblings didn’t, felt things in this way they didn’t, and that she had always saved this feather of this hurt bird that nobody really wanted to help. And so it ended up being this real cardinal feather that Mia put in the cage.
And I love the ending so much because we also threaded Pearl’s poetry throughout — Shannon Houston, one of the writers, is an amazing, beautiful poet. Pearl’s voice transitions to Mia’s voice, and you obviously think of Izzy as the feather. But Elena can be the feather too, and through this burning down of the house, this door has opened. They can all kind of escape from this cage that was this house. And the cage is positioned exactly where the Richardsons’ house is.