I am slightly terrified of Reese Witherspoon.
It’s not just that the A-list actress has willed herself into a second career as a Hollywood power broker, as commemorated this week in a rhapsodic Vanity Fair cover story. It’s that she’s done it in part through a superhuman awareness, and manipulation, of her own persona. Consider that magazine spread: Posing pretty in pink while itemizing her accomplishments as a producer is nothing if not proof of the Elle Woods credo that high-femme and high-powered can be one and the same. Reese Witherspoon the celebrity, lifestyle brand, and power producer could easily be a Reese Witherspoon character, which is sort of the point.
But what a Reese Witherspoon character is has evolved alongside Witherspoon herself. As any Election fan can tell you, Witherspoon has never shied away from the darker side of ambition. In middle age, however, the goal has shifted from attaining prosperity to protecting the prosperity the Witherspoon type has already attained. Hence Madeline Martha Mackenzie, the Monterey housewife who propelled Witherspoon to awards omnipresence with Big Little Lies. And hence Elena Richardson, the affluent mother of four who’s basically Madeline with ’90s shoulder pads instead of 2010s Lululemon.
Elena is one of the two primary, opposing figures in Little Fires Everywhere, the eight-episode miniseries based on Celeste Ng’s novel that premiered this week on Hulu. Little Fires Everywhere has quite a bit in common with Big Little Lies beyond their overlapping titles. Both are adaptations of the sort of middlebrow page-turners Witherspoon favors for her book club, melding discussion-friendly themes with screen-friendly plot. Both are specifically interested in motherhood as a force that both unites women and stratifies them along lines of race, class, and ideology. And both pair Witherspoon with an equally luminous figure to balance out the cast. Here, it’s Kerry Washington in the role of Mia Warren, a roving artist and single mother who turns up in the Cleveland suburb of Shaker Heights, Ohio, to blow up Elena’s life. The shared framing device is just the cherry on top: a lurid crime—here arson, there murder—to pique interest, followed by a flashback to the events leading up to it.
More than last fall’s odd, uneven The Morning Show on Apple TV+, Little Fires Everywhere shows Witherspoon has refined the small-screen, big-impact era of her career into a science. The Morning Show’s Bradley Jackson was an awkward throwback for Witherspoon: a spunky, straight-talking heroine from the performer’s first peak in the early aughts. It’s no coincidence that most of The Morning Show’s acclaim went to Jennifer Aniston for playing a powerful woman navigating age and other life shifts in the public eye. Alex Levy is to Aniston as Madeline and Elena are to Reese: believable extensions of her established personality—white, wealthy, preppy, Type A—minus the savvy it takes to dial up those traits into a takedown from the inside. Witherspoon knows these women are a little bit monstrous, even as she’s very good at showing how they don’t know it.
Developed by veteran TV writer Liz Tigelaar and directed in part by Lynn Shelton, Little Fires Everywhere doesn’t reach the heights of Big Little Lies’ first iteration but it’s still an addictive watch, in part because it hews to an increasingly recognizable frame. The show can’t always balance every mode it’s juggling: old-school miniseries (issue-oriented, with hints of afterschool special) and new (star-anchored, character-driven); realist social commentary and pure, uncut melodrama. But it’s aware enough of its strengths to deliver on what we came for: a clash of the titans between Witherspoon and Washington.
The domino chain that ends in the incineration of the Richardson home begins with Mia and her teenage daughter Pearl (Lexi Underwood) materializing in Shaker Heights. Elena spies a black woman living out of her car and calls the police, BBQ Becky–style; later, she recognizes Mia while giving the duo a tour of the rental inherited from her family and offers them a lease on the spot out of guilt. (The apartment is a duplex built to look like a single-family home in order to mitigate “the stigma of renting”; the Richardsons rent it out well below market rate, Elena explains, to residents who would “enjoy it,” her tone dripping with condescension.) Unable to stop herself from meddling further, Elena offers Mia a part-time job as her “house manager,” an ineffective euphemism for “maid.” Against her better judgment, Mia accepts.
As the months go on, the financial and emotional ties between the two families only grow. Pearl starts socializing with Elena’s teenage kids, making friends with sensitive soul Moody (Gavin Lewis), flirting with his older brother Trip (Jordan Elsass), idolizing their popular sister Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn). Pearl is drawn to the Richardsons’ material comforts, alien and alluring after a life on the road. Mia, for her part, forms a bond with Izzy (Megan Stott), the youngest Richardson, a black sheep with a budding interest in the arts. Like many suburban misfits, Izzy’s rebellions are still comfortably within the bounds of middle-class respectability; same-sex attraction and a taste for Doc Martens don’t make you an anarcho-communist. Still, they’re enough to put her at war with Elena, who already resents Izzy because her birth derailed Elena’s career in journalism. All these ties form a complicated web from which neither woman can extract herself, try as she might.
The tension between Mia and Elena is Little Fires Everywhere’s accelerant, a page out of the Big Little Lies playbook doused in the kerosene of microaggressions, oblivious entitlement, and the forever war between labor and capital. Madeline Mackenzie and Renata Klein were birds of a feather; Mia and Elena are yin and yang, polar opposites who can’t escape each other. The two women clearly can’t stand each other, yet they also can’t help probing their adversary’s sore spots. As irritating as Elena’s noblesse oblige may be, Mia isn’t some saint martyred at the hands of her persecutor. Like Olivia Pope, she’s prickly, secretive, and more than a little selfish, an impulse necessary to make space for her art but that is tough on her relationship with Pearl. Beneath their very real differences, Elena and Mia start to look like peas in a pushy, abrasive pod.
Mia’s own tendency to butt into others’ affairs is what kicks Little Fires Everywhere into high gear. After learning her undocumented coworker Bebe (Lu Huang) gave up her baby for adoption a year before, Mia locates the baby in the home of Elena’s dear friend, tips off Bebe, and starts an ugly custody battle. The subplot is borrowed from Ng’s novel, but its parallel to the main plot still feels far too neat, another high-volume fight about resources and responsibility that’s an unnecessary distraction from Mia and Elena’s much slower burn. The same rings true for the teen material, with pregnancy scares and love triangles that seem taken from an entirely different show. Kids are young enough to be forgiven for being caught up in social forces they’re not yet worldly enough to understand. Adults are more compelling, and tragic, because they aren’t.
Little Fires Everywhere works best when Mia and Elena can fight without proxies. Their scenes are also when the show best balances fireworks with fine-tuned observation, reflecting the range of the two stars. Without seeing the final episode—the only one Hulu withheld from critics in advance—I can’t say whether Little Fires Everywhere wrestles all its separate threads into a satisfying conclusion. But it does deliver on the promise Witherspoon has now been making for years, as both the star of these projects and the driving force behind them. TV is now a place for actresses to leverage, build on, and tweak their celebrity. Others have started to copy her formula, but Witherspoon was the first to perfect it.