(Warning: This post contains spoilers for the finale of Hulu’s “Little Fires Everywhere.”)
“Little Fires Everywhere” ended on Wednesday with an episode that closed the stories of Elena Richardson (Reese Witherspoon) and Mia Warren (Kerry Washington) and their respect families — but not in the exact same way the best-selling novel the Hulu limited series is based on did.
TheWrap spoke with “Little Fires Everywhere” showrunner Liz Tigelaar about the final episode and why she and the other writers made some of the biggest alterations to the ending of Celeste Ng’s book. The first being, why instead of Elena and Bill’s (Joshua Jackson) daughter Izzy (Megan Stott), it was her three siblings — Trip (Jordan Elsass), Moody (Gavin Lewis) and Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn) — who set fire to the Richardson house in the show’s finale.
“One thing when we first started was kind of looking at this mystery and the way the book was set up by starting with this fire and then going back in time and seeing how it happened. And it just felt like for the TV adaptation that it would help the mystery of it all to not know definitively in the beginning who started the fire,” Tigelaar told us. “And so while we didn’t want to rule out Izzy, we also wanted to leave the door open that it could not be Izzy and that that mystery would kind of drive us through the season. So that was the first part. And then we started to explore, OK, if it wasn’t Izzy, who could it be? And it was something I had pitched originally.”
“At first we thought, could it be Elena? That would be like the craziest idea ever, but could we ever earn that and would a grown woman ever do that and would Elena do it and we kind of dismissed that. But we liked the spirit of it and the boldness of it. And then I started thinking, ‘Would it be Lexie? Would it be Moody? Would it be Trip?’ And nobody kind of felt quite right — but then I had this idea, what if they all did it collectively?” Tigelaar continued. “And what would that mean and what would that symbolize and what would that say about generations of a family and how they come together. And we liked that idea. And so that was kind of what I pitched to sell it and then we set about earning that story.”
“And we definitely gave ourselves the freedom to say in the room if we had a better pitch or if that didn’t feel right, we could deviate from it,” she continued. “But as we started to work toward earning it, it wasn’t easy, but it started to feel more and more right and it started to give us the framework to give those three characters even bigger arcs than they had in the book. And by the end, a lot came together with it. And we really like that they were taking a handoff from Izzy, that Izzy wasn’t trying to burn down the house, Izzy was trying to destroy these things that her family wouldn’t let her get rid of that didn’t feel like her. And in the chaos of that, and trying to set that fire, they get this idea to set their own fires and to burn down these images of themselves that don’t feel like them anymore, or certainly aren’t who they want to be.”
This led to another big beat, which was that even though Izzy got the gas canister and her siblings lit the fire, Elena takes responsibility for it in the end.
“And I think when she does that, it’s not to cover, it’s how she truly feels,” Tigelaar said. “Like, she did feel like she started the fire. So we did kind of get to earn that with Elena without her literally having to do it. So even though it feels like a significant change, I feel it just added more layers and complexity to the initial spark, which is that Izzy grabs a gas canister out of her pain and loss and rage and goes to burn something down. It’s just they finish it for her.”
At the end of the finale, after she’s confessed to setting a fire she did not set and learned her daughter Izzy has run away from home, Elena stumbles upon the art project that Mia has left behind for her to find in the apartment Mia and Pearl (Lexi Underwood) rented from the Richardsons. In the book, Mia left the entire Richardson family photos that were personalized to them to call out specific pieces of their lives that Mia found important — good or bad. In the show, she instead leaves a scale model of Shaker Heights, covered in flour, with the Richardson house at the center, replaced by a birdcage with a feather in it.
“I think the Mia in the book felt a little bit different than the Mia in the show — not that we set out to make her drastically different,” Tigelaar said. “But I think when Kerry was cast and Mia became a Black woman, I think we had to look at everything through the lens of a Black woman’s experience and a Black woman’s art and what a Black woman would want to do for this white family, given how they have treated her. And one thing we really didn’t want to fall into that felt very important was into this trope of a Black woman leaving something for white people that was a gift that left them better off than they were, or this idea that Mia could really see these children and took the time to let them know that she really saw them for who they were and what they could be. That just didn’t feel truthful to the story that we had told to that point, but we obviously wanted to take the truth in the art at the end of the book, because it’s beautiful. And the thing that felt the most truthful to us was this idea of the cage and the idea of the feather and the cage actually being the Richardson house. And that’s how the art came to be.”
She added: “The whole idea is that it’s this town covered in this white flour and this flour is cementing everything into its place and things feel immovable and things feel like they can’t change and everything feels stuck, including this house. But where the house should be, there’s a cage. And it’s this idea of, is Elena the cage or is Elena the bird, the feather inside the cage? Because she’s been as caged as anybody while still being the cage. So it’s this hopeful idea that through the actions of her children, she too can escape, and just like Mia said, maybe something new can come from this scorched earth and she can be something different that’s closer to who she’d wanted to be.”
The last significant change from the end of Ng’s book is that in the show, Mia and Pearl actually roll up in front of the house of Mia’s parents so that Pearl can go inside and finally meet the grandparents that her mother has been estranged from for years. Though what is the same here is Pearl decides she is not ready to see her birth father or her would-have-been adoptive mother — who Mia also kept her from.
“I love the idea from the book that Pearl wasn’t ready to see them and certainly isn’t thinking of them as parents in the same way,” Tigelaar said. “And that the family that she longs for and that connects her isn’t this ‘birth family’ who she doesn’t know, it’s the family that she has, it’s the family that’s connected to her mother, Mia. And again, through the actions of your children, you are able to overcome the cages you are in. Mia has also been separated from her family for 16 years. And the idea that through her daughter, she could come back to this family and that there could be healing. I just thought it was really beautiful.”
“And I talked about it with Kerry and she had this idea that they would pull up and that Mia would allow Pearl to go in, but that Mia did not want to go in herself,” she added. “But then, as we were shooting it, there was this idea, well maybe Mia could get out of the car and maybe we can see her on the precipice of could she do this. And there’s something really beautiful and healing about that, too. That through your children, you can heal.”
As for whether there will be a second season for what Hulu has always promoted as a limited series, Tigelaar says they’re going to stick with the ending they have crafted for the show.
“I feel like we’ve told the complete story,” she told us. “Listen, selfishly would I like a Season 2 because I love all these people, I love the show and I would sit in that writers’ room forever? I would love a Season 2. But I don’t see an organic Season 2 that really honors how these characters would interact. Put it this way — with how it ends, I don’t know how Elena and Mia ever come into each other’s orbits again. I don’t know what a show is like if they are never in the same place, crossing each other again. But in retrospect, I look at the flashback episode with AnnaSophia [Robb] and Tiffany [Boone] and think, well that could have been all of Season 2. But we needed it for Season 1.”