Since the very beginning, Little Fires Everywhere has taken every opportunity to exhibit the stark differences between its leads Elena Richardson and Mia Warren. This ranges from their personalities to mothering techniques to viewpoints on affluence and race with a culmination of the two in the sides they choose in the custody struggle for May Ling/Mirabelle. However, in episode six, titled “The Uncanny,” we get to witness the one similitude between them. The hour centers solely on Elena and Mia during the early ’80s, about 15 years before they met each other. Their life experiences vary greatly and yet, in this episode, Elena and Mia struggle to cope with their individual realities before embarking on the path that transforms them into impassioned women (and mothers) we know them to be in the present day.
Reese Witherspoon and Kerry Washington square off against each other, igniting the right amount of chemistry in every scene they share to bring to life the dualities of their characters. The actresses who play the younger versions of the characters in “The Uncanny”—AnnaSophia Robb and Tiffany Boone—don’t get to share space like their on-screen counterparts but their performances leave a massive impact. Robb is especially astonishing in mimicking the specific mannerisms and movements that Witherspoon brings to Elena.
The episode works not just because of the performances, but because it reveals the truth behind last week’s cliffhanger, which Elena learned from Mia’s parents: Pearl was never supposed to be their grandchild. What is the big secret that has led Mia away from them (she hasn’t seen them in over a decade), moving Pearl from city to city for all of her life, and what role does Jesse Williams from her nightmare have to play? Little Fires Everywhere finally clues us in, and in doing so, tries to draw some unexpected parallels between Elena and Mia’s trajectories.
In the latter’s case, a young Mia is heading to the School of Visual Arts in New York City much to the chagrin of her parents. The only supportive family member is her brother Warren (Aubrey Joseph). At school, she becomes a mentee under professor Pauline Hawthorne (Anika Noni Rose) but their relationship grows romantically over the next several months. During this time, Mia agrees to be the surrogate for a wealthy couple named Joe (Jesse Williams) and Madeline Ryan (Nicole Beharie). He approaches her after spotting her in the subway, realizing she looks an awful lot like his wife. They pay her the $12,000 she needs to continue classes after budget cuts force her scholarship to be rescinded.
Joe is the man from Mia’s present-day nightmares so at least this confirms his identity as Pearl’s real father. She’s clearly afraid he will return to their life and take Pearl away from her. But why would Mia decide to essentially keep Pearl away from the Ryans and raise her by herself? Mia’s world crumbles months into her pregnancy when she learns Warren passed away. She goes to her hometown in Pennsylvania only to be told not to come to the funeral by her parents, who are disappointed and don’t want to answer questions about her circumstances.
Instead of heading back, she lies to Joe and Madeline in a letter that she lost the baby. She decides not to give up her kid, despite the agreement, as an ode to Warren. She gets into his truck—the same blue Chevy she has today—and keeps driving. A montage shows her giving birth and Pearl’s growing years as they use that car to move from place to place until they reach Shaker Heights in 1997. At least this explains why Mia is so strongly advocating that Bebe Chow gets the rights to her own newborn daughter.
As for Elena, in 1981, she’s heading back to work weeks after giving birth to her third kid Moody (real name: Michael, in case you were wondering). She learns she didn’t get the promotion she was vying for; not just that, she’s also pregnant again. Elena isn’t sure she wants a fourth child, but Bill and her mother are certain this is positive news. She discusses the possibility of abortion with her own mother—another parallel, this time to what Lexie undergoes in episode five—who vehemently opposes it.
Once Izzy is born, she’s a fussy baby, which begins to take a toll on Elena’s emotional and mental wellbeing. One night, she leaves the kids with Bill and storms out. In a panicked state, she calls her ex Jamie and they meet at a bar in Rochester. Their night out ends with them making out in his motel room. He professes his love for her and tells her she doesn’t need to settle or live miserably. She visibly freaks out, blames him for taking advantage of her, and leaves in a huff before driving back home the next morning.
This meeting between them was alluded to in “The Duo,” when Jamie signaled to Elena in present-day New York City that she hadn’t changed from their last encounter. It’s clear as day that a part of Elena has always regretted not pursuing her passion and choosing to live a quieter life instead. Maybe that’s why she was always drawn to Mia — you know, besides superficial white guilt — because she’s a woman who channels her pain through her art and doesn’t have to explain herself to anyone. In “The Uncanny,” the one thread between the two women is that they became mothers sooner than they expected to be and lose someone close to them in the process. Elena gains a whole family but at the cost of her own dreams and Jamie. Mia’s heartbreak is severe and twofold. She loses Warren but also her own love, Pauline, who we learn passed away from cancer suddenly a few months after a pregnant Mia ran from home.
A standout dialogue from the episode ends up unveiling the meaning of their almost darkly serendipitous bond. While teaching her class, Pauline asks them what beauty is and if it lies in the uncanny before answering her own question with depth: “Consider Sigmund Freud’s definition of it. The uncanny is in that class of the terrifying which leads back to something known to us, once very familiar.”
- Big props again to the casting team of this show because the younger versions of not just Elena and Mia but also Bill (Matthew Barnes), Linda (Alona Tal), and Mark (Andy Favreau) look extremely on-point.
- Just as the audience learns the motives behind Mia supporting Bebe, it’s easy to sympathize with Linda and Mark McCollough, who in this episode suffer from a miscarriage only to learn that their best friends are expecting a fourth child.
- “The Uncanny” is a break from the plot of the show but it’s a very necessary episode to understand the characters better. I just wish we had it sooner because it adds more depth to them now.
- I loved seeing the roster of notable cameos here this week, including Jessica Tuck and Britt Robertson along with the ones already mentioned.
- Does this episode soften your stance on Elena or Mia at all? Their predicaments are challenging and, at some level, very relatable too.
- Side note, readers: I’m not sure agreeing to carry the child of a man who followed you from the New York City subway is a good idea, yes?