[Warning: The following contains spoilers for the Little Fires Everywhere finale. Read at your own risk!]
Even fans of the book couldn't have seen the end of Hulu's Little Fires Everywhere coming. The eight-episode miniseries signed off on Wednesday with a scorching finale that finally solved the mystery at the heart of the show: Who set those little fires, anyway? As it turned out, it wasn't the most obvious suspect.
Although in the novel it's rebellious youngest daughter Izzy (Megan Stott) who burns down the Richardsons' house, in the series that honor goes to her three siblings: Lexie (Jade Pettyjohn), Trip (Jordan Elsass), and Moody (Gavin Lewis). In a stunning scene, her sister and brothers confront Izzy just as she's about to light the match, leading to a dramatic confrontation with their mother, Elena (Reese Witherspoon), that escalates until Izzy runs away. Her siblings pick up where she left off, setting fire to a life they no longer want any part of.
For director and executive producer Lynn Shelton, changing such a key scene from Celeste Ng's 2017 novel was an exciting gamble. "It's always a question mark: How are we going to be able to satisfy the readers who loved the original material?" she said. "But at the same time, we wanted to make sure to take opportunities to expand and also explore other possibilities that the material might hold within it. So it's a little bit like a choose-your-own-adventure."
TV Guide caught up with Shelton, who directed the finale (along with the premiere and Episodes 4 and 5), to get her take on what the new twist does for the story of Little Fires Everywhere. She also discussed the changes to Mia's (Kerry Washington) final art project, Elena's primal scream, and, of course, playing with actual fire.
"We talked for months about the fire," said Shelton -- and yes, many of those flames were real. The practical effects for the Richardsons' burning home were filmed the same day as the opening titles. "We had a fire day," the director revealed. "It was the very end of the shoot, because we shot actual props that were used throughout the whole series for the opening title sequence." For the house fire, the team created replicas of the windows in the real-life mansion used as the show's exterior and lit fires that were shaped by the fireproof window frames. Those elements were then added to the digital composite of the house on fire. Real fire was also used for the shot of Elena watching the house burn. "We had fire right next to the camera, with these flame bars, they're called, and these lighting effects," Shelton explained. "You can see it happening in [Witherspoon's] eyes and happening on her face, as she's looking up at this totally safe, normal house and then acting her ass off."
Similar effects were used when the Richardson kids set their bedrooms on fire. "The actor would throw the match and then run to the doorway and look back at what they'd lit on fire. And meanwhile, you'd see a flame rise up in front of the camera, but it was really from the flame bar," Shelton revealed. "So it was all careful editing and shooting, but we were playing with fire. It was just controlled fire."
When Lexie, Trip, and Moody light their rooms on fire, Shelton sees it as a way to finish what Izzy started. "Although I don't think that Izzy meant to burn down the house," the director clarified. "She was just burning her old life. She was trying to cast out the projection that her mother kept trying to put onto her of who she wanted her to be." She pointed to Izzy's frilly curtains and her tartan Keds as emblems of Elena's "iron grip" over her youngest daughter. "The beautiful thing about it, too, is that the siblings then rally around their sibling. They realize that they've done her wrong," said Shelton. "Letting them follow through on that initial act of burning away the toxicity of the Richardson life, and the prison of it -- which is reinforced by this golden cage that Mia puts in her artwork -- it allows for redemption and growth to occur for all of the characters."
That includes, ultimately, Elena. In a full-circle moment bringing the show back to the start of the premiere, a cop asks Elena who burned down the family home. But in the finale, Shelton said, "you get to actually see Elena say, 'I did it,' and realize she's now taken it on herself, too. She realizes how she played a factor in every single step that led to this. And that's beautiful too, because it means that she also gets to have a chance at redemption."
Before the kids light the fires, they get into a devastating fight with their mother that ends in Lexie revealing she was the one who had the abortion, not Pearl (Lexi Underwood). Witherspoon and Pettyjohn really go there; Elena shrieks at her eldest daughter at the top of her lungs. But Shelton said not every take involved so much screaming. Because the end of the fight, which spills out into the hallway, was shot before the earlier scene in Izzy's bedroom, the actors filmed a number of options to make sure the emotion felt balanced. "Reese was saying, 'If that scene beforehand is me and Izzy just screaming at each other -- if it ends up [that] that's the best version of the scene -- I don't think we're going to want to follow it with another completely screaming, high-pitched version,'" Shelton recalled. Witherspoon filmed everything from the shrill scream that made it to the final cut to an "icy" and low pitched confrontation.
"Reese and Kerry -- and Josh [Jackson], for that matter -- were so generous with the younger actors," Shelton said, adding that Washington would show up for Underwood's emotional scenes even when her character wasn't in them. While filming Elena's fight with Lexie in the hallway, Shelton said, "off camera Reese would do whatever Jade needed to get her to the level of emotionality. Sometimes she would change the line. Sometimes she would just do little surprising things. And then they of course hug afterwards, say, 'I didn't mean it.'"
She may not be the one who burns the house down, but the finale is still an emotional episode for Izzy, who runs away in search of the Warrens after Elena evicts them. "What [Izzy] really yearns for is her own mother's love, and she feels like she's never had it," said Shelton. She added that to Izzy, Mia is "the first person in her life who she really has felt understands her and sees her and would be capable of loving her. Because that's what love is: understanding somebody. Having somebody see you for who you are, accept you for who you are."
The director recalled watching showrunner Liz Tigelaar react while filming the scene in which Izzy runs down the driveway and realizes the Warrens are gone. "There's one take where [Tigelaar] actually screams along with Megan," Shelton laughed. "She would get so impassioned during production; it was really wild. Because she lived with those characters longer than anybody and was the first person on the job to start developing the book into a TV show. She just became so personally invested in all of them... That was a very intense night."
The finale also concluded the tense custody hearing between Bebe Chow (Huang Lu) and Linda McCullough (Rosemarie DeWitt), a storyline that challenged Shelton to find empathy for Linda. "I have to say that in the book, I think probably Linda McCullough was the character that I felt the least connection to," the director said. "And that was something we wanted to make sure didn't happen in the TV series, so that you felt a little bit more of a real sense of uncertainty about who the kid belongs with, [and so] there was a genuine tug in your heart and an understanding of both -- even if you had a clear side and a clear favorite, that you could really see the other side. And you understood where they were both coming from and neither of them were villainized."
At the same time, Shelton and the rest of the creative team wanted to show "a well-meaning person putting their foot in their mouth." The director said Linda's defensiveness on the stand evokes "white fragility and white privilege, and the idea that if your own racism is pointed out to you, or the fact of racism is pointed out to you, as a white person who's liberal and thinks the last thing they want to be is a racist because that's being a monster -- then they spend all their energy trying to defend themselves... as opposed to just being able to have their eyes opened to the fact that the whole the whole system's rigged."
Mia's final art project in the series involves a model of Shaker Heights covered in flour, with a golden cage where the Richardsons' house should be. The cage door is open; a red feather Izzy kept in her room hangs inside. The model is a departure from the photographs Mia leaves the Richardsons in the book. "They were sort of little lessons," Shelton said of the photos in the novel. The team behind the series wanted to move away from the idea of Mia using "her own art-making energy to somehow be a teacher to these people, and instead shift it over to: This is a piece of art that she made for her own interest, her own obsessive interest." Because Mia's art is the photos she takes, the model isn't left behind as a message for the Richardsons, Shelton explained. "She wasn't leaving that piece of art for them, for Elena or for anyone. That was just the leftover of what her artwork was."
As for the project itself, the writers and producers settled on the model of the town because it was a way to show the characters' relationship with the town of Shaker Heights. "The whole motto of the place is that everything's better planned. You can avoid strife and anguish and all this stuff," said Shelton. "So Shaker Heights itself is a character, and the character, really. It's what's shaped these people and [Elena] in particular. She's sort of the mascot of the place." Izzy, meanwhile, "is the feather in this in this very regimented and predetermined and ultimately kind of frozen place." From that concept, artist Connie Martin Trevino created the finished product. "It said exactly what we wanted it to say," said Shelton. "And the idea that art can say so much with no words is also something that I'm very happy that the show can express."
Little Fires Everywhere is now streaming on Hulu.