'Little Fires Everywhere' Ending Explained: Why the Series Made Big Changes From the Book (Exclusive)

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Little Fires Everywhere
Hulu

Warning: This story contains spoilers from the Little Fires Everywhere finale.

Little Fires Everywhere saved its biggest surprise for last.

Hulu's adaptation of Celeste Ng's best-selling novel dropped a major bombshell in the final episode of the eight-part series: It wasn't Izzy, the "black sheep" of the Richardson family, who set the house ablaze, as the book reveals early on. It was her siblings, Moody, Lexie and Trip, who lit the matches and watched as their rooms and, on a metaphorical level, their lives go up in flames.

Their uptight, rule-following mother, Elena, in a moment of clarity in the aftermath, tells the cop that she was the one who set the house on fire. Not in a literal way, of course, but symbolically. That her actions were the root of all this chaos.

But with Izzy now a runaway with the intention of starting anew elsewhere, Mia and Pearl venturing off to destinations unknown (after a pit stop to Mia's estranged parents' home) and Elena realizing too late that Izzy may have been the child she shared the most in common with, the open-ended conclusion leaves much to the viewers' interpretation and imagination.

Following the release of the final episode, showrunner and executive producer Liz Tigelaar breaks down the ending of Little Fires Everywhere, why major changes were made from the book and the reason viewers shouldn't expect a season 2.

ET: The series makes several significant changes, especially to the question of who started the fire. In the book, it's Izzy who sets the house on fire. Here, it's her siblings who ultimately go through with the act. Why was this change made?

Liz Tigelaar: On the first page of the book, you know it was Izzy. In terms of adapting it as a limited series, there obviously is this great mystery of who started the fire, so we felt like, why answer it in the beginning? We can let the audience think they know the answer and certainly the people who read the book will think they know the answer, and maybe Izzy could be the answer, but let's make it more of an overarching mystery. That was our first attack. Then it was fun thinking about, if it wasn't Izzy, who could it be and what could we earn?

Who wouldbe the craziest person to start the fire? It was Elena, because she'd be burning down her own house that she seems to value so much. Could we ever earn that? It would be the biggest 180 of a character. We all talked about it as producers and were [debating it]: "What grown woman would do that? Is it really believable?" We decided no, it feels like you have to be a misguided teenager to do something like that; it is arson and it's one thing to read it, but it's another thing to see it. Who would it be: Lexie, Moody or Trip? It didn't feel like it would be any of them until I had the idea of, but what if it was them collectively? What if we tell the story where they had abandoned Izzy long ago? 

And so, we talked about making their arcs even bigger and really seeing who they were and who they'd become being raised by these parents living in this house, and seeing their mom through Izzy's eyes. When I pitched [the show] originally, I had pitched it with this idea of Izzy feeling as though she wants to burn this house down, but it's actually the the other siblings who end up doing it for her. That's what we set out to do and we worked to make Izzy more isolated and worked to expand Moody's story, really take the Lexie-Brian story to even bigger heights and certainly Trip's love for Pearl. We built to this moment where they see how Izzy experiences life with their mother. They really see a very raw, ugly side of Elena and it propels them into action.

Little Fires Everywhere
Hulu

Everything happens in the matter of an hour or so. Why did you want to accelerate that timeline?

Everything needed to happen a lot quicker and we needed to put this clock on it where everything happens in a night, instead of over the course of a week or days. It felt like, to get to [the point where you're] burning down a house, you had to be at such a fever pitch where you were on all emotion and adrenaline and not thinking of any consequences. What I love about the story is, in the end, Elena takes responsibility for it, but I don't think she's doing that in a hollow way, I think it goes back to the original pitch of what if Elena started the fire? And it's like, well, in her mind she did start the fire. Yes, Izzy got the gas canister and the other kids lit the matches, but Elena takes the responsibility that this fire is her fault, which I love.

When Elena tells the cop she was the one who set the house on fire, was that to cover for her kids? Was that intended for us to empathize with her a little bit more? 

I think it's the turn where you really see that she... I feel like Reese [Witherspoon] played it, certainly in how she looked and how she reacted, it's like you see this woman who's stripped bare and she finally can see that she did this. She started this and I don't think she's taking credit in a protective way, I think she really is saying, "I did this. This is my fault. I caused this. My actions caused this." And of course, you can think back to her calling the cops on Mia for sleeping in the parking lot, and it's like, we saw how this started and she, in that moment, gets it.

Mia brings Pearl to her parents' house to meet them, after being estranged from them since the death of her brother, Warren. Why was it important to show this moment and have that be their final scene?

I love the idea of her bringing her there, because I liked that what was important to Pearl, when push came to shove, was not meeting her biological father [Joe Ryan, played by Jesse Williams,] and what would have been her adoptive mother, because Madeline [Ryan, played by Nicole Beharie,] would've had to adopt her. But the family she's longing for is still the family connected to Mia. She still sees Mia as her mother, and that Mia is and will always be her mother, and that's the family she's longing to connect with. And that Mia, despite being estranged, is brave enough to take her there and is able to let Pearl do the thing that she can't. Of course, at the end, in seeing Pearl do it, you see the wheels turning in Mia. Can she do it too? Can she get out of the car? Can she walk up that walkway?

Have you thought about where Izzy ends up, if she seeks out Mia and Pearl? Where does she go?

Yeah. We talked about that a lot in the room: Where is she actually going? Of course, the realistic version is she probably gets on a bus and has to turn around and come right back to Shaker Heights. That's probably really what happened, which is not the ending that you want to see. (Laughs.) But we talked about it all different ways. Does she find Mia? Does she know where to go? Does she go to the gallery? And Anita's like, "Oh boy, this girl." She doesn't need to have a sidekick. I think that the book left things ambiguous enough. It was one of those moments where I felt like the more we overthought it, the more we genuinely felt worried about Izzy.

Little Fires Everywhere
Hulu

I'm definitely worried about Izzy.

Yeah. I think you're not supposed to necessarily not feel worried, but what you're supposed to feel is this idea of she's shedding something. She's leaving something behind and even if she has to come right back to [to Shaker Heights] because she has nowhere to go, she's coming back a different person.

When Elena sees Mia's art project that she leaves behind, with the birdcage in the center, what does this final scene signify to you?

I love that final scene, because we've got Pearl's poem over it and you've got the epic art piece. We talked all about the art piece. It's this blinding white town and it's embedded in flour, where all these places and houses and homes are immovable and so deeply rooted, and couldn't be any different, even if they wanted to. We just loved the idea of recreating this town and then having this cage, which is where the Richardson house should be -- you see the driveway and the carport and the fountain and the tree -- and then you see this cage with this feather inside of it. We see the origin story of the feather and we know that this feather represents Izzy. But then you start to see that the feather could represent Elena too, and all this time we've seen Elena as the cage, but there is this other idea that Elena herself has also been caged.

When Elena reaches into this open door and pulls out the feather, the idea is that this house burning down has freed her too. On some level, you could argue that she's manifested this and that her kids have done for her what she maybe couldn't do herself. I think that's a theme of the book too, that your kids challenge you. They can be braver, they can be bolder and they can certainly take you to places you never wanted to go, but they can also take you to the place that you should be.

The series makes explicit things that were less clear in the book. One thing that stands out is Izzy's sexuality. Why did it become clear to you that this was something that deserved more of a platform in the series?

I think in the beginning, after I read the book and was thinking about ways I wanted to adapt it, I asked Celeste, "Did it ever occur to you that Izzy could be gay?" And she said, "Yes, I felt that way, but it felt like a whole other story," that she didn't really have room for. I said, "I kind of feel that way too." And it also felt like the book is so diverse and intersectional in terms of the stories that are being told. Obviously, look, there are a lot of ways as a society we haven't come as far and certainly there are ways we could come farther. But as somebody who's a bisexual woman, I can say that a lot has changed since the '90s, even in terms of being allowed to get married.

It just felt really worth exploring and it felt like a way to take the conflict between Elena and Izzy -- that in the book was stemming from Izzy, from Elena's hard pregnancy and Izzy being a sick baby -- it gave an opportunity to make them present issues, with room for reveals. And that was something that really meant a lot to me in the adaptation, especially in the episode when Mia and Izzy have this heart to heart and when you finally see the backstory between Izzy and April and just how sweet and tender they are together and how much love there is between them. And then, of course, how awful the betrayal feels.

It really contextualizes why Izzy is the way she is at the moment we meet her at the start of the story and that it's deeper than just the typical teenage rebellion.

Yeah, look, every teenager wants to rebel for the sake of rebelling, but I think what it added with Izzy was it felt like there were very real stakes and it made Mia become this life raft where it was the only place she really felt safe. And then, of course, being able to learn Mia's own experience and backstory also, I think, gave hope to Izzy that maybe her life could still be OK. Maybe she could have all the things that she longs for and be true to herself.

Little Fires Everywhere
Hulu

Is there a scene that brings out the ugly cry? 

Oh god. In episode seven, when Izzy is saying, "All I see is sky and water to the horizon and I wonder how long I'm going to have to swim." I've seen that scene so many times and every time I have tears running down my face. And that moment when Mia talks about losing her brother and the person who loved her [Pauline Hawthorne], and when Izzy realizes that it was a woman, you can honestly see Megan [Stott]'s eyes fill with tears. And our editor was so adamant about using this take; she came down to my office and said, " Did you see that her eyes fill with tears?" And I was like, "Oh my god. You're right." You could see them burning into her little eyes and that scene really moves me.

And really, the finale. The same thing with the Mia-Izzy scene, where she talks about scorching the earth, that scene starts and I honestly don't stop crying until the end of the credits. The knocks between Mia and Pearl, that's something I used to do with my mom and just seeing that chokes me up. Lexi Underwood and Jade Pettyjohn's face when Lexie's getting an abortion all by herself, there are just so many moments. I was so blown away by all the kids, especially. You expect it from Reese and Kerry [Washington], and Josh [Jackson] and Rosemarie [DeWitt], but you're watching teenagers step up. The other scene I thought was so beautiful, it didn't make me teary but I thought it was so tender, was the April-Izzy scene in the closet. They were so sweet with each other and they were so brave within that scene and they took it so seriously and they just seemed so loving, like any couple. As a bisexual woman, to get to put that out there, it made me feel very emotional because that's not something you always get to see portrayed in that way with its sweetness.

Have you had conversations about Little Fires Everywhere continuing on with a second season? Is that possible here? What are your personal feelings on this?

Well, look, selfishly I want to say yes. This has been one of the best experiences of my life. I would be in that writers' room forever, and I would obviously write for Reese and Kerry and everybody involved for the rest of my life. So, I want to say yes. In my heart I feel like it's a limited series, I feel like we told the story. I would shudder to think of a contrived way to get Mia and Elena back in each other's orbit that would at all feel real. I guess I would never want to say never, but I see this as a story that had its beginning, middle and end. And I love the ending. I wouldn't want to diminish Celeste's book by, I don't know, not cannibalizing it, but I wouldn't want to diminish it by turning it into what it isn't just because people liked it. I'll be happy if it stays what it is, but at the same time, yes, selfishly I would of course love it to continue.

Little Fires Everywhere is streaming now on Hulu. 

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