Expats kicks off with a wave of tragedies. A doctor falls asleep at the wheel, killing three pedestrians. Pilots of a small aircraft get too close to a ski lift, their plane wing cutting the cable and sending skiers plunging to their deaths. A friendly tussle between two twin brothers results in one being paralyzed for life. All accidents, all shattering the lives of victims and perpetrators alike.
Recounting these stories in a matter-of-fact tone is Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a young woman who positions herself as the perpetrator of an unknown tragedy and who bears the burden of it every day. “People like me,” she wonders, “are they forgiven?”
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That question is one of many Expats creator Lulu Wang (The Farewell) seeks to untangle over this six-episode miniseries. Also joining the fray are ideations on motherhood, marriage, and sense of place, all of which connect a web of Hong Kong-based expatriates like Mercy. Wang spins this web deftly for the most part, even as the latter episodes begin to flag.
What is Expats about?
Brian Tee and Nicole Kidman in “Expats.”
Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video
Along with its opening stories of doctors and pilots and twins, Expats, adapted from Janice Y.K. Lee’s 2016 novel The Expatriates, centers on a tragedy of its own — one that forever changes the lives of three American women living in Hong Kong.
Our initial gateway into their lives is former architect Margaret (Nicole Kidman). Her greatest frustration used to be the housewife status that came with her husband Clarke’s (Brian Tee) relocation to Hong Kong for work. However, that’s been overshadowed by the disappearance of her youngest son, Gus (Connor James). Her grief is ever-present, clouding her actions and her relationships to everyone around her, including the rest of her family.
Margaret lives in the same luxury apartment complex as businesswoman Hilary (Sarayu Blue), whose marriage to David (Jack Huston) is fast approaching the breaking point due to issues of infertility and infidelity. Making matters worse is David’s behavior on the night Gus went missing, which has increased the rift between him and Hilary and created further tension with Margaret.
Rounding out the trio is Mercy. A recent Columbia graduate, Mercy struggles to find a clear direction, flitting on the edges of friend groups and the fancy events she works at as a caterer. Her disconnect from her surroundings stems not from general apathy but from a bone-deep sense of guilt about her role in Margaret’s loss.
Wang peels apart exactly how all these women are related by moving backward and forward in time, showing us the build-up to Gus’s disappearance and the aftermath. Everyone and everything in this series orbits around this one event, and the consequences — from blowout fights to affairs — are as varied as they are painful.
Expats presents three fascinating leads.
Bonde Sham and Ji-young Yoo in “Expats.”
Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video
There’s a lot to love about Expats, especially how Wang mines the deep emotional stakes of even the most mundane moments. In her hands, and thanks to the performances of Kidman, Blue, and Yoo, a walk to an elevator or a simple car ride can speak volumes.
Kidman does an admirable job shouldering Margaret’s grief, but it’s Blue and Yoo who steal the show. Blue’s Hilary is often outwardly restrained, her rehearsed smiles at business dinners barely hinting at personal turmoil beneath. Yet as that restraint crumbles over the show’s run, Blue unveils Hilary’s vulnerabilities with quiet, deliberate care. By contrast, Yoo’s Mercy feels wilder, masking her guilt with dark jokes until the pain overwhelms her and she lashes out. It’s a staggering performance, especially when coupled with Mercy’s navigation of her outsider status in Hong Kong.
Yes, all three women are outsiders, yet Hilary and Margaret keep themselves in a bubble of wealth and fellow expats. Meanwhile, Mercy often finds herself explaining to Hong Kong citizens that she’s actually Korean American and doesn’t speak Cantonese. Her relationship to her own identity as she navigates her time in Hong Kong makes for Expats‘ most meaningful exploration of the impacts of displacement.
Expats has its fair share of frustrations.
Amelyn Pardenilla and Sarayu Blue in “Expats.”
Credit: Courtesy of Prime Video
Despite the entire show taking place in Hong Kong, with Wang employing a number of gorgeous shots of its high rises and crowded streets, the city and its inhabitants can sometimes fade into the background. That seems to mimic how Hilary and especially Margaret experience Hong Kong: They spend most of their time in their bubble, and very little time trying to embed themselves in the city.
Expats spends most of its run in that bubble as well, only truly breaking out for its fifth episode, “Central.” Over its hour-and-a-half runtime, “Central” dives deeper into the lives of side characters like Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla), Margaret and Hilary’s housekeepers. Originally from the Philippines, Essie and Puri are expats too, and we get a glimpse into their own communities and the families they may have left at home. Particularly fascinating is Hilary and Puri’s relationship, which toggles between employer and employee to confidants, depending on Hilary’s emotional state.
Also highlighted in “Central” is political turmoil in Hong Kong, specifically the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Notably, Expats garnered controversy while shooting in Hong Kong, in part because of worries it would ignore valuable political context in favor of focusing on privileged foreigners, and in part because of an easing of COVID-19 restrictions for stars while filming. The spotlight on the Umbrella Movement, as well as references to the “old Hong Kong” dying, seem like responses to that criticism. Unfortunately, shoehorning them into a supersized episode towards the end of the series is an inelegant solution. Any political sentiment fails to get the space it needs to breathe. The same goes for Puri and Essie’s stories, which still feel sandwiched between their employers’ angst.
This isn’t to say that Margaret, Hilary, and Mercy’s stories aren’t worth watching: They are, and they are bristling with moving musings on what it means to try to process pain when you’re so far from home. But they work so much better when they consider the city where they take place. For example, in one standout sequence, a trip to a night market goes from an enchanting evening to a nightmare in the span of seconds. Later, Wang zooms out, showing the market’s daily routine in full, and you become aware of just how small (but no less heartbreaking) these stories are in the context of the larger city of Hong Kong. It’s an absolute gut punch of a moment — one Expats, while compelling, could use even more of.