“Prestige TV” is often synonymous with “show about sad rich people,” and by that metric, “Expats” (Amazon Prime Video) is easily among the most prestigious shows. At first, its silky misery seems hollow — even banal — but over the course of six episodes, that void becomes less of a void and more of a vessel, containing elegant and complicated ideas about class, pain, and mothering.
Nicole Kidman, whose mere presence evokes the misfortune of the rich, plays Margaret, an American mother living in Hong Kong because of her husband’s career. When viewers meet her, she is in a fragile, paralyzed state of grief, although the details of her agony remain vague until the end of the second episode, leaving the audience in the uncomfortable position of hungering for something more. terrible thing to happen to a child, just to shake things up already.
Fortunately – well, unfortunately – things are actually starting to change. Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a young Korean-American woman struggling to find herself, or at least rent money, believes she is cursed and accidentally catalyzes a catastrophe. Margaret’s friend and expat Hilary (Sarayu Blue) is experiencing her own marital crisis, exacerbated by the fallout from Margaret’s tragedy. Essie (Ruby Ruiz), Margaret’s housekeeper and nanny, grieves with her employers and misses her own adult children in the Philippines. Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla), Hilary’s housekeeper, admires and resents her boss. Margaret says Essie is “family.” Puri calls Hilary his friend. In each case, the woman’s peers attempt to correct her.
Repeatedly throughout the show, mothers tell their children to “go home.” However, no one really knows where this is, geographically or psychologically. Is it not with you that you hang on to your violent resentments? Love and suffering flow here at equal speed, with money or lack thereof as a substitute for both. When mothering is reconfigured as paid work, what happens to both mothering and work?
“Expats,” created and directed by Lulu Wang, and adapted from the novel “The Expatriates” by Janice YK Lee, is a story of overlaps. Money, pain, guilt, peace, agency – all of it piles on top of each other, in Hong Kong’s dense skyscrapers and in the characters’ busy family trees. Building B-roll abounds and every driving scene seems to take place on a hill. In a clever and clever twist, a scene’s dialogue often begins before the previous scene is completely over, an argument beginning before we even know its combatants. The characters’ stories collapse into each other, iterations of a great maternal conflict.
Two episodes of “Expats” arrived on January 26 and the next four arrive weekly on Fridays. The first and second episodes are good; the third and fourth episodes are good; the fifth and sixth episodes are breathtaking.