‘Expats’ Review: Amazon’s Smart, Complex Drama Series Has Something Missing

Lulu Wang's first major project since 'The Farewell' is a big one, and she (mostly) pulls off this Hong Kong-set drama.

Nicole Kidman stars in Expats. Courtesy of Prime Video

Three women, one city, and countless secrets and complicated relationships between them—that’s the basis upon which Expats is built. Created by Lulu Wang (director of The Farewell) and based on the book The Expatriates by Janice Y.K. Lee, this six-episode series ranges from the complexities of motherhood and womanhood to the political unrest in Hong Kong during the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. And while much of its subject matter resonates, the series ends up ringing a bit hollow.

Expats’ main plot concerns how tragedy begets trauma, with mother of three Margaret (Nicole Kidman) crumbling after the loss of her youngest, Gus. She’s alienated her other kids almost entirely, can’t understand her husband’s (Brian Tee) pleas for normalcy, and her suspicions about the fateful event have all but poisoned her friendships. That includes her relationship with neighbors Hilary (Sarayu Blue) and David (Jack Huston), a couple whose marriage is on the rocks after Margaret’s accusations and difficult disagreements about having kids. Beyond their high-rise Hong Kong apartment complex, there’s Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), whose actions (or lack thereof) set things into motion in the first place. The show weaves a many-layered web, and characters only get more tied together as the series goes on.

Beyond the main characters, who are all some variation of wealthy or otherwise privileged expats staying in Hong Kong, there are several other key members of the ensemble: there’s Essie (Ruby Ruiz) and Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla), the Filipino housekeepers for Margaret and Hilary’s respective homes, as well as Charly (Bonde Sham), an idealistic local who catches Mercy’s eye. Together, this group paints quite the picture of Hong Kong, adding to Wang’s visual flair for capturing city life objectively, with static shots of bustling streets, cramped scenes in crappy apartments, and more.

There is plenty to appreciate about Expats and how it captures complexities. The loss of Gus isn’t as cut and dry as the first episode makes it seem, with one of Margaret’s other children drawing a picture of his brother standing with Jesus creating a slew of questions. Gus is gone, yes, but not necessarily dead—the boy is missing, maybe kidnapped, maybe worse, but no one knows for sure. That lack of a resolution haunts Margaret and Clarke in different ways, with the former obsessed with finding him and the latter coming to the conclusion that it may be better to move on for the sake of their remaining kids. That moral conundrum is rich, and Kidman and Tee mine it for all it’s worth. It’s hardly a mystery to be solved and there’s no culprit to be caught, and the drama at the heart of the show benefits.

Amelyn Pardenilla as Puri and Ruby Ruiz as Essie in Expats. Courtesy of Prime Video

Another highlight of the series is how it treats the relationship between employer and employee in the home. It’s the norm for well-to-do expats like Margaret and Hilary to have live-in help, and while each woman tries to establish boundaries, they find it difficult. Margaret constantly feels the need to make it clear that Essie is “like family”—she all but raised their kids—but that “like” is always the operative word; Hilary tries to keep her relationship to Puri as professional as she can, but that doesn’t stop her from bringing Puri out as a witness to her and her husband’s arguments, or from putting her own petty wants above Puri’s. In turn, Essie obviously cares for Margaret and Clarke’s kids, and Puri wants to see Hilary succeed in spite of her difficult marriage. The power imbalance isn’t always stagnant between these people, but it’s always there. The feature-length fifth episode explores these relationships more thoroughly (along with a handful of other subplots of varying necessity and thematic significance), and Ruiz and Pardenilla provide some of the show’s most heart-wrenching moments.

Yoo is another standout in the show, a relative unknown tasked with carrying one of the series’ more difficult emotional arcs. Her narration opens and closes Expats, making it as much Mercy’s story as Margaret’s or anyone else’s. Mercy is a tough young woman to figure out—she’s a Columbia grad, but a scholarship student in a sea of trust fund kids; she moved to Hong Kong for a “fresh start” at 24, but she doesn’t know a lick of Cantonese; she says she’s all but broke, but she spends her days biding her time. Throw in the trauma that she caused (and that she received in return), and she’s a veritable mess, albeit one who looks put together from the outside. Mercy’s gradual unraveling and unveiling marks one of the show’s better throughlines, and Yoo guides her character through it without missing a beat.

That said, there are a few beats that Expats does miss. Despite a stirring performance from Blue, Hilary frequently stands as the odd woman out amongst the cast of characters. She has connections to both Mercy and Margaret, but they’re pretty tenuous and she’s often in her own plot entirely. For instance, the fourth episode sees her stuck in an elevator with her own difficult mother and taciturn neighbor for nearly the full runtime, a contrived plot point that leads to endless on-the-nose monologues and dialogues about how her mom treated her and her not wanting her own kids. Hilary does get some great lines that speak to female empowerment, but they’re encased in such a removed story that they don’t make an impact.

Similarly, though the ambiguity of Margaret’s loss is strong, her emotional fallout from it feels uneven. Kidman’s performance hinges on crazy at times, making for an escalation that comes far too quickly for the series’ slow pace. Other characters mention her loose grip on reason and reality post-Gus, and though that comes across excellently at times (Margaret’s methods of keeping her children “safe” may make you recoil), it feels more scripted than fully realized at others.

That issue underlies Expats’ biggest problem, which isn’t a major detraction so much as a mark of missed opportunities. The series is well written, well shot and well acted on the whole, but well-made doesn’t mean perfect. It’s a good show, and certainly a smart one too, but it’s missing something to tie it all together.

The first two episodes of ‘Expats’ premiere on Amazon Prime Video on January 26.

‘Expats’ Review: Amazon’s Smart, Complex Drama Series Has Something Missing