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‘Expats’ Review: Nicole Kidman in Lulu Wang’s Rewardingly Messy Hong Kong-Set Amazon Series

Sitting at the center of Expats is a mystery of the sort that’s fueled countless crime dramas, and countless more true-crime series. On an otherwise unremarkable evening in Hong Kong, a little boy, Gus (Connor J. Gillman), goes missing on a night out with his family. The questions raised by this incident are obvious and urgent: What happened to him? Who did it? Where is he now?

But answers, in Amazon Prime Video’s Expats, are much harder to come by. Indeed, the questions the series is really invested in are the ones that arise when it becomes apparent that satisfying answers never might be obtained, of how to exist alongside such uncertainty and unfairness and unthinkable pain. Its six hour-ish episodes follow this line of thought through explorations of sexism and classism, home and family, and with so many big themes bouncing around, some are inevitably served better than others. But always, the series does its characters the kindness of sitting with their messy truths instead of shoving them toward tidy arcs and clear-cut solutions.

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Directed by Lulu Wang (The Farewell) and based on the novel by Janice Y.K. Lee, Expats largely revolves around three American women in Hong Kong. The first one we encounter is aimless 25-year-old Mercy (an excellent Ji-young Yoo), in the form of her disembodied voice. “I want to know about the people who caused the tragedies. The people like me,” she says over slides of a crumpled car, a broken ski lift, pilots who steered a doomed plane. “Are they ever forgiven? Do they ever move on?”

Mercy’s internal monologue turns out to be directed at Margaret, Gus’ mother, a Nicole-Kidman-in-BigLittleLies type played by Nicole Kidman herself. Margaret carries herself like she’s made of glass, liable to shatter at any moment and lacerate anyone unlucky enough to be in her orbit — usually Clarke (Brian Tee), the husband who’s been struggling to keep things together while she falls apart. Since Gus’ death a year prior, Margaret has been so consumed by her anguish that, as she puts it, she “doesn’t have space inside me” to care about anything else. She’s grown distant even from her best friend and neighbor, Hilary (Sarayu Blue), who’s in the throes of a midlife crisis amid her crumbling relationship with David (Jack Huston).

Expats is patient in its storytelling, which is not to suggest it’s boring — rather, it trusts in the compassion of its writing and the rawness of its performances to hold our attention as its three leads circle around their unwieldy feelings or flail in their ugly fallout. The series stays with Margaret as she sobs in the tub of a cheap flat she’s rented to get away from her own family, and bears witness as she terrifies her remaining children with her uncontrollable fears that something else might happen to them. It allows Mercy plenty of room to explore the jagged edges of an ongoing hookup with a guy she seems to kind of hate, and Hilary the time to wrestle with her ambivalence about marriage, the possibility of parenthood and everything else she’s been told to want her whole life.

And in a touch that elevates it beyond the usual prestige domestic drama, Expats extends that voracious empathy beyond these three families to the rest of the world around them. Wang‘s camera picks up details that aren’t strictly relevant from a plot perspective, but that could be glimpses of other untold stories jostling right up against the ones we’re following: the mop propped across a doorway by some unseen worker, the chauffeur snoozing in a car while his client dines in a restaurant. In the penultimate episode, a 97-minute opus that could almost work as its own stand-alone feature, Expats follows that curiosity to corners of Hong Kong its American characters have mostly ignored, dropping in on a neighborhood of upper-crust Chinese citizens, on the pro-democracy protests swarming the streets, on the crowds of Filipina domestic workers trading gossip under a bridge.

Along the way, it brings forth the perspectives of previously peripheral characters like Hilary’s live-in helper Puri (Amelyn Pardenilla), blessed with a gorgeous singing voice that she hopes might be her ticket to a better life. And it casts new light on relationships we’ve already seen from the other side. Margaret can insist all she wants that her housemaid Essie (Ruby Ruiz) is “like family” to her. But it never seems to have occurred to Margaret or anyone else in her actual family to include Essie in their collective grief over Gus, a boy she’s helped raise from birth, or to imagine that Essie might like to spend more time with her actual family in the Philippines.

The downside to the detour is that a single episode doesn’t feel like nearly enough time to explore all these rich characters and communities, let alone the thorny politics they touch upon. Exciting as it is for Essie or Puri to finally get some time in the spotlight, or as poignant as it is to hear from a demonstrator arguing with his terrified mother about his determination to fight for a better future, they’re sent back to the sidelines for a finale that recenters the more privileged central trio. But Expats seems fundamentally aware that its view is that of, well, an expat. “It isn’t your fight and never was,” Charly (Bonde Sham), a protester friend, snaps when Mercy tries to join her. “You’re a tourist. It doesn’t affect your future. Not really. You can just leave.”

What Mercy is meant to do about it, Expats does not pretend to know. Nor does it offer a satisfying resolution to Gus’ fate, or fresh starts to characters who’ve endured so much already. When Hilary points to the generally screwed-up state of the world as an argument against having kids — “Why would I want to put another soul through that?” — it recognizes both that she’s complaining from a place of privilege and that her frustration is entirely valid.

But the strange comfort Expats offers lies in its very acknowledgement of all this hurt, and the grace it extends to the deeply flawed souls muddling through it. None of us, the series reminds us, are completely alone when we suffer and struggle and get knocked sideways by the awfulness of existence — because so many others are experiencing the same, and the world will keep on spinning anyway. It’s not necessarily the cheeriest view, or the most heartwarming one. In Wang’s generous hands, it becomes a life-affirming one all the same.

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