I had no intention of gaining insights into the Black Lives Matter movement from watching Stateless, a six-parter set inside Australia’s immigrant detainment program. But it turns out, by showing how Australia treats its immigrants, Oscar-winning provocateur and Stateless co-creator Cate Blanchett touches on the larger problem of how a rotten system can take good and decent people and turn them into caged animals tearing each other to pieces — which is pretty much the m.o. of systemic racism.
The setting for this lean, well-paced limited series is the early 2000s, when Australia was still warehousing its asylum seekers in compounds scattered across the country’s remote regions. (The camps have since been moved offshore.) Like the refugee camps run by the United Nations, the maddeningly slow Australian bureaucracy means that people spend years incarcerated, the only alternative being to return to the home countries that they fled in terror.
Stateless would be just another docu-like film about refugees, maybe not something you’d expect to find as engrossing as it winds up being, except for one wild card — a very wild card. Her name is Sofie and she’s a native Aussie, but because she has a mental illness she winds up in one of these refugee camps. Everyone around Sofie is trying to get into the country. She, on the other, is trying to get out.
According to Stateless co-creator Elise McCredie, who wrote four of the six episodes, both Sofie and the refugees have their identity erased by long-term detention. “You lose all the touchstones that you have of home, of community, of family,” said McCredie, leading to “loss of identity and a kind of madness.” McCredie’s research also found that the same was true for the people hired to watch over the refugees.
That slow, almost driplike descent into madness and violence is what gives Stateless its power. I’ve noted before what a godsend it’s been for stories like Defending Jacob to be told at lengths much longer than a two-hour movie, and this is also true for Stateless. In episode one, as we get acquainted with the Barton detention center, it seems like a decent enough place. The facility itself is run by a private contractor, naturally, and it must pay well because a beefy, fun-loving local guy named Cam (Jai Courtney) gets hired there with no prior experience. Brian (Darren Gilshenan), the site manager, plays soothing classical music and talks about his company’s reputation for humane care at Barton.
Using flashbacks and storylines rooted in the actual refugee experience, the screw slowly begins to turn. By the fourth episode, all hell is breaking loose. By the fifth episode, Cam is doing things you never would have suspected him capable of at the outset. By the end of Stateless, almost everyone has to decide whether they’re on the side of sanity or madness, and act accordingly.
This slow erasure of the normal modes of outside life, including self-identity, is convincing. So convincing, in fact, that later, as I reflected on what I’d seen (always a sign of a good show), I thought back to those two rookie cops who were on patrol with Derek Chauvin when Chauvin snuffed out the life of George Floyd. Let’s say for a moment that the killing hadn’t been captured on video. An investigation would have resulted, no doubt, and Chauvin would’ve been cleared — no doubt. He was before. Though Stateless is not about domestic policing, it is about the same systemic breakdown — an agency is given control over other human beings, and the highest priority is to never lose that control. Use whatever means are necessary, but keep the peace.
On Stateless, the sadistic guard Harriet (Rachel House) is the Chauvin stand-in — can’t give an inch to these animals, her every word and motion seems to say. In a bureaucracy where “keeping the peace” and avoiding media coverage are paramount, suppressing bad behavior and control-at-all-costs quickly becomes the norm. That’s as true of a UN refugee camp as it is of Ferguson, Missouri, and those air-conditioned hellholes we’ve set up on the U.S.-Mexican border.
One of the pleasures of Stateless is watching its minor characters pop in and out of the drama — refugees, protestors, a journalist, bureaucrats. Even though there’s not time to explore all of their backstories, they have parts to play in the larger story and there’s not a two-dimensional character in the bunch. You definitely get the sense that these fictional characters are “inspired” (the fudge word screenwriters use these days) by actual refugees whose stories caught the eye of McCredie and the show’s other creator, Tony Ayres, as they did their research.
Which brings us back to Sofie. Don’t do it now because it’s way too complicated and will just spoil the fun of watching the show, but if after viewing Stateless you question whether Sofie’s bizarro story could possibly be “inspired” by real life … ohhhhh yes it could, and it was. A woman suffering from undiagnosed schizophrenia somehow got lost in the immigration detention system in Australia for nearly a year and no one knew it.
I don’t think it’s easy depicting schizophrenia or personality disorders on the screen. Hitchcock tried and failed with Marnie. Sally Field’s role as Sybil in the popular 1970s miniseries has not aged well. Yvonne Strahovski, the Australian actress who’s done so many great turns on American TV, from Dexter to Chuck to Handmaid’s Tale, has the unenviable task of portraying both Sofie and her alternate personality, a German woman named Eva, in the refugee camp.
Mostly, I think, it works. The switch in characters is triggered by a trauma brought on while Sofie was in a cult run by a normal-seeming couple played by Blanchett and Dominic West (aka McNulty on The Wire), whose big thing is cabaret performance. My difficulty in accepting this storyline had less to do with the way Sofie’s mental illness is depicted than the notion that there is a cult in Australia that does nothing but cabaret — really?
I hope I’ve given a sense here that there is much more to chew on than simply a story about refugees in Australia. Stateless is that rare show that demands a fairly sizable investment of your time; once you let it in your head, you may have a hard time getting it out.
Stateless drops on Netflix on July 8th.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.