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Lulu Wang's Expats Is a Searing Character Study About Loss and Trying to Move On

Three privileged women are forever changed in this adaptation of Janet Y.K. Lee's bestseller.
  • Nicole Kidman in Expats (Photo: Amazon Studios)
    Nicole Kidman in Expats (Photo: Amazon Studios)

    It’s nearly impossible to distill Expats, Lulu Wang’s anticipated follow-up to her critically-lauded 2019 autobiographical film, The Farewell, into one or two sentences — let alone a few words.

    Prime Video’s adaptation of author Janet Y. K. Lee’s best-selling 2016 novel, The Expatriates, has been in the making for the better part of seven years, with Wang’s involvement coming after Nicole Kidman approached the filmmaker to lens the drama amid adulation for The Farewell. Whatever Kidman saw in The Farewell — a deeply resonant movie largely inspired by Wang's grandmother and how her family dealt with her terminal illness — that convinced her Wang was the only one capable of balancing a delicate tale of grief, guilt, and identity has paid off in spades.

    With Wang’s unique cinematic fingerprints on each of the six episodes as Expats’ primary director and writer, the limited series is a thoughtfully crafted, heart-rending character study of how monumental loss can be both paralyzing and illuminating. Considering there’s a lot to unpack in Lee’s weighty source material, bringing it to life on the small screen required a deft eye to parse out the most crucial narrative elements — a task Wang proves she’s more than qualified to do.

    At first glance, the story of Expats seems simple: Three American women — Margaret (Kidman), a married mother in existential crisis; Margaret’s friend Hilary (Sarayu Blue), a housewife unable to conceive; and Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), a directionless Ivy League graduate with a string of bad luck — find themselves enmeshed in the insular expat community within the Hong Kong bubble. When the first episode unfolds, the characters have adjusted to their circumstances of privilege, wealth, and status to varying degrees of success. But not all is as it seems.

    A year has passed since a sudden life-altering tragedy shattered their worlds forever. The catalytic incident — or inciting crime, if you will — involves Margaret’s youngest son, Gus (Connor James), vanishing into the night without so much as a trace. What adds to the heartbreak is how quickly it happens; the horror that sets in moments later is hauntingly realistic. (A fair warning to parents, particularly mothers or those in mothering roles: It may be difficult processing certain developments that come to pass over the course of the series.)

    Whispers of the family’s year of sorrow permeate at a lavish birthday party Margaret throws for her husband, Clarke (Brian Tee) — a failed attempt to insert a bit of normalcy back into their lives in the devastating aftermath — convey the type of sensationalist cocktail-hour gossip Margaret’s nightmare has evolved into over time within their inner expat circle. “Life is not normal anymore. Why pretend that it is?” a close confidante suggests to Margaret before the soiree begins.

    When she and her husband thank their friends for supporting them through the “most difficult time of our lives,” Margaret is a shell of herself. There's a reason for the soulless look. Moments before, Margaret has a fleeting reunion with someone connected to her son’s disappearance, adding to the inner turmoil, with Kidman brilliantly capturing the aching desolation her character is silently reeling in.

    Usually when a child goes missing, focus is redirected to answering the questions surrounding the event: the hows, the whys, the whos, and the whens. To a certain extent, those questions still remain (the flashback-heavy second episode fills in some of those blanks), but they are mostly afterthoughts. Expats doesn’t pretend to be a police procedural like Law & Order or FBI, where solving the crime is the story and putting away the perpetrator is the goal. Here, it merely serves as the turning point by which everything unravels for Margaret, Hilary, and Mercy, who hurtle off in very different directions as a direct result of the incident. It’s far more interesting to examine how these women cope, or try to, in the aftermath of tragedy as the experience colors their own demons and relationship dynamics. Some are more successful than others at leaving behind the past and moving on by the end of the six-episode journey.

    It is difficult to talk about Expats without giving praise to the nuanced performances by Kidman, whose body of work needs no descriptor; Blue, who is primarily known for comedy but will surprise audiences with her dramatic turn; and Yoo, whose ability to breathe life into a perplexingly complicated character like Mercy is promising for her future Hollywood prospects. Each is able to navigate the complexities that come with playing women who are irreversibly scarred. What’s refreshing is that Expats doesn’t villainize nor heroize any of them. In the hands of someone other than Wang, that could have very well been the route taken.

    The supporting ensemble is just as strong. Tee, who left the procedural world of Chicago Med in 2023, is an anchor for Kidman as Margaret’s stoic husband; Jack Huston expertly breathes life into David, Hilary’s husband with secrets of his own (including a surprising affair); and Ruby Ruiz brings warmth as Essie, Margaret’s live-in caretaker. In a break from conventional TV wisdom, Ruiz is one of the focal points of the series’s feature-length penultimate episode — it was previewed early at the Toronto Film Festival last September — that gives characters like Essie, who are often in the margins, their due.

    Expats is beautifully shot, reminiscent of the muted, matte earth tones prevalent in The Farewell. Wang’s clear visual style perfectly suits this world, and the toned-down color palette illustrates the way the expat life loses its luster. A stunning sequence of scenes in the early part of the series features Kidman in an emerald dress (as featured on the poster) as she stands in the middle of a deserted street before it gradually bustles to life once night passes and a new day begins. The arresting musical score, composed by The Farewell’s Alex Weston, is equally crucial, building tension when necessary while allowing scenes to breathe when called for.

    It’s not easy summing up Expats into a neat elevator pitch, and in many cases, that’s the whole point of Lee’s novel and Wang’s tapestry-like take on it. There is no easy resolution to life’s most crucial questions and no playbook for how to move on from unimaginable grief, especially when the loss of a child is involved. Expats affords the characters time to stumble their way through to find the answers they need — even if, in the end, it’s not the closure they’re looking for.

    Expats premieres with two episodes January 26 on Prime Video, with new episodes dropping weekly through February 23. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Philiana Ng is a Los Angeles-based writer covering TV, celebrity, culture and more. Her work has appeared in The Hollywood Reporter, Billboard, Entertainment Tonight, TV Guide, Yahoo Entertainment, and The Daily Beast, among others.

    TOPICS: Expats, Amazon Prime Video, Brian Tee, Jack Huston, Janet Y.K. Lee, Lulu Wang, Nicole Kidman, Sarayu Blue