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Saint X Is a Complex Look at White Privilege Couched as a Girl-Gone-Missing Tale

West Duchovny plays a young woman who mysteriously dies on a Caribbean vacation in Hulu's adaptation of Alexis Schaitkin's novel.
  • Jayden Elijah and West Duchovny in Saint X (Photo: Paloma Alegria/Hulu)
    Jayden Elijah and West Duchovny in Saint X (Photo: Paloma Alegria/Hulu)

    Saint X, Hulu's adaptation of Alexis Schaitkin's novel, is loosely inspired by the disappearance of Natalee Holloway, but viewers shouldn't expect a ripped-from-the-headlines take on her story. The question of what happened to Alison Thomas (West Duchovny), a 19-year-old American who mysteriously died while vacationing with her family at a Caribbean resort, is the least interesting thing about Saint X, which engages with white privilege, classism, and other social ills across its eight episodes. The girl-gone-missing tale is simply writer/executive producer Leila Gerstein's (The Handmaid's Tale, Mrs. America) gateway to these thorny topics, and while it doesn't always succeed, the show's willingness to take big swings makes it stand out in a sea of middling mysteries.

    Saint X unfolds via multiple timelines as it explores what happened to Alison and the ripple effect on her family and the citizens of the titular Caribbean island. Over 20 years ago, Alison's family vacationed at the idyllic resort Indigo Bay, but on their last morning, her parents (Betsy Brandt and Michael Park) and seven-year-old sister Claire (Kenlee Anaya Townsend) realized she didn't come home the night prior. A few days later, Alison's body was found on Faraway Cay, a small, remote island nearby. Two Black men who worked at the resort, Clive Richardson (Josh Bonzie) and Edwin Hastings (Jayden Elijah), were accused of murdering Alison but were never charged, leaving the Thomases — and a public obsessed with "missing white woman" narratives — without any answers about their daughter's death.

    Claire (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who now goes by her middle name, Emily, was too young to have really known her sister before she died, but when she crosses paths with Clive decades later in New York, she sets out to discover the truth about what happened. Emily and Clive, who fled the island after his life was upended by Alison's death, strike up an unlikely friendship, and over the course of the season, she becomes obsessed with pushing him to reveal their shared trauma. As she spirals out of control, Emily is forced to confront the fact that her seemingly-perfect sister may forever remain impenetrable — and even if she does get answers about Alison's final hours, that they may not offer the comfort she's so desperately seeking.

    Though Emily's mental unraveling drives the psychological thriller, the real intrigue lies in Alison's journey, which is presented in extended flashback scenes. Duchovny, the daughter of David Duchovy and Téa Leoni, has plenty to chew on as the Princeton freshman who is at once embarrassed about her own privilege and stunningly oblivious to it. Upon arriving in Saint X, Alison unleashes a rant about "the hypocrisy" of claiming to "care about poverty," but still planning a "luxury vacation on an island where people don't even have solid roofs over their heads." Yet as she gets settled at the resort, she's all too happy to take advantage of its amenities and adopt a "vacation" persona that frees her to pursue whatever (and whomever) she wants, when she wants. Notably, this includes Edwin, who indulges Alison despite his obvious contempt for "Miss Thomas from the Land Westchester" and all she represents.

    Alison believes acknowledging her privilege makes her "different" from the other rich, white people at the all-inclusive resort, and to a certain extent, she's right. The rest of the resort-goers hardly notice the staff, all of whom are Black, and when they do, it's to demand a drink or a planned excursion to Faraway Cay. However, Saint X by no means mistakes Alison's performative wokeness for sincere allyship. Her interest in Edwin isn't about him, specifically, but about what he can do for her: "Is the fact that Edwin is so different from me part of what makes him attractive? Fine, yes," she tells her vacation friend Olivia (Melissa Juliet Lawson). "I'm looking to expand my horizons."

    She also doesn't understand that in her attempt to show the world how "cultured" she is, she's forced herself upon a Black man, demanding that he give her an "authentic" experience of the island. Ultimately, Alison's need to feel special becomes her undoing, and it takes Edwin and Clive down with her. It's difficult to look away as this storyline unfurls — we have a host of talented executive producers and directors to thank, including Dee Rees (Mudbound) and Stephen Williams (Lost) — and Duchovny, Elijah, and Bonzie are captivating as its central trio. Elijah, in particular, brings a simmering rage to the screen that's contextualized in additional flashbacks to his childhood, and later helps unlock the mystery of Alison's death.

    The present-day timeline is less concerned with interrogating Emily's performance of anti-racism and subconscious biases, though the show implies she's determined to prove she's not "scared" of living in a predominantly Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn. Emily's friend Sunita, played by Kosha Patel, also clumsily acknowledges that it's "uncomfortable" to admit "two Black men did this to a white woman," but encourages Emily to face the likelihood that Clive was complicit in some way. But despite these rich themes, Emily's story becomes a standard-issue search for the truth. Her encounters with Clive plod along in a predictable fashion, and viewers may find themselves eager to check back into the emotionally complex goings-on at the resort.

    In what seems to be a holdover from the novel (Schaitkin incorporates the perspectives of others impacted by Alison's death beyond Emily, Clive, and Edwin) Saint X also introduces narrative threads about others at the resort, including Olivia's struggle to control her mother's drinking and a plot about a leering, middle-aged man (Josh Cooke) who wrestles with the mixed feelings of lust and hatred Alison inspires in him. There's certainly something to be said about the way jealousy plays a role in what happens to Alison — especially as it relates to her other vacation love interest, whitebread Yale student Tyler (Caleb Lowell) — but Gerstein struggles to bring it all together in just eight, 45-minute episodes. Eventually, these storylines are dropped altogether as Alison's journey reaches its climax on Faraway Cay.

    With its resort setting, shocking death, and overt disdain for the entitled class, Saint X will inevitably be compared to The White Lotus, Mike White's biting satire of privilege and sexual politics. However, Hulu's adaptation employs a strictly dramatic approach and incorporates the perspectives of the Black staff members to a far greater extent than the HBO drama. Still, while Gerstein and White have different goals, she's taken an important lesson from him: An opening-act death may set up an intriguing mystery, but it's hardly the point of a story like this. What matters is everything that comes before it, which serves as a reminder of all that can go wrong when we're blind to our own flaws.

    Saint X premieres Wednesday, April 26 on Hulu, with new episodes dropping weekly. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Claire Spellberg Lustig is the Senior Editor at Primetimer and a scholar of The View. Follow her on Twitter at @c_spellberg.

    TOPICS: Saint X, Hulu, Alycia Debnam-Carey, Jayden Elijah, Josh Bonzie, Leila Gerstein, West Duchovny