It’s a trio of heartbreaking performances, led by Kidman, who imbues Margaret with the kind of glassy brittleness she’s long known for. Her Margaret shares a lot of DNA with Grace from “The Others” — a buttoned-up woman barely able to keep her grief from spilling out through her face. Her son’s disappearance has broken her, perhaps in irreparable ways. As good as Kidman is, though, “Expats” greatest surprises come with Blue’s acerbic, cynical turn as Hilary—a complicated, confrontational woman bristling against the familial expectations of Indian culture—and Yoo’s free-spirited, flighty Mercy. Kidman’s mastery of the form is well-documented, but “Expats” offers tremendous platforms for these two actresses: a stalwart supporting player for years and a fresh breakout star in the making.
But what sets “Expats” apart from the dozen other prestige streaming dramas about grief (seriously, throw a rock) is its deep well of cultural specificity, and the sensitivity with which Wang presents it. Director of Photography Anna Franquesa-Solano’s probing, curious lens captures both the working-class vibrancy of Hong Kong’s night markets and the cold, alienating modernism of the affluent expats. It’s a world of fancy parties and tight-knit rich folks, all navigating their Western guilt over the maids, cooks, and babysitters (whom Hilary euphemistically calls “helpers”) they hire to subsidize their lives of avarice. Fancy dinner parties clash with the budding pro-democracy protests of the Umbrella Movement, first seen only through TV reports then, through Mercy’s fling with a Korean girl, in living, dangerous color.
That divide between the haves and have-nots is never more clearly articulated than in “Expats”’ fifth episode, a 96-minute detour into the lives of the servants we’ve seen largely in the background. Mostly Filipino, the domestic workers we see in the margins finally get to shine, as they spend their day off gossiping and pursuing their own interests. “We know everything about these people, things their closest friends don’t even know,” says one.
This focus makes sense: they’re expatriates, too, after all. Margaret’s nanny Essie (Ruby Ruiz) is a woman torn between her loyalty to her grieving employers and her family back in the Philippines urging her to retire and come back home. Hilary’s “helper” Puri (a radiant Amelyn Pardenilla) finds herself performing emotional labor for her employer in the wake of her crumbling marriage. Honestly, the rest of the show feels like gilding the lily; “Expats” could have just been this, a feature-length film about these working-class women and the thin line between family member and employee they must walk.