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Expats Recap: Ashes, in Time


The third episode of Lulu Wang’s Expats isn’t as dazzling or poetic as its predecessors, but it remains an intriguing entry that lets its stories and characters simmer. Halfway through its six-episode season, the Prime limited series has yet to bring the lingering conflicts between its three leading ladies to a head, but instead of charging forward, the chapter titled “Mid-Levels” — after the expatriates’ affluent Hong Kong neighborhood — digs deeper while standing in place, forcing Margaret, Hilary, Mercy, and their tapestry of supporting characters to confront the wreckage of their lives.

With the specifics of the show’s central tragedy now established (i.e., the sudden disappearance of Margaret’s son Gus), the series explores what is essentially just another day for its ensemble, but given the characters’ predicaments, the episode not without its emotional difficulties. Mercy, for instance, still feels the sting of isolation as she goes back and forth between her cramped apartment and her catering jobs. She sits alone at restaurants, eavesdropping on conversations she doesn’t always understand, though she rarely makes an effort to emerge from this shell; it’s as though she feels like she deserves to be alone.

This changes when she’s approached by one of the young local women she listens in on at a restaurant, Charly. She introduces herself in Cantonese and is met with Mercy’s rehearsed line of “I’m Korean” — the only Cantonese she appears to know, an easy way out of conversations — but Charly, in turn, responds with Korean pleasantries, which Mercy doesn’t understand either. The two eventually hit it off in English, though Mercy is forced to explain why she doesn’t speak her family’s language, a conversation that delves further into just how cut off she is from everyone in her life.

Charly eventually invites Mercy for a stroll and a friend’s music performance. The two get to know each other a little more en route, though when they arrive at the venue, the drama ends up mildly confounding for a series so otherwise lucid and precise. As Charly grabs a drink at the bar, she leaves Mercy with her friends and tells them to speak English, an instruction they lightly joke about — as though Charly had brought them some fancy, exotic bird — but agree to, as though they were used to the request. It’s here that the episode’s intent and execution diverge at least slightly when two of Charly’s friends (a lesbian couple at a table of other queer characters) begin chatting with Mercy, who gets overwhelmed and bolts from the location.

On the one hand, it makes sense Mercy would feel suffocated by an overwhelming influx of kindness and human interaction, but on the other, it’s difficult to read exactly what catalyzed her sudden exit. Does she think, given the nature of the venue, that Charly wants to sleep with her rather than get to know her for who she is? Is this reaction laced with some kind of homophobic assumption? Perhaps this is just an unfortunate implication. The visual language of this moment, with close-ups of mouths speaking words she doesn’t understand, matches that of previous Mercy-centric scenes in which she absorbs moods and tones without clocking the words. But nothing out of the ordinary leads to this scene’s denouement, when she inexplicably makes her exit.

However, this is the only time the episode really muddies its dramatic waters. Other scenes of Mercy sleeping with and spending time with David make it crystal clear that, despite their tensions stemming from David’s perpetually dour mood, these are two people who understand each other on a fundamental level. Mercy, of course, has taken the blame for losing sight of Gus at a crowded market, but David also reveals that a major reason for his rift with Hilary is that Margaret, in her desperation, blamed him for Gus’s disappearance since he happened to be in the area, and Hilary took a few seconds too long to come to his defense.

From the outside, it seems like a ridiculous reason to stew for a whole year and let one’s marriage fall apart, but Jack Huston is utterly convincing in his performance. David appears to know how irrational he’s being, but this un-confronted hurt remains. And so, without either character explicitly discussing it, this David-Mercy pairing begins to make perfect sense: They feel like outcasts from their supposed communities, blamed for the same flash-point event that sent destructive ripple effects through everyone’s lives.

These shock waves continue to resonate for Hilary, who, now that David has taken to living in a hotel and secretly sending his laundry home to their maid, exists in a state of limbo, uncertain as to where their marriage stands (or if David will come home for the dinner party they’re hosting). She inadvertently gets her answer when David accidentally sends her an explicit text meant for Mercy, and she puts on a brave face for the gathering. However, the realization that David is cheating ends up paradoxically clarifying and motivates her to track him down at his Irish-pub hideaway.

Here, as they begin to reconcile and David starts to bare his soul, a passing comment from Hilary about the bar’s service, in turn, reminds him of the spoiled, privileged nature of the lives they live as western expats in Hong Kong — a reality about the both of them he can’t seem to stand — and it also crystallizes Hilary’s short-tempered behavior throughout the episode toward her household help. This element of the show’s tapestry hasn’t yet been a major part of the foreground, though given how frequently Expats keeps pushing up against it, it seems like only a matter of time.

Part of the reason Hilary decides to reconcile with David, and goes as far as suggesting they keep trying for a baby, is a stray jab from Margaret — about how she doesn’t understand motherhood — when she shows up at Hilary’s apartment during her dinner, disheveled and asking for the spare key to Christopher’s apartment (Hilary’s recently deceased neighbor). While Mercy and Hilary’s subplots stem from the continued aftershocks of Gus’s disappearance, Margaret’s story this week continues to be driven by this overwhelming mystery. It turns out Christopher’s phone contained an innocuous picture of Gus alongside his Shih Tzu, which the police decided she ought to have and which she examines while in her plastic bathtub at her isolated Kowloon flat. But to Margaret, any bit of information not thoroughly followed up on is an opportunity lost, which sends her into a tailspin. This manifests not only as an ill-advised fact-finding mission about the late Christopher but also as a harrowing paranoia, as Margaret recalls that she forgot to tell the police about a tiny scar on Gus’s arm — an insignificant detail in the grand scheme of things but one that consumes her peripheral vision — leading her to begin photographing Philip’s and Daisy’s bodies in meticulous detail just in case, an act that borders on abusive.

The characters all appear to exist on the verge of eruption, slyly referenced, perhaps, by Margaret’s ornery and rudely animated conquest through a local grocery store in search of corn syrup for Philip’s volcano project at school. It’s only a matter of time before some kind of explosion pushes them over the edge and smothers them in ash. Even Clarke, who has taken to attending church for comfort despite his lack of faith, appears to be on his last nerve when it comes to Margaret’s increasingly erratic behavior. However, her drive to follow up on any clue, no matter how seemingly insignificant, is nothing if not convincing thanks to Nicole Kidman’s devastating performance as a mother coming undone — which makes it all the more upsetting when the police finally show up near the end of the episode, claiming to have found a body that matches Gus’s description.

For a brief moment, Margaret’s desperation becomes infectious enough to make us believe there’s even a minor possibility that the threads she’s pulling on might lead somewhere. But in what has become the show’s modus operandi, this fleeting sense of hope is swiftly followed by an equally shattering devastation. Questions still remain as Margaret immediately charges toward the morgue instead of waiting for morning, but for now, her whole world may have come crashing down once more along with the sense of self and belonging of every other character on the show.

Visual Expressions

• “Mid-Levels” is the first episode of Expats to shout-out Wong Kar-wai and cinematographer Christopher Doyle by name — in a background conversation — though ironically, it’s the first one that neither quotes their compositions nor rises to their level of visual allure. That said, the few scenes of either David or Hilary driving through overcast, seemingly rain-soaked streets do at least offer hints of a glistening (if glum) Hong Kong.

• The episode’s opening shots, in which a young boy around Gus’s age is seen on a toddler leash before cutting to Mercy’s thoughtful close-up, steep the entire chapter in regret and the idea that these characters are constantly ruminating on possibilities.

• Another tremendous bit of filmmaking unfolds at Hilary’s dinner party after her confrontation with Margaret, as she stares off into space in silent, stewing contemplation while her private chef sets a dish of Baked Alaska alight. Lyle Philip’s papier-mâché volcano also seems like some ticking time bomb on the verge of explosion when framed alongside Hilary’s growing unease as the camera pushes slowly toward her.

• The episode’s final moments are among the most dramatically incisive of the show thus far. When the police approach Margaret with the news that Gus’s body may have been found, the edit cuts between a close-up of Kidman that feels unmoored — as though the camera and her sanity are beginning to slip — and her nervous hand shakily holding a postcard she believes is some sort of clue, as though she were being confronted with the impossible choice of continuing down a rabbit hole of denial or being consumed by overwhelming grief.



Siddhant Adlakha , 2024-02-02 11:00:39

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