After a minor dip in visual and narrative panache, Expats returns with a loaded, claustrophobic fourth episode that pits the characters against one another and against themselves. Split neatly into three sections, “Mainland” sees the American expatriates paired off in close quarters and forced to face some of their most intimate fears surrounding parenthood in a hard-hitting chapter where little is learned but much is revealed, and each ends up rattled.
In a strangely still and isolated opening scene — compared to the usual bustle of the Hong Kong setting — Hilary is briefly awoken by a moth, which she accidentally swallows and spits out before returning to her slumber none the wiser. Moths can symbolize anything from rot to rebirth, and as the episode dips its toe into Sartre-esque existentialism, both these meanings come crashing into view. Hilary’s domineering mother, Brinder (Sudha Bhuchar), is set to visit, and when Hilary mixes up her dates and time zones, she’s forced to scramble and prepare for her imminent arrival. An Indian mother needs her mangoes, after all, and Hilary needs to appear prim and proper to impress her.
It’s a premise yanked straight from a sitcom, made all the more ridiculous when Hilary (whose real name, we learn, is Harpreet) ends up stuck in her building’s elevator. She’s trapped, for what feels like an eternity, with her argumentative mum and with one of her neighbors — the aptly named Tilda (Jennifer Beveridge), given her androgynous resemblance to Tilda Swinton — who looks on awkwardly as Brinder gives Hilary a thorough dressing down, from critiquing her posture to questioning why she and David don’t have kids. However, as silly as this might seem at first, with Brinder taking every possible potshot from the “flatly depicted Asian American immigrant mother handbook,” this prolonged mother-daughter confrontation helps resurface some uncomfortable truths.
Hilary has, thus far throughout the series, been incredibly concerned with her outward appearance. A key shot last week, in which she carefully applies her makeup in order to prepare for party guests (from whom she hides her crumbling marriage), ends up recontextualized in devastating fashion when Hilary decides to bite back at Brinder with a story of her own. She forces Tilda to bear witness to a childhood story in which the search for makeup matching her skin tone (and her mother’s) is paired with the need to cover up bruises from an abusive patriarch. Slowly but surely, Hilary and Brinder’s comedic dynamic becomes laced with tragedy, as a mother and daughter for whom luxury and façade aren’t just privileges but coping mechanisms and disguises, as Brinder’s constant need to mold Hilary in her image becomes imbued with a perverse sense of protection and preservation. “I didn’t make the rules,” she tells her daughter. “But I know them.” In order to find momentary respite from these rules once they return to safety, Hilary throws open all the windows of her apartment during a downpour as her mother yells at her in the background, letting in the purifying rain as the sound of Brinder’s voice is finally drowned out.
Brinder’s inquisition into Hilary and David’s parenthood plans is frequently cross-cut with David’s subplot, in which he oversleeps at Mercy’s but ends up having to deal with the possibility that she might be pregnant. The duo’s illicit affair involves a deeply damaged dynamic where they take shots at each other’s insecurities as a means of role-play — it’s not dissimilar from the roles that Hilary and Brinder have fallen into — though the possibility of going too far always looms. Once David pushes the wrong buttons by bringing up Mercy losing Gus, their game becomes far too real, but David soon soothes her with a devastating revelation of his own.
It turns out the anecdote that Mercy shared during the series’ prologue, about a boy responsible for paralyzing his identical twin brother, was David’s story, which he admits to her here as a means of communicating the lifelong guilt he also carries. If the reasons for Mercy and David’s connection wasn’t clear before, it certainly is now, though both their lives are thrown into sudden disarray when they realize Mercy’s vomiting bout isn’t indigestion but morning sickness.
Mercy’s cramped and tiny apartment is the venue for this subplot, a constant reminder that she doesn’t have her life together, while David is forced to consider the possibility that he isn’t infertile after all and that Hilary may have been lying to him (it was revealed, in an earlier episode, that she’s secretly back on birth control). As Hilary tells her mother that neither of them wanted kids until David recently changed his mind, this recalls the last episode’s confrontation between them, when Hilary finally decides to get on the same page, albeit for the purpose of trying to save their marriage, ironically turning David off from the idea.
Now, after changing his mind again, he’s burdened with this new and inverted reality, where the possibility of a child might destroy his marriage for good, both as a symbol of his infidelity and as proof of Hilary’s deception. What’s more, given the conversations and admissions hovering around this discovery, the very conception of this child feels steeped in guilt and in Gus’s disappearance — lest we forget, part of the reason David pulls away from Hilary is that she’s too slow to come to his defense when asked about his whereabouts that fateful day. Expats, while spiritual at times, is hardly a religious series, but this development can’t help but feel like the perverse and symbolic rebirth of a missing child, who’s now come back to magnify and exacerbate the couple’s existing remorse.
Gus is, of course, the center of Clarke and Margaret’s story, too. He always is, but this week in particular, the looming possibility that his body may have been found forces the couple to finally confront their feelings surrounding his disappearance, as though it were the first time they’d ever discussed the subject. When an indignant Margaret forces her way into the mainland morgue before it opens, a janitor slickly locks them in a waiting room, where the topic of Clarke’s seeming turn toward religion finally comes up, as does Margaret’s culpability in losing Gus.
These charged conversations mark the apotheosis of not just the episode — a literal No Exit scenario — but of the series thus far, paving the way for a complicated and deeply disturbing climax. As they’re about to identify the body, the second hand on the nearby clock is shown to be stuck, as though time were standing still. Margaret can’t stop laughing. She has no other way to process her emotions, no possible frame of reference for the possibility of seeing her son lying dead on a slab; Nicole Kidman’s performance is nauseating to watch as she reckons with the mind-breaking, heart-shattering sickness of the scenario in which she finds herself.
When the coroner unzips the body bag, Clarke crumbles to the ground, but Margaret confirms that the body isn’t Gus, marking perhaps the most overt schism between the couple. Their tough conversations leading up to this moment, in which Clarke yearns to return home to the U.S. but Margaret sees this as abandoning the missing Gus, are fully crystalized in the moment. Clarke, on some level, needed the body to be Gus, if only to find closure. Margaret, however, needed to hear the opposite so she could continue feeling some desperate semblance of purpose — a stark disconnect marked by the episode’s final shot, in which Clarke rests his head on Margaret’s lap on the car ride back to Hong Kong, as she gazes out the window with a glimmer of hope.
• Director Lulu Wang and cinematographer Anna Franquesa-Solano shoot the scenes in Mercy’s apartment through doorways and around protruding beams, relegating her to the corners of the frame and often obscuring her, while David consumes most of the screen. It’s suffocating to watch.
• Whenever Margaret traverses the morgue’s empty hallways, she walks through pools of overhead light, slipping in and out of darkness. The sound drops out, and the camera subtly zooms in on her — also, on occasion, from the other side of a doorway — creating an anxious and uncanny effect where it feels like the walls are closing in on her.
• The tension as David and Mercy play with each other’s insecurities builds skillfully in an unbroken take as the camera inches closer to them until there’s no longer any room left in the frame. The only place left for David to go is to bring up Gus’s disappearance. It’s a controlled demolition.