The ending of Prime Video’s Expats explained, by showrunner Lulu Wang

In the end, we know about as much as when we started. Expats, whose first episode started with some open-ended reunions — first a more charged one between Margaret (Nicole Kidman) and Mercy (Ji-young Yoo), and later a calmer, sadder meet-up between Hilary (Sarayu Blue) and Margaret — has left off with those same characters coming together, and the same indefinite feeling permeating their meetings.

[Ed. note: This post will now start discussing spoilers for the end of Expats.]

What we still don’t know is what happened to Gus, or what Mercy is going to do next with her own baby, or even, technically, how these women all feel about each other at the end of the day. But that’s exactly how showrunner Lulu Wang wanted the adaptation of Janice Y.K. Lee’s 2016 novel The Expatriates to feel. As she tells Polygon, she sees the ending as its own sort of beginning, and the mystery that drives so much of the pain in Expats was never the point she wanted to leave us with.

This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Polygon: So, starting off, how did you think about and approach the tone of the ending for each of the characters?

Lulu Wang: I think I wanted it to feel both, like, macro and micro. Both large in scope of the world, and global, but also so deeply personal. It’s a mother looking for her child. But it’s also all of us looking for a way to move on, to grieve, to find closure, to be happy, to find forgiveness, to be gentler on ourselves.

So I think visually, it was always really important to me that I have that really long take of Margaret walking through the city with her backpack on. And in many ways, she becomes part of the city; she’s now no longer able to separate herself from the streets and from the people and from the elements, because her son is out there somewhere. And for Mercy it was about getting to realize that she just wants to be loved. We hate her so much, she does all of these things, and she makes all of these choices. But that moment of her where we really realize she’s just a kid, and her mother brings her soup — I think that’s one of the most heartbreaking [bits] of, like, Oh, wow, she’s really young. She’s just a kid and she’s dealing with these really adult situations. And for Hilary, just breaking free, you know, we always envision her ending having a lot of color, and I wanted her to almost, like, yeah, she’s lost everything, but in a way she’s coming back to life. And she’s this butterfly and she, you know, goes from very monochromatic to embracing a lot of color.

Hilary (Sarayu Blue) walking with a vibrant colored carpet and smiling

Photo: Jupiter Wong/Prime Video

I’m curious how you thought about establishing the tone of the series directorally. What was it you felt like early on you gravitated toward in terms of getting the mood just right for what you were looking for with this adaptation?

I didn’t want it to be a plot-driven series where we were watching to solve the crime. I wanted it to really be an exploration of grief — I wanted it to feel like the book, because that’s what the book felt like. It was this tapestry of characters, of all of these different backgrounds, and against this very complex setting. And there are all of these different ways that people are trying to cope in different ways.

And so I think that really looking to the book, and I would pull out sentences, and then I would talk to my DP, and we would watch films together — we watched this great French series called Les Revenants, “the return,” which is a zombie series about the return of the dead. But it’s not what you would think. It’s really about grief and about time passing. We would watch foreign films, like this Icelandic film called A White, White Day. We watched Nashville, which is one of my favorites. We also looked at a lot of photographs.

So just putting together those images, I think we wanted to have there be a sense of a haunting, and have an emptiness.

That haunting really comes through, and I’d love to know what formed in your mind’s eye as you were thinking about how to show an absence or illustrate, if not a total emptiness, that lack?

I think we talked a lot in the writers room about ambiguous loss, and about not having closure, and all of the different ways in which we carry trauma that is not visible. It’s not always as simple as, OK, this person died. And now I’m grieving. Sometimes you never get closure, you never get to say goodbye. Sometimes you’re grieving the loss of time. Sometimes you’re grieving the loss of memory […] where the person is still there, but they’re not there in the way that you know them. So how do you relate to them? And how do you grieve?

I think that’s why — and I did this with The Farewell also — [I focused on] really looking at space, and having the ability to do wide shots, where people are really isolated in the frame.

Margaret (Nicole Kidman) standing alone at the top of a plane jetway

Photo: Atsushi Nishijima/Prime Video

Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) sitting in a waiting room alone

Photo: Jupiter Wong/Prime Video

Lulu Wang standing at a table with Ji-young Yoo and Nicole Kidman behind the scenes of Expats

Photo: Glen Wilson/Prime Video

Margaret, for example, she seeks out in her grief a place where she can be alone. And the emptiness of that room gives her comfort somehow, because she’s able to be someone else. She’s not constantly reminded of the tragedy. And so that was a really pivotal image for us was having Nicole in a practical location in Hong Kong. She had to go up the seven flights of stairs. It was her first day of shooting. I was like, Oh my god, she’s gonna hate me. This is Nicole Kidman. I’m having her trek up the stairs, there’s no elevator. We’re in this tiny room, and there’s windows everywhere so that we can really see Hong Kong and all the windows and all the lives inside of all of those windows, you know? And she’s here in this tiny box of a room, and there’s this weird purple bathtub. Like something kind of almost Murakami-esque, right, about the strange places we find ourselves in and the strange feelings we get from them.

Definitely. And to your point about almost dodging the mystery of it, I’m curious how you build the final sort of confrontation between all these women. There’s this sense in the finale of it as a staccato conversation, these bits and pieces chopped up.

In a way, it’s like a visual voice-over, I suppose. I wanted it to feel like they were addressing the audience; I wanted to play with this [idea that] everything they were saying, the other woman could also be saying almost those same things. It’s a specific conversation, but it’s also a universal conversation; it’s endings and beginnings. It’s apologies, and not being able to find the words to apologize. They all have been the other woman in different situations. And the series deals a lot with perpetrators and victims. And we always empathize with victims, it’s easy to identify with them. But it’s much more difficult to actually have compassion for the people who commit the acts and make the mistakes. And it was really important to us that all of these women were perpetrators and victims at the same time — but in different stories. In someone else’s story they are the perpetrator; in their own story, they are the victim. And to be able to hold all of those truths at once — it just felt like having that symmetry of their faces linked them.

Expats is now streaming on Prime Video.

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