Although Netflix’s stash of prestige movies grows with every awards season, the still-dominant streaming service hasn’t concentrated as heavily upon comparable TV series. Given that those entries into the library are rarer, it’s worth discussing when one pops into view, and Netflix squarely aims for prestige territory with its acquisition of Stateless, a series co-created by Cate Blanchett, who also portrays a flashy cult leader. Intriguing, for sure. Does the show deliver, though? Yes, but in an unexpected way, while filling itself to the brim with both horror and hope.
Stateless is an expansive, although harrowingly dramatic, show which manages to be gripping — it’s a bit like if Orange Is The New Black wasn’t a dramedy and contained a more sympathetic protagonist — even though it’s not exactly the kind of subject that one can imagine tucking into voluntarily. There’s a lot going on here, far beyond Blanchett’s name, although her character plays a pivotal role in the mental breakdown of a white woman, who later finds herself behind a razor-wire fence at an Australian immigration detention center. What unfolds at the fictional Barton center gets twisty and non-linear, and what emerges is a portrait of various players woven into a vivid tapestry, which shall duly entrap any viewer that finishes the first episode.
Through a story that’s set down under but unavoidably mirrors much of what we’re seeing in the U.S. today, Stateless exposes many faces of twisted bureaucracy. If you guessed that this show was inspired by a real-life story, you’d be correct, with that inspiration coming from Cornelia Rau, a permanent Australia resident who somehow (about 15 years ago) ended up in a detention center like the one we see onscreen. Her identity’s switched up, so that Yvonne Strahovski (The Handmaid’s Tale) plays Sofie, who we first meet in her polished flight attendant capacity. The first episode’s quite a whirlwind, following Sofie’s flight from her frustrating job and family to her embroilment in the cult (co-headed by a slippery Dominic West, along with Blanchett’s manipulative showwoman) and her subsequent deterioration, followed by her illegal imprisonment.
It’s a nightmarish scenario in a show that digs not only into mental illness but the plight of the disenfranchised and, most importantly, anti-immigrant sentiment around the globe. That hasn’t gone away, not even for a moment, despite all of the other headlining atrocities taking place on a near-daily basis. The show invests a significant chunk on Sofie’s plight, but she’s meant to help us see into the hellish facilities inhabited to those who often remain unseen. And her fractured psyche’s a window, through which we can glimpse more layers, including a conflicted, rookie facility guard (Jai Courtney), who begins the show with a seemingly unshakable moral compass but slowly descends into his own survival mode while losing his grip on right and wrong.
A particularly tragic arc follows an Afghan refugee, Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi), and his family, who are entrapped within heart-wrenching circumstances. He’ll do anything to keep his daughters from falling into the clutches of the Taliban, and his fear is something that we can barely fathom from the other side of the screen.
This dizzying array of stories finds no soothing anchor, and although Blanchett doesn’t claim a huge amount of screentime, what we do see from her is sufficiently unsettling. She and West portray the only characters of note who aren’t desperately hanging onto their own pants, but they’re instrumental in the dismantling of Sofie’s identity and propelling her into the unfathomable next situation where she finds herself.
Stateless is one of those series where a viewer benefits by not knowing more than the bare necessities beforehand. It’s a ride that should be taken while realizing that unpleasant things will go down, but the journey’s still worth taking. Both Strahovski and Bazzi deliver stellar performances to sell their character’s plights to the audience without diving into maudlin territory, which would have been dreadfully easy for the writers to insert in the neverending quest for drama. Yet these characters are strong despite their tragic nature. They’ve both seen some sh*t, and they’re both outsiders in their own ways, even if Sofie’s suffering wasn’t always apparent to those who once knew her. Courtney, too, turns in a fine presence in a nuanced role that he must have relished.
This is a show full of natural-feeling momentum. Vital stories — the kind that could very well be considered seat-arm grippers if this was a feature-length picture, and if we could actually watch movies in theaters right now — shall be told as the episodes steadily tick off. When our current situation ends (and at some point, it will), the difficult situations portrayed in Stateless shall continue, and like no show that I’ve seen recently, the first episode’s intent upon convincing those on the fence to click on the next episode. You may not think Stateless is something you’d want to watch in these stressful times, but it’s compelling enough that it might prove you wrong.
Netflix’s ‘Stateless’ streams on July 8.