With one catastrophe rapidly replacing another one in our daily dialogue right now, it might be difficult to remember that — along with everything else — we are grappling with a major immigration crisis. Netflix aims to catapult that issue back to the top of our conversations with the urgently themed yet middling drama, Stateless.
Inspired by myriad real-life stories — including the high-profile story of Cornelia Rau — about the mistreatment of asylum seekers in an Australian detention center, the trailer for the series, which is co-created by and stars Cate Blanchett, strangely presents it as about the plight of a single white woman (Yvonne Strahovski) who is mistakenly detained. It’s a frustrating tactic to lure more mainstream audiences by way of the oft-reviled trojan horse storytelling method, which introduces more inclusive stories only through that of a white character.
In actuality, the series narrowly avoids that trope (though that is how the real stories gained global attention). Sofie Werner’s (Strahovski) perspective is just one of several highlighted throughout the series that exposes the rampant physical and ethical abuse that occurred at this detention center. Directors Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse sensitively though objectively tell the stories of an Afghan father (Fayssal Bazzi) who compromises his own morals to seek safe passage with his family, Sofie’s journey from airline hostess to cult victim and eventually a prisoner, and the many refugees they meet on their paths to freedom (including Javad played by Phoenix Raei, who rounds out the largely Australian cast).
Right before it becomes full on tragedy porn in the first few episodes, Stateless interweaves the voices of the gatekeepers in the process who are all strikingly written as solemn, “just doing my job” types. Jai Courtney plays Cam Sandford, a dad on the heels of leaving an unfulfilling job for the higher-paying position as an officer at the detention center. Asher Keddie is Clare Kowitz, a bureaucrat called in to examine the goings on at the detention center to ensure everything is copacetic (it’s not and it never has been).
Then there is journalist David Meakin (Dan Spielman), whose subjectivity directly counters the series’ relentlessly civil approach to the narrative. While he seeks to disclose and prioritize the truth about what’s happening to the detainees, Stateless insists on examining how the gatekeepers are also trapped by the same system.
Cam is conflicted by his bigger paycheck, which pushes his family up the economic bracket, and the fact that he bears witness, and is compelled to participate in, the regular beatings of prisoners. Freeman and Moorhouse — along with screenwriter Belinda Chayko, who penned two of the episodes — make it a point to examine his moral dilemma, and that of the clearly overworked Clare, who realizes too late that her efforts to go by the book are getting people killed. And of course, like Cam, she feels her hands are tied.
It’s maddening to watch, especially since these particular gatekeepers, all white, claim to be wrecked by their own consciousness but they continue to abide by the system. It’s a twisted manipulation that seeks to make them look less culpable. Any informed viewer isn’t going to fall for this.
But Stateless repeats that message of their complicated complicity throughout each of its six episodes as it reverts to and from their storylines to Ameer (Bazzi) and his daughter (Soraya Heidari), whose jagged journey to freedom is curtailed by one tragedy after the next — both systemically and personally. Meanwhile, Sofie’s story unfolds revealing horrifying trauma and a subsequent loss of identity following events masterminded by cult leaders Pat and Gordon Masters (Blanchett and Dominic West). Like for much of the prisoners, their tragedies are detailed through flashbacks culminating with their full revelations by the end of the season.
The filmmakers don’t seem entirely unaware of the optics of race in the series, though. They include an ultimately slight exchange between Javad and Sophie, explaining that the media would only pay attention to what’s happening to the detainees if she finds a way to go public with her story. Obviously, in real life, that is how this garnered the consideration it deserves. But Freeman and Moorhouse don’t really expound on how that is a crucial element to how the immigration crisis is perceived and handled (or mishandled), outside an otherwise trivial scene where Sophie takes off her shirt to distract the guards in the cafeteria as Mina walks out with extra food for her ailing dad.
But this flagrant omission underlines the series’ pursuit of objectivity, taking a more oblique documentarian approach to real-world facts despite having the leeway of dramatization to make an actual point. Instead, the series chooses to investigate the criminality of humanity through characters on either side of the fence, no matter their reasons or consequences. It’s an uncomfortable thesis to sit with, to say the least.
Despite moving and deeply human performances throughout, Stateless‘ refusal to take a stance makes it oddly futile.
TV Guide Rating: 2.5
Stateless premieres Wednesday, July 8 on Netflix.