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Expats Creator Lulu Wang on Why She Left the Season Finale's Ending Open to Interpretation

Did you agree with Margaret's decision?

Philiana Ng
Ji-young Yoo, Expats

Ji-young Yoo, Expats

Jupiter Wong/Prime Video

[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the finale of Expats. Read at your own risk!]

If you were expecting a neat and tidy ending to Expats, then you'd still be searching for answers — with no promise of receiving any type of closure. That was all by design. The final episode of Lulu Wang's expansive six-part drama, which is now available to stream on Prime Video, left it to the viewer to interpret the meaning behind Margaret's (Nicole Kidman) gut-wrenching last-minute decision not to return to America with her husband and kids — instead, choosing to remain in Hong Kong to continue searching for her missing son, Gus. Her choice has already fractured her family, as glimpsed in a devastating exchange at the airport between Margaret and her daughter, though the true impact will be far more extensive and long-lasting. 

It's an ending that deviates from the original source material the series is adapted from. In Janet Y.K. Lee's novel, The Expatriates, Margaret eventually reaches a point where she rediscovers the joy of life while also not allowing the loss of her son to overtake her path forward. In Wang's interpretation of the story, Margaret hasn't gotten to that place yet — and it's unclear if she'll ever get there since so much of her identity is her son. Giving up a part of who she is seems impossible at this juncture, even after Margaret acknowledged Mercy (Ji-young Yoo) and Hilary's (Sarayu Blue) desires to put the past behind them in a cleverly-edited meeting. 

"She needs to be looking for [her son]. That is her life now and her responsibility and her mission," Wang tells TV Guide of the Expats ending. Over Zoom, the filmmaker broke down the final scene of the series, what viewers should read into Margaret's decision, and why it was the only fitting ending.

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Expats is a very difficult story to distill down to a sentence or two. Did you have thematic guideposts that you wanted to convey with these six episodes?

Lulu Wang: It's funny because sometimes in Hollywood, when you're developing a project, they want you to sum it up in one sentence or they want you to give an elevator pitch. That's not how I create; it feels very antithetical to how my brain works, which is a tapestry. I'm drawing all of these connections and I'm following each thread and then I see the ways, places in which they overlap. That's just the result of my life and the different circles that I've had the privilege to be in and the different lives that I've led. That's what drew me to this particular story is it's such an intricately woven tapestry of characters, of lives lived, of greed, and grievances, and hopes, and privileges, and blind spots. I thought it would be really exciting to interrogate all of it.

What did Nicole Kidman bring to her character that you didn't expect?

Wang: Nicole is very funny. She would always push me to find moments of levity. So we tried. It's hard with that character. There's a scene in the morgue [in Episode 4], where her reaction [to seeing the body] is not what you expect and it wasn't written that way. [In the scene, Margaret laughed upon realizing it wasn't Gus.] It was written as a traditional breakdown. Nicole said, "That's not what happened to me when I saw my father after he passed away. I had this very different, unexpected reaction," to the point where her mother slapped her because it was her reacting in a way that was not conventional. Sometimes your body just has this trigger response. So we said, "Let's try that." I said, "Let's not tell Brian [Tee]." A lot of that is his real reaction, confused by what was happening and not knowing what to do. Nicole brings so much fire and everything is at the surface already. You know, she comes fully open. 

Expats: Sarayu Blue and Ji-young Yoo on playing flawed women

I knew of Sarayu Blue primarily for her comedy work and it felt like she was delivering a revelatory performance as Hilary throughout Expats

Wang: Sarayu is a revelation. She hasn't been given the opportunity to show off the range that she has because she has so much range. She's incredibly funny, which I always love. It's so much easier for me casting comedians or people who are good at comedy in dramatic roles versus the other way around because it's hard to teach people comedic timing or humor or sarcasm. Sarayu is always ready with a comeback. She's very sharp, very quick-witted, and also looks amazing. She was a breath of fresh air for the series because we needed that levity. And we needed somebody who had been through some traumatic things in her life. I think about the scene with her mom in the elevator that kind of goes all over the place. We go from trauma to a very toxic relationship to some of the funniest moments in the whole show. She's able to do it all and she's able to hold all of that at the same time.

Ji-young Yoo is playing a character in Mercy who is incredibly complex and, to a certain degree, can be considered unlikable. How did you help navigate her performance?

Wang: Ji-young was so perfect for Mercy. She herself is quite young and very confident, and that is also what Mercy is — this young person who's trying to be an adult in the world. Here, we have this young actress who's suddenly thrust into the world of this show with a global movie star and if she was ever nervous, she didn't express it. There is this veneer, a mask of confidence of "I'm an adult, I can do anything, I'm capable, and I'm confident." And yet, there is also this vulnerability and that this mask is somewhat transparent. She's not all that confident because she's just a kid. I think you forget that throughout the show. You see her make these choices and you're just like, "Oh my God, oh my God."

By the end of the finale, Hilary has cut ties with David and is starting a new chapter in her life. Mercy is forging ahead, with the help of her mother, by becoming a mom herself. Margaret, however, makes the decision to stay in Hong Kong and continue looking for Gus. What are we to make of the ending?

Wang: We explore Margaret as this person of privilege in this world throughout much of the show. But the one privilege that she doesn't have, regardless of how much money and what she looks like, is the privilege of moving on. She is the mother of this child and she is forever going to be looking for him. That is her mission as long as she doesn't know that he's dead. She needs to be looking for him. That is her life now and her responsibility and her mission. In many ways, we meet her as this person of privilege. And by the end of it, she's not just an expat. She's now sacrificed her family. She has to be an integral part of that society in order to find him and there's something really profound to that. 

What I wanted to express, which is quite different from the book, was that it's not like they all stay friends or they stay connected. I wasn't trying to give even that. They separate [in the end], but they're forever linked by this event for the rest of their lives. Margaret says something really beautiful, which is, "Who do we think we are — any of us — to think that we might be immune to tragedy?" That's what this is really about is that no matter what your privileges are in the world, life can still hit you at any moment. You can still be faced with life-changing events. And it's really humbling. That's what the journey is for Margaret by the end — to be humbled.

It sounds like you wanted to leave the ending open to interpretation. 

Wang: Yeah, definitely, because I don't know if she's going to find all of these answers. For so many of us, do we ever find an answer? We still have to keep searching.

All episodes of Expats are streaming on Prime Video.