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'Saint X' turns a teen's mysterious death into a thoughtful, slow-burn melodrama

Emily Thomas (Alycia Debnam-Carey) seeks the truth about her deceased sister Alison in <em>Saint X.</em>
Hulu
Emily Thomas (Alycia Debnam-Carey) seeks the truth about her deceased sister Alison in Saint X.

In the first episode of Hulu's Saint X, a group of well-to-do and mostly white tourists descends upon an unnamed Caribbean island for a luxury all-inclusive resort vacation. Just moments after landing, one person is already complaining, annoyed that the $200 shuttle service is not there to greet them upon arrival. "It's like that everywhere in the Caribbean," another character replies matter-of-factly. "Island time, they call it."

If this sounds like yet another entry in the ever-growing Hollywood genre of "eat the rich" narratives – White Lotus, Triangle of Sadness, The Menu, Infinity Pool andGlass Onion, just for starters – well ... Saint X is that, at least on its surface. The wealthy white families act exactly as we'd expect, displaying varying degrees of entitlement and utter lack of self-awareness while sipping fruity cocktails under umbrellas along the beach. The Black resort employees, meanwhile, deal with the nonsense and the drudgery of service work life through fake smiles and ingratiating banter while rolling their eyes and cracking wise at their customers' antics behind closed doors.

But Saint X, created by Leila Gerstein and adapted fromAlexis Schaitkin's 2020 novelof the same name, has more ambitious aims than much of its kin, as it spans multiple decades and focuses an equal amount of time on the backstories and experiences of the Caribbean locals as it does on the privileged cohort they serve.

At the center is the vacationing Thomas family – parents Mia and Bill (Betsy Brandt and Michael Park) and daughters Alison (West Duchovny), an outgoing and flirty 19-year-old freshman at Princeton, and Claire (Kenlee Anaya Townsend), a shy 7-year-old. Unfortunately, by the end of their trip, Alison will be dead and two hotel employees she'd befriended, the good-natured Clive a.k.a. "Gogo" (Josh Bonzie) and the mischievous Edwin (Jayden Elijah), will be accused of having raped and murdered her, though they maintain their innocence.

Years later, Claire is a 20-something environmental documentary filmmaker who lives in Brooklyn and now goes by the name Emily (Alycia Debnam-Carey); a chance encounter with an older and hardened Clive in her neighborhood reopens old wounds, and she becomes obsessed with learning the truth about what occurred on her sister's final night. As she attempts to piece together her memories of their time at the resort, her preoccupations take a serious toll on her mental health, straining her relationship with her boyfriend Josh (Pico Alexander) and colleague/best friend Sunita (Kosha Patel).

Edwin (Jayden Elijah) and Alison (West Duchovny).
Paloma Alegria / Hulu
/
Hulu
Edwin (Jayden Elijah) and Alison (West Duchovny).

The optics surrounding Alison's death are, of course, fraught: A pretty, young blonde woman who was last seen partying with a couple of Black locals on a Caribbean island only to wind up dead is exactly the kind of premise that would make Nancy Grace in her heyday salivate. (Context clues, including an early generation iPod, suggest that the unfortunate events of this vacation took place sometime in the early-mid 2000s, during the period when cases like that of Natalee Holloway made for intense media fodder.)

It takes a little too long for the full scope of the storytelling to reveal itself; the pilot episode in particular lays that aforementioned, very familiar "eat the rich" banter on thick and clumsily introduces its many key characters through too many erratic jumps between multiple timelines, including Clive and Edwin's adolescent years.

Thankfully, 'Saint X' does manage to mostly eschew Lifetime movie-esque machinations, and seems genuinely interested in unpacking the complicated upstairs-downstairs dynamics at play on the resort, as well as the far-reaching reverberations of Alison's death.

Yet thankfully, Saint X does manage to mostly eschew Lifetime movie-esque machinations, and seems genuinely interested in unpacking the complicated upstairs-downstairs dynamics at play on the resort, as well as the far-reaching reverberations of Alison's death. Emily, who can only remember her sister through the eyes of her adolescent self, is forced to acknowledge how she's yet to fully process the circumstances of Alison's death. The intricacies of Clive and Edwin's friendship prior to the incident unspool in unexpected and meaningful ways.

And as the flashbacks and flash forwards eventually become more focused, so do the story's ambitions. Alison, the poster child for the white college freshman who comes back from her first semester feeling suddenly radicalized after her first encounter with Toni Morrison – while making sure everyone knows it – wrestles with the advantages her whiteness and attractiveness have afforded her. She does this in ways that are not always smart or thoughtful, which is to say, she comes across like a wholly believable 19-year-old whose intentions are noble but whose hormones are reckless.

There's also the underlying history of white fear of Black masculinity and its perception of it as a direct threat to white womanhood, a thread Saint X isn't afraid to pull on. Some of this comes out in Emily's quest to find out the truth through Clive, who, like Emily, now lives in Brooklyn and hasn't fully come to terms with how Alison's death haunts him, either. How do you square the tensions of what may or may not have happened that night without tripping up on racial stereotypes and misogyny? This is part of Emily's internal struggle as a "good" white person, and it's what Clive must bear the brunt of.

It's no spoiler to say that by the end of the series, some questions are answered, but the most difficult ones – the intangible ones around race and sex and "closure" – remain knotty and unresolved. But there's also a bit of hope and a sense that this (sometimes tedious) slow-burn melodrama was worth the exploration.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Aisha Harris
Aisha Harris is a host of Pop Culture Happy Hour.