“Saint X,” Alexis Schaitkin’s acclaimed 2020 novel, has roiling depth beneath its placid surface, much like the pristine waters of the Caribbean island where it takes place. The body of a young American girl washes ashore in those tropical tides, and because her death incites the story, “Saint X” initially cuts the figure of a thriller. Yes, the book slowly unfurls the details behind her untimely demise. But the story isn’t really about what happened, it’s about the grief, recrimination and obsession that consumes the survivors over time. It’s a meditation on trauma, shot through with social commentary and disguised as a nondescript “imperiled woman” beach read.
Hulu’s series adaptation of “Saint X” hews closely to its source material, which winds up being as much a curse as a gift. The show also feints at a proper whodunnit, then builds to a nuanced, if anticlimactic conclusion, and all at a lazy river’s pace. That’s all the more disappointing because of how effective it is as a psychological thriller and a character study. Those who prepared for the bait-and-switch by reading the novel will take to the series just fine, as will anyone weary enough of mysteries that they’ve given up attachment to the final reveal. But those who visit “Saint X” expecting a more straightforward narrative might lose interest before it reveals its charms.
The show splits its focus between a pair of storylines 20 years apart. In the past, a well-to-do family arrives for vacation on Saint X, a Caribbean island loosely based on Aruba. They’re the Thomases: Bill (Michael Park), his wife Mia (Betsy Brandt), teen firebrand Alison (West Duchovny) and her awkward younger sister Claire (Kenlee Anaya Townsend). The elder Thomases while away their days sunning and sipping rum punch, while Alison ribs them for being out-of-touch capitalists and Claire quietly broods. Only three of the Thomases make it home, as Alison goes missing and is later found dead. Suspicion naturally falls on the last two people she was seen with, Gogo (Josh Bonzie) and Edwin (Jayden Elijah), a pair of attendants from the tony resort where the Thomases were vacationing.
Two decades hence, Claire is now going by Emily (Alycia Debnam-Carey), living in a heavily Caribbean neighborhood in Brooklyn, and working as a documentary editor. Her family never fully recovered from the loss of Alison, and Emily is plagued by fleeting glimpses of a formative event she can barely remember. But her precarious balancing act falls apart when a twist of fate puts her face-to-face with a world-weary Gogo, who has since relocated to New York City and now goes by his birth name, Clive. In Clive, Emily finds a tangible link to her sister’s death, someone who can give her the answers she thinks will ease her anguish. With Clive in her sights, Emily initiates a tense game of cat-and-mouse, one in which the roles constantly reverse.
Creator Leila Gerstein does an impressive job of distilling the novel’s complex themes into eight episodes. As with the true story that inspired the novel — the 2005 disappearance of Natalee Holloway during an Aruban getaway — race and class dynamics shape the events. The Thomases are able to marshal resources that would never be available to the staff attending to their needs. Their privilege disadvantages Gogo and Edwin, who are already working from a significant deficit as two Black men accused of raping and murdering an American white girl. The early logline described the show as “The White Lotus” meets “Gone Girl.” That description isn’t far off, but it fails to capture how oppressively heavy “Saint X” can be. It’s more like “The White Lotus” meets Richard Wright’s “Native Son,” with all the discomfort that implies.
If nothing else, “Saint X” is a showy platform for the quartet of young actors that anchor it. Its structure rests on two unorthodox relationships — between Emily and Clive in the present and Edwin and Alison in the past — that create a strong throughline in a story always at risk of drifting away in a web of flashbacks and forward leaps. Without stunning turns from Bonzie, Debnam-Carey, Duchovny and Elijah, “Saint X” would be adrift. Bonzie deserves the lion’s share of the praise, as one of few cast members to play the same character in both time periods. He gives two impressive performances in one, as the romantic and naive Gogo and the aggrieved, world-weary Clive.
By the end of its eight episodes, “Saint X” has explored the cost of obsession and the toll of trauma. In its most pleasant surprise, it has quietly blossomed into a moving study of queer identity. (That plot line, expanded from the novel, takes a similar shape to “Pariah” by writer/director Dee Rees, who directed the first episode of “Saint X.”) What it hasn’t done is brought the questions about Alison’s death to a satisfying conclusion for anyone seeking the cheap buzz of a crime story. Come for the murder, fine, but be sure to stay for the mystery.
The first three episodes of “Saint X” premiered on Hulu on April 26, with new episodes then dropping weekly.
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