Netflix’s new acquisition “Stateless” gets to its subject only circuitously. We meet Sofie (Yvonne Strahovski) as she’s running through the Australian desert trying to escape from something, then zoom back in time to see her as a polished flight attendant whose attempts at escape are somewhat less literal. Sofie, before her life takes a strange turn, is a devotee of a dance-based cult led by Cate Blanchett (a series co-creator) and Dominic West, both operating at the height of their charisma; when she’s turned away from the cult after having torched her family life and career, she ends up in immigration detention even despite being an Australian citizen. (This series first aired on Australian television, and is inspired in part by the story of a woman who was unlawfully detained in Australia in 2004.)
There’s a touch of “Orange Is the New Black” at work here: Strahovski’s seemingly out-of-place blonde opens up the story for a subset of the audience less inclined to see her fellow prisoners as real people with struggles, as Taylor Schilling’s character did on her dramedy. And over time, Strahovski, as Schilling, comes both to become less of the story’s main event and less the object of our sympathy, as we see just how easy it is for people every bit as brave as her but not white women to get ensnared in hell. The Trojan-horse effect is real, though, as the presence of Blanchett and West as the figures drawing Sofie into her hell will be as much an inducement as anything for viewers stateside: Blanchett, here, is all sinuous charisma, performing pop standards for the devotees in her thrall, while West is a coiled threat in human form.
At the camp, though, Strahovski shares screen time with a family of Afghan refugees led by Fayssal Bazzi; a tough administrator played by Asher Keddie; and a newbie guard played by Jai Courtney. That latter character pulls off a difficult writerly trick of breaking down under the pressures of acting as a cog in the carceral state without ending up making the story about a guard’s guilt. Bazzi’s family’s story thrums in the backbeat of the story, keeping our eye on the class of person (nonwhite, bereft of any social advantage) that “Stateless” is ultimately about.
Which is not to say that the story’s time with Sofie is misspent. The series, directed by Emma Freeman and Jocelyn Moorhouse, two Australian women, has a keen eye on how Sofie seizes what little advantages she can — seeing them as her birthright. It understands, too, the ways in which Sofie’s backstory informs her present. West and Blanchett appear only in a limited capacity, haunting the story in flashback later, but clever intercutting between their ministrations and the action of the camp make the show’s perspective clear. The fear of our fellow humans, so much so that fortresses are built to keep them out, is as much the behavior of a cult as anything practiced by these two charismatic weirdos, and every bit as destructive besides. It’s just that West and Blanchett are at society’s fringes, while anti-immigrant sentiment — as series-ending onscreen titles about the ongoing crisis of Australia’s detention centers, now placed offshore — is at the center of societies the world over. It’s a point “Stateless” makes crisply, one that gains in power from the hairpin-reversing manner through which the series arrives there, and one that makes it urgent viewing.