In Netflix’s compelling ‘Stateless,’ a place where no one wants to be

Yvonne Strahovski (left) and Helana Sawires in the Netflix series "Stateless."
Yvonne Strahovski (left) and Helana Sawires in the Netflix series "Stateless."BEN KING/NETFLIX

Netflix’s new immigration drama, “Stateless,” arrives as a bracing reminder to our weary, overburdened attention spans. Yes, we’re still on the hook for the overcrowded, unsanitary, soul-crushing, family-busting facilities that hold this nation’s 23,000-plus asylum seekers, even if President Trump has shut down new immigration due to the COVID crisis, which is also challenging those already being held.

The six-part series, available July 8, is a masterfully told, forcefully acted nightmare about life in a dirty, bureaucratically impacted limbo — this one fictional and in Australia, called Barton Detention Center. It bears the prestige of having Cate Blanchett as a co-creator and cast member, but it isn’t a Blanchett vehicle by any stretch. She and Dominic West are featured primarily in the first episode, as an effectively creepy, manipulative couple who run a culty self-help organization that charges their clients $400 a week. But they’re part of another character’s story, as Yvonne Strahovski’s unstable Sofie escapes their abuses and winds up in Barton despite being an Australian citizen.


The series focuses on three other key characters, in addition to Sofie. Strangers to one another, their lives overlap at Barton, where they’re all looking for fresh starts, hoping to better their lot. Ameer (Fayssal Bazzi) is the most familiar character in this context; he’s trying to get his family out of Afghanistan and to Australia to protect his two daughters from abuses by the Taliban. His journey to Barton is a series of trust-shaking misfortunes that we learn about gradually, as the series progresses. Writers Elise McCredie and Belinda Chayko use this nonlinear dynamic in a few of the story lines, as pieces of a character’s puzzle fall into place, and it works well.

Cam (Jai Courtney) is a new guard at Barton who took the job for more money, to better support his wife and three children. But he butts heads with his own conscience, as he sees distressing things including a ferocious — and unnecessary ― attack on a detainee by a fellow guard. He bottles up his rage and disgust about the conditions, and part of the ever-growing tension of “Stateless” is knowing that at some point he may explode. Cam’s sister, along with a number of nuns, are part of the crowds who come to the gates of Barton to protest the treatment of detainees, compounding his moral predicament.


The least compelling main character is Clare (Asher Keddie), and yet her story dives even deeper into the ethical depths. She is the detention center’s new general manager, and she is tasked with processing applications faster (one detainee has been in the camp for seven years) and dealing with the media attention that has been stirred by some Tamil detainees writing messages on a roof. Through her, we see clearly the systemic impossibilities that plague these detainees. She sees them, too, but she doesn’t want to fail at her new job by becoming soft — softness being something Cam’s co-workers tease him about. Clare believes in the system, even if the evidence indicates that she should not.

Strahovski really gets the chance to shine, as a woman who, it becomes increasingly clear, has a mental illness. She makes the story of Sofie — inspired by the true story of a woman named Cornelia Rau — into something both tragic and darkly ironic. Courtney and Keddie also do fine work. The heart of the series, though, is Bazzi, whose Ameer drives home both the hopes and the horrors of those seeking asylum from violence and cruelty. While Sofie copes with the anarchy and illusions of her own mind, Ameer is fighting against a world that doesn’t seem to have a safe place for him.


I do hope I’m not making “Stateless” sound like some kind of general treatise on immigration and detention centers. It’s very much a drama that will pull you in, and it’s about specific people facing distress on both sides of the fence — the barbed-wire one.


Starring: Yvonne Strahovski, Jai Courtney, Asher Keddie, Fayssal Bazzi, Cate Blanchett, Dominic West, Marta Dusseldorp, Darren Gilshenan, Rachel House

On: Netflix. Available July 8

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at matthew.gilbert@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.