In any good mystery series that withholds its answers until the very end, our investment hinges upon the depth of the characters and their lives outside the looming revelations. There can be a spectacular conclusion that upends all that we had come to expect, but it is nothing without a foundation that gets us to care. By the time all the cards are laid on the table, the weight of impact hinges on all the surrounding details. In Saint X, the new Hulu adaptation of the novel of the same name by Alexis Schaitkin, we almost get there. Through the story of a suspected murder via two timelines, the lead-up to it and the aftermath many years later, its emotional focus is unfortunately bifurcated and ultimately dissipates because of this dispersion. Despite some strong episodes that take us deeper into the lives of the characters grappling with loss, Saint X remains a series that never cuts as deep as it should by looking to the past rather than the deeper narrative potential in the future.
The driving force of this, at least initially, is the troubled Emily. Played by a committed Alycia Debnam-Carey, most known for her role in the series Fear the Walking Dead, she had stepped in for the previously attached Victoria Pedretti who left the project over reported creative differences. Without reading into any of these changes and just evaluating the end result, Debnam-Carey is competent in the role but left with increasingly little of substance to work with. In the present day, she is dealing with the tragic loss of her sister Alison (West Duchovny) which took place when she was only a young kid on vacation in the Caribbean with their family. Early flashbacks withhold the precise way she died or who may have been behind it, leaving Emily with many unanswered questions that have begun to haunt her once more. This may sound like your run-of-the-mill murder mystery, but there is much that soon sets Saint X apart. In addition to taking many pointed shots at the way true crime makes tragedy into entertainment, it also examines who gets caught up in this case and how it forever altered the course of their lives. This promising aspect, unfortunately, gets lost.
In particular, it is the character of Clive (Josh Bonzie) who we come to know more about. A staff member at the resort where Emily and her family had been staying, he gets swept up in the fallout of the inciting incident. Precise details about this incident — including the discovery of the deceased Alison, what ends up happening to Clive following this, and how his life will become intertwined with Emily’s once again years later back in the cold concrete landscape of New York — would all cross over into spoiler territory. What can be said is that Bonzie is the best actor of the entire series, bringing life to a character who has been beaten down by basically everyone on the suspicion that he had something to do with Alison’s disappearance. The series rightly acknowledges that this is bound up in personal prejudices on behalf of Emily and her family as well as a system of tourism that extracts much from the locals like a discount version of The White Lotus. Where it becomes odd is when the series both sidelines Clive, who honestly should have been the main character, and also makes unchallenged observations that teeter on giving validation to superficial anxieties that don’t deserve it.
Early on, when Emily goes to a therapy appointment, said therapist asks if her recent move to a Caribbean neighborhood is proving to be too much for her. The foundation of this question is that, because she believes someone on staff at the resort may have been involved with her sister’s death, somehow all these other people of similar descent may prove to be triggering in some way. It is, to put it lightly, a rather insulting implication that the series seems to be skeptical of otherwise though in ways that are far too trite. As Emily begins to almost stalk Clive, deceiving him about who she is in the hopes of getting answers about what he knows, she begins to grow closer to him when she learns about his own struggles.
For all the ways the series is hyper-aware of narrative tropes, its fatal flaw comes in how it filters much of the story through a character discovering the humanity of another who she had otherwise written off. Where a more incisive work like the recent film Nanny eschewed this uninteresting framing, Saint X falls increasingly into its trappings despite all the ways it tries to steer clear of them. The reason that movie comes to mind when watching this series is that each plays around with elements of horror. Unfortunately, where Nanny created visually striking sequences as a result, Saint X lacks the same care in bringing them to life.
This extends to much of the show’s visuals that, in order to indicate what timeline they are taking part in, are stripped of color and end up lifeless. When that extends to dialogue that can be clunky and some developments which seem like they could’ve been lifted from the true-crime shows it pokes fun at, Saint X really starts to come apart. The best aspects of the series, like in the fourth episode where we spend more time with Clive, step away from all this to give his life more texture. It seems to gesture at a genuine desire to not narrowly define the arc of his story, but there is too much of the series that falls short of achieving this. More than the ending, which ends up being intentionally anticlimactic for a reason, this framing presents the greatest missed opportunity. There may be some small jolts of complexity that are more earned, but this is not enough for Saint X to overcome familiar flaws that make it all too conventional — especially when it could have been so much more.