Stage & Screen

FOX’s ‘The Cleaning Lady’ Folds Real Immigrant Feelings into Prime Time Drama

&ASIAN's Aarabi Baheerathan and Yin Ting Lau sit down to discuss all the drama, nuance and storytelling in the first five episodes of The Cleaning Lady!
The main cast of 'The Cleaning Lady'. Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FOX.
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FOX’s ‘The Cleaning Lady’ Folds Real Immigrant Feelings into Prime Time Drama
This review features no show spoilers beyond its promotional materials.

YIN TING: Alright AARABI, let’s go! Maybe we can start with... what’s your rose and your thorn for THE CLEANING LADY (for these first few episodes anyways)?

AARABI: The rose for me would have to be Élodie [Yung]’s performance and the way Thony has been written. She brings a fierce protectiveness of her son and herself that is so apparent from the beginning, that she becomes very easy to root for. At no point do you feel sorry for her, just angry for her and frustrated for her. I like that in this show– the undocumented immigrant protagonist evokes more empathy than sympathy. Do you know what I mean?

Élodie Yung in the “Lion’s Den” episode of The Cleaning Lady. Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FOX.

YIN TING: Yes, completely. Similarly, my rose is the show’s more subtle nods to immigrant feelings. It’s not the big drama beats, or the dialogue necessarily, but the non-verbal moments of “Seeing,” such as when Others recognise each other, or when the viewers perceive emotional burden as a physical weight.

I don’t know if these moments are big beats for all people to recognise but I certainly did as an immigrant myself. Both Thony and her sister-in-law Fiona [played by Martha Millan] really carry these moments, they did fantastically subtle work there. 

AARABI: Oh yes, definitely agree with that! I recognised that too and think these subtle nuances really do centre immigrant feelings

YIN TING: I like that there’s also real nuances to all of them having fight. It’s not a pitiful state, it’s one of total tunnel vision focus and it’s exhausting. But also stubborn and determined. Honestly with that, I think it’s how they make the threat of physical detainment by ICE [U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement] so fucking scary– all of these women we get to know, they’re so tough and adaptable. And you know that the one condition of being physically trapped is the only way they’d be completely and horrifically disempowered. They make that contrast really hit.

And my thorn my thorn… Ugh I think my thorn is just Garrett’s character. It’s just a little hard to watch an FBI agent be this unhinged. It’s harder to watch especially after the discourse of the last couple years.

But I have to say... annoyingly he is crucial. In a totally insane way— him, Thony and Arman are the destabilising pyramid that asks us as the viewer to question what we think is right or wrong.

Oliver Hudson in the “Lion’s Den” episode of The Cleaning Lady. Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FOX.

AARABI: Yes Garrett made me so uncomfortable, but I think that’s the point! He’s a very real threat for these women.

I love shows that question what we think is right or wrong though. I love it when we’re forced to face the fact that the system really isn’t fair, and that justice isn’t always plausible. Good people, Thony in this case, can end up on the wrong side by doing what’s right and that’ll never be an overdone concept.

YIN TING: I also found Thony’s “boss” Arman’s mob business actually a bit confusing. Like, money laundering is one of those things where I’m just… [shrug]

But it didn’t feel super important as long as I understood they did illegal things.

Adan Canto in the “Lion’s Den” episode of The Cleaning Lady. Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FOX.

AARABI: Haha I feel you, I shut down when the mobsters talk. It’s criminal white noise

YIN TING: And does Arman see a therapist? Arman is like, interrogating people in a scary way. But then he’s so caring and empathetic... simultaneously totally bonkers-violent yet sweet. I have whiplash from Arman.

AARABI: I hope Arman sees a therapist.

YIN TING: He must see a therapist. He’s so weirdly grounded for being so violent.

AARABI: I feel like he REALLY fits the toxic softboi-meets-gangster alpha male trope that’s popular on TikTok at the moment, so I think people will simp over him. Anger issues but a soft-spot for immigrant mothers– Very simp-worthy.

YIN TING: Oh my god I have to say... My thorn for myself (i.e. it makes me hate myself) is that I slightly do kind of ship Arman and Thony. And I judge myself for that.

Élodie Yung and Adan Canto in the The Cleaning Lady. Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FOX.

AARABI: Oh god then you can judge me too, because same.

YIN TING: But it’s irresistible isn’t it when you see people who understand each other on this very specific level right?!

AARABI: I know it would be so messy for her and is a bad choice, but it would be such a good bad choice.

YIN TING: HE GETS IT. FAMILY OR NOTHING AT ALL!

AARABI: He totally gets it, and they have such intense chemistry

YIN TING: They’re also both intensely fierce and don’t want to rely on anyone but do rely on each other.

AARABI: And he’s protective of her without patronising her, which is such a hard balance to nail, but they did somehow!

YIN TING: Ugh I hate us both. It’s the show’s greatest triumph, making us root for this possible future bad decision.

AARABI: It’s true. Thorn-wise for me, I think some of the characters feel quite flat, the dialogue a little outdated– it all felt a little surface-level and somewhat clichéd without too much depth, but I’m hoping this is something that changes as the episodes go on. I really enjoyed watching it, but I did slightly feel like I was watching a show from a few years back.

YIN TING: I agree with you and I honestly also think a big part of it is that the show’s identity is tied to being a prime time drama in America, and so it’s occasionally heavy-handed. Maybe necessarily so to bring in viewers who don’t think much of these issues.

AARABI: That makes total sense, and to be honest, that’s definitely something that can be overlooked if it results in a prime time drama with an immigrant lead character having a high viewership! 

YIN TING: I think if we weren’t POC who have immigration in our blood, maybe the heavy hand would be necessary? 

I mean obviously not only POC migrate— but I do think the show makes it clear it’s about immigration marked by Otherness, in this case— being of colour in America. That’s also why there was a moment where another Southeast Asian cleaning lady looks like Thony... both stick out, but they also blend into invisibility, into each other. It shows the tragedy of that state being simultaneously protecting as well as negating.

AARABI: Yeah I agree with what you’re saying. But I do think more relatability and engaging dialogue would help add depth to these characters and take them beyond their tropes. It’s frustrating because it’s such a win in itself to see these characters exist, it feels ungrateful to want more from them but I was left wanting slightly more to connect with.

Élodie Yung and Martha Millan in the “TNT” premiere episode of The Cleaning Lady. Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FOX.

YIN TING: I really love her dynamic with her sister-in-law Fiona, who’s also undocumented but has a totally different set of baggage with it. I find their relationship to be very believable. And Fiona’s kids bring a different and interesting element to the show. Because let’s face it, Thony’s son Luca’s just kind of there. In his situation, he can’t do much unfortunately.

AARABI: Having said that, again I love that Thony is extremely vulnerable and we would expect her to be afraid to voice her opinion. But she still is quite fierce! She is sassy to the FBI agents when they corner her friend, she voices her demands of being protected to Arman. She defies what we expect of her and defends herself despite being defenceless. 

I also love her dynamic with Fiona, she’s a bit of a character foil for Thony. I feel like whilst Thony is happy to keep her head down and is very goal-oriented, Fiona dares to dream a bit more, and is a bit more free-spirited. It’s nice to see that contrast between two people in a similar position. 

YIN TING: One hundred percent. I think Arman nailed it on the head in the beginning when he connected her medical past to how she demands respect in her present. And Fiona also has mentioned Thony’s doctor past but in a different way where she feels it divides their experiences of living undocumented.

So it’s nice to see the difference in perception of how Thony wears her past. 

Fiona having a coming-of-age kid, I think adds another crucial element to the story. It’s one thing for her and Thony to try to live under the radar, but what about when you haven’t even lived yet and you want to because you’re growing into an adult? Honestly Fiona’s teenage kid (Chris, played by Sean Lew) kinda makes me the most sad. And they did Chris’s scenes with Fiona perfectly— his frustration and anger but at the same time, once he sees that emotional weight Fiona carries...

Well, I’ve certainly felt that before. When you see that weight on a parent and know it’s for you, all for you? You can’t stay angry anymore.

Faith Bryant, Martha Millan and Sean Lew in the “Lion’s Den” episode of The Cleaning Lady. Photo: Kurt Iswarienko/FOX.

AARABI: Yes exactly that, that feeling is all too real. You see the sacrifice they’ve made for you and the weight they’ve carried for you and you just can’t hold anything against them. I have such a soft spot for immigrant parent stories.

When I interviewed Miranda, she emphasized the importance of having multiple immigrant stories in the show and I really value that, like you said, having Chris’ coming-of-age narrative really added another dimension. Even the contrast between Arman and Thony, both are immigrants but have entirely different statuses and levels of power.

YIN TING: Yes! I appreciate that whilst the drama elements are sometimes very television-y, they show that the idea of “security” is different for each character, which is very realistic. At the end of the day, all of them just want safety, stability and dignity. 

The series does a good job of showing that these things - which should absolutely be within every person’s grasp - have to be painstakingly taken back, maybe at the expense of others you didn’t even want to compete with. 

AARABI: Exactly! Ultimately, the importance of this kind of representation is that it really highlights this to a mainstream audience that wouldn’t otherwise have encountered these issues to this extent.

YIN TING: I wanted to also circle back to how the show destabilises our ideas of morality, justice, right and wrong… How’s it going on your end with that?

AARABI: Haha well I’ve never personally struggled with rooting for the underdog even if they’re on the wrong side of the law! I do think there’s a fine balance, however. All it would take is the wrong kind of violence for Arman to go from the hero and figure of attraction in this story to someone truly horrific. They maintain his “am I a monster” conflict in a well-balanced way, but I’m weary.

But I will never not root for Thony, and she really is the centre of the show. They’ve done such a great job with her character.

YIN TING: So true for Arman being on that tightrope. Interestingly, both him and Garrrett are doubles of each other and Thony is like the mirror between them– their interactions filtered through her is what colours my sense of them being “good” or “bad” people. I don’t want Arman to tip over that edge, but also what would that edge be? If he murders for business, I wouldn’t like that but would I allow it if he did it to protect Thony? The show makes me ask questions of myself and of what violence I want to permit.

Both Arman and Garrett’s personalities are also muddied by their respective jobs which represent our stereotypical symbols of right vs wrong – law enforcement vs criminal activity – that are constantly being destabilised: Is Arman a good person because he usually only uses violence for the career he’s in, because he has had to for survival? Is Garrett a bad person because he uses his FBI privileges to exert power over people in the bigger picture of catching criminals? (For me, the answer to the latter is a firm “yes”)

AARABI: Exactly that! I’m interested to see how they maintain this balance and if it will get to a point where the viewer is made genuinely uncomfortable. Right now, I’m entirely on Thony’s side and not uncomfortable about anything she’s doing but I’d love to have my mind changed! And the fact that this can happen so easily is a testament to the writing, they’ve really nailed the fragility of these characters and the vulnerability of our meaning of what’s right and wrong.

I'm interested to see where the show goes next, embarrassingly I’m really hoping for more Arman-Thony content. More significantly, I’d love to see more from Thony’s son. I know he’s so young, but a few scenes here and there that indicate his perspective and awareness of what’s going on could be extremely powerful

YIN TING: Ugh, with self-disgust, I must also say I kind of want more Thony-Arman scenes. Honestly they just have great chemistry and it’s when they’re interacting with each other I feel most invested, even more so than when Thony’s with her kid Luca.

Maybe it’s because I feel that these yummy scenes with Arman are when you feel Thony’s desires as an autonomous person rise most to the surface, not so dominated by the thousands of responsibilities she bears. 

But with that, I think I also hope the show explores these characters breaking out of what they think is certain. Like with Arman, almost seemingly accepting the price for security in his life is to be trapped forever in the mob... I think the show really visualises the mindset of needing to make it as a migrant— the tunnel vision; the cage door is open but the bird is convinced it can’t fly out. Once some part of this goal has been attained though, what’s that like for personhood? If your whole life has been shaped by a goal, how do you reshape it when you’ve reached it? Even if only partly.

All of these main characters are so dominated by this vision, I don’t think we know (and neither do they) who they really are besides those goals. So I hope we get to see that in the future.

AARABI: Same. I really really enjoyed watching The Cleaning Lady and now this conversation has got me excited to see what comes next!

The Cleaning Lady premiered on January 3rd on FOX, with episodes airing weekly, and is also available for episodic streaming within the United States on FOX NOW and on Hulu.
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