The recent spate of UK crime thrillers making their US debut on Amazon Prime Video has afforded fans of the genre plenty of entertainment in the past year. The streaming service has brought over two Agatha Christie adaptations, Ordeal By Innocence and, more recently, The ABC Murders — featuring John Malkovich as a melancholy Hercule Poirot — as well as the smartly plotted Informer. It’s the latter that the new series White Dragon (or Strangers in the UK) more closely resembles, as an increasingly paranoid plot weaves present-day social and political details into the fabric of it conspiratorial narrative.
It’s that conspiracy — or the idea of one — that turns White Dragon from a fairly routine murder mystery into something much larger than the audience might’ve thought possible from the advertisements. The marketing surrounding the show’s arrival on Amazon Prime focused primarily on the recognizable face of John Simm (Doctor Who, Collateral), as British college professor named Jonah Mulray, who ventures to Hong Kong after his wife Megan (Dervla Kirwan) is killed in what at first appears to be a freak auto accident. Upon his arrival, however, Jonah soon finds out that his wife was leading a double life, one that started in Hong Kong nearly two decades before they met, and involved her other husband, David (Anthony Wong, Infernal Affairs), and their daughter Lau (Katie Leung, Harry Potter). As if that weren’t complicated enough, Jonah is given evidence that Megan’s death was actually a murder, one connected to David’s shadowy past and an ongoing governmental election that’s rife with corruption and is the cause of hostile protests, many of which are made more aggressive by the openly dissident voice and actions of Lau.
Added to the mix are Michael (Anthony Hayes), an Australian expatriate journalist, Sally Porter (Emila Fox), a member of the British Consulate, who’s corrupt hotelier boyfriend Ben (Christian Contreras) is somehow involved in efforts to sabotage a particular political candidate, and Becky (Kae Alexander), a fellow dissident who has caught Lau’s eye (or the other way around, perhaps). The result is an addictive conspiracy thriller that stays entertaining enough, even when its snowballing narrative threatens to become an avalanche of paranoid gibberish that, yes, claims to go “all the way to the top,” as most thrillers of this ilk do.
That White Dragon doesn’t completely collapse under the sheer weight of its plot and its many characters is a victory in and of itself. That it manages to be actually compelling at times, especially when exploring more personal avenues within the lives of its sprawling ensemble cast, is even more impressive. The series is like a nesting doll in reverse, where hidden inside each doll is an implausibly larger doll that itself contains something much larger and more ominous. This aspect works particularly well in the eight-episode series’ first few hours, as what looks to be a familiar but intriguing mystery about a seemingly cuckolded spouse reveals itself eager to move beyond the story of a man seemingly betrayed by the woman he loves. As such, Megan’s role in the series is more consequential than that of the duplicitous spouse (though the series earns points for gender flipping this particular narrative device), as signs begin to point to her infidelity as something more than what it seems.
Still, though, White Dragon (a title that seems questionable in 2019) struggles to make its various points of interest match up in a way that resembles a cohesive whole. John’s fish-out-of-water plight can only sustain interest for so long before the mysteries surrounding Megan and Anthony, as well as the reasons for the police cover-up of her death and various whiffs of political malfeasance in Hong Kong, begin to look far more appealing. Yet it’s not long before the series switches tactics, with regard to Jonah’s story, using his time on screen to explore the conflicted nature of his grief and how it is split between mourning his now dead wife and clinging to the lie that was their marriage. To a certain extent, Jonah is joined in that endeavor by Lau, who is also compelled to act on behalf of her anger and grief over discovering her mother’s deceitfulness. In doing so, she finds an unlikely companion in first Jonah and then Becky, as the search for the truth sends them both down some twisty paths.
White Dragon is the kind of mystery that keeps its answers at arm’s length, mostly by directing the audience to the person who has the answers, but it also spends a great deal of energy coming up with reasons why the person in question is unwilling to divulge the truth. That can be a little frustrating at times, as that particular M.O. creates a pervasive sense that White Dragon is treading water when it should be swimming toward the shoreline. The series isn’t completely undone by its proclivities or its sometimes unwieldy narrative ambitions, however, as Simm, Wong, and Leung all turn in strong performances that work equally well whether they are operating alone or on screen together. Ultimately, that leaves the series as something of a mixed bag, one that nevertheless makes this international thriller satisfactory enough to watch all the way through.
White Dragon streams on Amazon Prime Video on Friday, February 8.