How a new TV drama, galvanized by ICE raids, made detention’s horrors ‘tangible’
The following story contains spoilers from the fifth episode of “The Cleaning Lady.”
When the television writer and producer Miranda Kwok set out to create “The Cleaning Lady,” a new Fox drama about an undocumented surgeon-turned-service-worker who begins working for a powerful crime syndicate to save her ailing son, she knew she wanted to shine a light on the dehumanizing conditions of ICE detention centers.
“When I was developing this with Warner Bros. for the first five months, it was right around the time that the unprecedented ICE raids were happening across the country,” Kwok recalls, singling out a day in August 2019 when immigration authorities rounded up 680 workers in Mississippi. “That was actually one of the things that was on the table for the pilot, and after some discussion we decided it was actually better to wait until the audience got invested in these characters.”
Premiering Monday, the show’s harrowing fifth episode — penned by Eddie Serrano, a Mexican American writer whose aunt is a border patrol agent, and directed by Milan Cheylov — depicts every undocumented family’s worst nightmare. While cleaning up a party bus, protagonist Thony (Élodie Yung), her sister-in-law Fiona (Martha Millan) and their co-worker Gabby (Cosima Cabrera) are arrested and taken to a detention center, where they are patted down, reduced to a single ID number and forced to stay in a freezing holding cell known as “The Icebox” with inadequate access to food or medical care.
“You want to show that Thony is this amazing doctor who wants to help people and will do anything,” says showrunner and executive producer Melissa Carter. “But even with all of her desires to help this pregnant woman [in the same cage], she’s not able to, and that is the heartbreaking part of it. Thony’s superpowers are sort of stripped away in a realistic way. We didn’t want to make it seem like she would be able to get out of it so easily.”
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Thony is eventually taken to a separate room, where she discovers that Garrett (Oliver Hudson), an FBI agent who is looking to incriminate her crime boss Arman (Adan Canto), orchestrated the raid to coerce her into helping him. “But we show that, even with an FBI agent, when people get swept up in a system, sometimes the system just takes over,” says Carter.
Production designer Roshelle Berliner used photographic evidence to re-create the inside of a U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention facility, down to the Mylar blankets and the amount of food and trash in the overcrowded cages, making the documentaries that Yung and Millan had watched come alive in an unexpectedly visceral way.
“It was just the violation of our rights, the physical patting down from the officers, the zip ties — all of those were just tangible [examples] of our fear, our hopelessness,” Millan says.
“It was the feeling of being packed in a cage and feeling almost like an animal, and [it] must be absolutely horrifying to go through something like this where it felt to me that there were no solutions, no way out,” Yung says. (A lighthearted moment in the script among the women was removed during production to emphasize the gravity of the situation.) “It did feel like a very cold cage [with] things on the floor, and the only source of humanity that was left was that we were with other women.”
From the outset, executive producers were adamant about separating Thony and Fiona to illustrate “the fundamental fact that undocumented families do get torn apart” and the affected children are faced with the consequences, Kwok says. Fiona’s two children, Jaz (Faith Bryant) and Chris (Sean Lew), “actually have different stories because Jaz was born here, and Chris discovers he’s not. So if Fiona is taken, what happens to Chris? What happens to Jaz? Everyone is facing a different scenario.”
When Thony and Fiona don’t return home from their shift and can’t be reached by phone, Jaz springs into action, deadbolting the front door and finding the Red Cards that are designed to help undocumented immigrants assert their rights in case of an unwarranted home visit. “We also wanted to make sure we painted a portrait of these women who are heroes in their own lives,” Kwok says, “and that’s why we wanted to make it clear that Fiona had a plan so that when she’s taken, the kids know everything.”
Forced to choose between saving Fiona and staying loyal to Arman, Thony begrudgingly agrees to work with Garrett to save her sister-in-law, who does not yet know about her double life. And after lashing out at Thony for revealing her true intentions, Arman has a change of heart, explaining that he wants to take down his boss, Hayak (Navid Negahban), who has made it clear that Arman will never be more than his subordinate and right-hand man. Arman agrees to give Thony intel that won’t incriminate himself, including a criminal councilman’s laptop that should be enough to free Fiona and Gabby from detention.
Arman is “one of the heads of the crime syndicate in Vegas, so there is this first layer, this threat, this bad guy. And then throughout the series, his humanity is going to be revealed to [Thony] because they are going to be put in different situations where he will let go of these layers,” Yung says, adding that she still doesn’t know if their instant connection is romantic or simply a case of fatal attraction.
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But while Thony and Garrett are able to stop Fiona’s deportation bus in the nick of time, Gabby is repatriated to Mexico without her children. “The fact is, most people do get deported when they’re in that situation,” Kwok explains. “And it was only because of this extraordinary situation that Thony and Fiona were in that they managed to get out.”
Having concealed her involvement in the crime syndicate from the rest of her family, Thony will be forced to deal with the fallout from her actions now that Fiona’s worst fears were almost realized, Carter says. Thony “is someone that takes charge, and Fiona accuses her: ‘You always think you know better than everybody else. … You didn’t trust me enough to let me in and tell me what was actually going on.’ So, this is a real emotional moment — it’s a come-to-Jesus moment in Episode 6 — where they have to decide: ‘How are we going chart our path forward in our relationship?’”
Thony and Fiona are “so connected that what hurts more than anything else is that betrayal,” Kwok adds, “and that’s what could tear these sisters-in-law apart.”
And though she still feels the perpetual fear of deportation, Fiona’s traumatic experience will light a fire under her, Millan says. “I think it’s even more desperate at this point because the nightmare has already happened, and there’s a certain anger that comes through. She has been betrayed by someone who she thought was above her. And in the end, they’re both the same — they’re both just struggling to find a way to protect themselves, their livelihoods, their family.”
Carter adds: “It’s like she’s come through the fire and realizes, ‘I can’t live in fear any longer; I can’t live in the shadows. I need to really forge a path, at least for my son, to get citizenship.’ So it completely galvanizes her character to push through all the fears she’s had, [whereas] before she was saying to Thony: ‘Don’t get pulled over. Maybe you shouldn’t take Luca [Sebastien and Valentino LaSalle] to the hospital.’ She’s literally almost afraid to go to the grocery store, but after the ICE raid, she knows she has no other choice but to forge ahead for her son, which is just really powerful.”
‘The Cleaning Lady’
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-DLS (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and sexual content)
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