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Edwin (Jayden Elijah) and Alison (West Duchovny) in 'Saint X'
Palmoa Alegria—Hulu
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Early on in Saint X, a psychological drama based on a novel of the same name that comes to Hulu on Wednesday, the Thomas family is riding a shuttle bus from the airport of the titular, fictional Caribbean island to their luxe resort, Indigo Bay. Shy, 7-year-old Claire (Kenlee Townsend) peers out the window. Outside, a Black girl around her age in a blue school uniform sticks out her tongue at Claire through the window, then turns her back and crosses her arms.

“Why’d she do that?” Claire asks.

“Clairey, did you know that two billion people—which is more than a third of humans on Earth—live on less than $2 a day?” asks Claire’s 19-year-old sister, Alison (West Duchovny) from the seat behind her.

When the sisters’ mom (Betsy Brandt), protests that Claire is too young to learn such things, Alison dryly responds, “I don’t think seven’s too young to learn about the hypocrisy of our lifestyle.”

Their dad (Michael Park) warns her to stop but Alison continues, “Hypocrisy, Clairey, is when you say you feel a certain way, but your actions directly contradict that. Kind of like how Mom and Dad say they care about poverty, but instead of doing anything about it, they plan a luxury vacation on an island where people don’t even have solid roofs over their heads.”

Here, the bus driver chimes in. “Miss, on our island, the people are well-fed and happy,” he says.

“You’ll have to excuse my daughter,” their mom tells him. “She’s in her first year of college and reading a bunch of Toni Morrison. Her heart’s in the right place, she’s just a little confused.”

Claire (Kenlee Townsend) and Alison (West Duchovny) in 'Saint X' (Palmoa Alegria—Hulu)
Claire (Kenlee Townsend) and Alison (West Duchovny) in 'Saint X'
Palmoa Alegria—Hulu

The fleeting exchange is a jarring snapshot of the family’s dynamics and Alison’s characteristic attempt at wokeness. (Though the year is 1996, and “woke” wasn’t yet mainstream.) It is also characteristic of Alison to forget the presence and opinion of the driver, the only island native on the bus.

Alison soon disappears, setting off the mystery at the heart of Saint X. On the last night of the Thomas family’s vacation, she is seen out at a bar with two local men, Edwin (Jayden Elijah) and Clive (Josh Bonzie), but does not come home the next morning. A few days later, her body is found, and the two men are arrested.

Alison is a golden girl—a beautiful, white Princeton freshman—and her murder immediately sets off a tabloid frenzy in the U.S. But the timeline doesn’t add up, the evidence is paltry, and Edwin and Clive are soon released, leaving Alison’s case unresolved. Years later, an adult Claire (who now goes by her middle name, Emily, and is played by Alycia Debnam-Carey) has a chance encounter that reopens the trauma and sets her on an obsessive spiral toward the truth.

What to know about the book that inspired Saint X

Saint X originated as a novel by Alexis Schaitkin, that was published in February 2020 to critical acclaim. The push to get the story on screen began well before the book was published: the manuscript went out on submission to editors in June of 2018, and was simultaneously being sent to production studios. Within a month or so of Saint X selling to its publisher, there were already offers for a TV option. (Though Schaitkin is listed as an executive producer, she wasn’t involved in the TV adaptation.)

At 350 pages, the novel cracks open the inner workings of its characters and their thoughts—especially Alison’s—more than the show can. The book version of the “$2 a day” scene finds Alison also peering out the window at the “scruffy dogs and houses with rebar sticking up out of the roofs.”

“In her Global Justice class, she learned that two billion people, more than a third of the humans on earth, live on less than two dollars a day,” the book reads. “Are the people on this island those people? Are the things out the van window poverty, or just people living their lives? She doesn’t know how she would even begin to know.”

How Saint X’s television adaptation departs from the book

The question dogging Emily in the book is “Who was my sister?” says Saint X showrunner Leila Gerstein. In bringing the story to screen, Gerstein says she shifted the central question slightly to “What happened to my sister?” resulting in a more active, suspenseful narrative perfect for TV.

“Here it was: a beautiful location, a compelling mystery at the center, which I knew that audiences were going to love, and I knew it was going to make for a propulsive television show,” Gerstein tells TIME. “But really, that was serving as an overarching umbrella, and that was the hook. That was how I was going to get eyeballs on the show.”

The book had ample material for Gerstein to wrap into the show. “It was dealing with so many themes that were really important to me to talk about,” she says, “Grief and race and class and tourism and gender and what it means to be a sister and the culture’s obsession with dead white girls.”

Edwin (Jayden Elijah), Alison (West Duchovny) and Clive ‘Gogo’ Richardson (Josh Bonzie) in 'Saint X' (Palmoa Alegria—Hulu)
Edwin (Jayden Elijah), Alison (West Duchovny) and Clive ‘Gogo’ Richardson (Josh Bonzie) in 'Saint X'
Palmoa Alegria—Hulu

“Missing white woman syndrome”—which sparked discourse again after the death of Gabby Petito in 2021—has circulated in the U.S. for centuries. News anchor Gwen Ifill coined the phrase at the 2004 journalism conference, Unity: Journalists of Color, saying, “I call it the missing white woman search syndrome. If there is a missing white woman you’re going to cover that every day.”

From the outset, Schaitkin—who was fascinated by the JonBenét Ramsey case as a kid—wanted to subvert the “dead white girl” or “pretty missing girl” trope. “It is interrogating our interest in those stories, and what it means to sensationalize these stories and to pay attention to certain deaths and not other deaths,” Schaitkin says. She aimed “to write a ‘dead girl story’ that’s about our fascination with these dead girl stories.”

Both the novel and the series are mysteries, but the former is just as much about the fallout of Alison’s death and the people it touched—especially the two local men she was last seen with, Clive and Edwin, who also worked at Indigo Bay. The intimacy between the two sisters mirrors the relationship between Clive and Edwin, best friends who grew up together on the island. The show in particular fleshes out how their close friendship developed over the years, and how much they had to lose.

Alison strikes up a flirtation with Edwin, determined to experience all aspects of the island. “Some of the motivation for her being with Edwin is her white guilt,” Gerstein says, “Proving to herself she’s not her parents.” The 19-year-old “finds her lack of exposure to people of different classes and races embarrassing,” Schaitkin says, “and wants to get out of this bubble that she’s been raised in.”

“She’s a tangle of all of those impulses and dynamics, some of which are—I don’t want to say good or bad—but some of which are leading her in the right direction,” she says, “Some of which are very privileged in themselves.”

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