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The Cleaning Lady - Season 1 - Review: A compelling story that goes beyond entertainment

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Developed by creator, writer, executive producer and soon to be co-showrunner Miranda Kwok alongside Melissa Carter, The Cleaning Lady is Fox's most watched new drama. Critically acclaimed for its powerful storytelling but also for embracing diversity and empowering minorities, the series is the first one to put a Filipino family at the forefront and has more than just a compelling story to offer. This crime drama that focuses on a mother's fight from an undocumented immigrant's point of view is going beyond entertainment by shedding light on some very tough but real topics with the help of well-defined yet complex characters. 

The Cleaning Lady's second season is premiering in a little over a week and I couldn't be more excited, so it's the perfect time to reflect on its first season!

Let's start with a little context. The story follows Thony De La Rosa (Elodie Yung), a brilliant Cambodian cardiothoracic surgeon who left the Philippines 8 months ago to come to the United States. You'll soon meet the center of her universe and the reason behind all of her sacrifices; five-year-old Luca (Sebastien and Valentino LaSalle). The adorable little boy has an immunodeficiency disorder and with the only match for a bone marrow transplant backing down shortly after their arrival, his only chance of survival now is a gene-therapy clinical trial. While they came to this country legally with a medical visa, it is now expired which makes Luca ineligible for the trial, leaves them undocumented and at risk for deportation every time they set foot outside. 

Living in Las Vegas with her sister-in-law, Fiona (Martha Millan), who's a TNT herself and her two kids — Chris (Sean Lew) and Jaz (Faith Bryant), they both take on some cleaning jobs to make end meets. Everything gets more complicated when Thony witnesses a murder while working, meeting the right-hand man of the Barsamian crime syndicate — Arman Morales (Adan Canto). Having no choice but to offer to wipe the crime scene clean in exchange for her life, this marks the beginning of her no way out involvement with the mob. As if things weren't already messy enough, she now gets FBI Agent Garrett Miller's (Oliver Hudson) attention, who seems to be obsessed with arresting Arman and wants to use her as an informant.

WARNING: it gets heavily spoilery at times down there.

If you haven't already watched the show, I'd advise you to stop right here. Go grab some popcorn and binge-watch the first season on FOX or Hulu — you won't regret it, pinky promise.

"You and I, we're both in a country that's not our own. We're not afforded the same privileges everybody else has. When it comes to keeping your son alive, it's not about doing things the right way or the wrong way — but any way you can."

Pronounced by Arman in the pilot when he convinced Thony to accept his money and protection in exchange for her services, this quote is probably my favorite so far. With doors closing in front of her because her son wasn’t born in the country holding the key to his survival, those words echo in your head each episode as you watch her navigate in this new world Arman introduced her to — her new world, one she got forced into and can't escape from — yet, it's the one that offers her solutions in an otherwise desperate situation. Still fighting for her principles, Thony slowly starts acknowledging there will be concessions to be made — and in the end, a big part of her arc in this first season revolves around this very quote. 

Any way you can...but how far is too far? With Luca's life constantly hanging on by a thread, we learn very early on that there is no stopping our main character when it comes to saving her son and staying alive to do it. After all, what is more powerful than a parent's love for its child? It's by relying on this unconditional love that the show guides us through Thony's bumpy journey. She hit many walls trying to get Luca the help he needs, with people showing little to no compassion to her distress. Frustration grows when this innocent child is standing so close yet so far from the only treatment that could save his life because of their expired visas, and you’re left to wonder how she doesn’t get overwhelmed by the unfairness of it all.

"How can you not be so angry at what's happening to your son? 
How can you just live your life without hating everyone?"

Lou Diamond Phillips, who played the jackass-y bone marrow donor Joe Fabroa in episode 4 (that turned out to be a man broken by the death of his wife) had Thony put words on what we already felt by watching her. As long as I have my son I have to have hope. Luca is the one giving her the strength to pull through all those difficult moments that force her to take matters into her own hands. Over the course of the season, after facing setback after setback, we see her try to bribe a doctor, threaten a clinic director, make deals with organ brokers — the list is actually longer...she does go through a LOT. 

She's strong and relentless, but that doesn't mean she's not scared, affected by what she sees or by the choices she has to make — and √Člodie Yung is doing a stellar job portraying Thony, bringing authenticity to an already well-written character. The wide range of emotions she displays makes everything feel so real that you can't help but have your heart break and ache with hers — leading to an almost immediate connection to her character. 

After having explored and exhausted all the resources she had, the dire situation she's in forced Thony to go down paths she never thought she would have considered. But, as she states many times, what other choice does she have if she wants her son to survive? So she does what she has to do, with her only condition being that no one gets hurt in the process. When Arman offers his help to convince the donor to change his mind, she insists he is not to be harmed in any way — including by stealing his precious bone marrow. And it makes perfect sense to finally see her reach her breaking point in episode 6 when an innocent child could possibly die to save her own. Following her moral code and despite the heartbreak it causes her, she refuses to operate on the little girl, backs out of the deal she made and has once again to find another solution.   

(Not) just the cleaning lady. Thony has more than one string to her bow. Her impressive cleaning skills and knowledge caught Arman's eye and gave him a way to make her valuable to the mob to justify keeping her alive. And she may be juggling between the mob and the FBI while trying to save her son, but she still stands her ground and does not just passively submit to what is thrown at her. Instead, she tries to use it to her advantage as her ability to go by unnoticed — due to the apparent indifference that comes with her job — soon has her becoming crucial to both of them. 

"You should be saving lives, not scrubbing toilets." 
"Why choose? I can save lives while scrubbing toilets." 

Daughter of a doctor who died at the hands of the Khmer Rouge before she was born, Thony decided to follow in her father's footsteps who "would always risk his life for others" — and she definitely inherited his bravery and need to do good. Jamming a straw in a man's throat to save him from suffocating, cauterizing a wound, fixing a broken finger…we get to witness just how brilliant Thony is at her job, but being in the U.S. now keeps her from practising medicine legally. A point that gets expanded when we meet Dr. Nnamdi, a trauma and orthopaedic surgeon from Nigeria, who just like her, regrets seeing his credentials be worthless. Still, Thony has to put her gloves and surgical gown back on to save her son. After putting her career on hold to take care of Luca when he got diagnosed, she's forced to operate on her own child when a wealthier patient takes their spot. And as traumatic as it must have been for her, it was also an incredibly meaningful moment to have her perform her first real surgery since then to save his life. 

Addressing topics ranging from America's healthcare system to the black market all the while keeping the constant threat of deportation, the show uses its characters to open doors even wider, allowing the audience to dive further into those often overlooked real-world issues — and we soon find out that Thony isn't the only mother struggling. 

Martha Millan is terrific as Fi(ona) and her character quickly becomes a fan-favorite. She brings that fun, sassy and refreshing energy the show needs in the middle of all this tension. Make no mistake though, she will move you to tears as she goes through some hard times herself. Fiona has been living undocumented in Vegas for 15 years, and while we did get to hear a bit about the struggles she faced before and after her arrival in the U.S., I found myself craving for more when her brother Marco brought up her complicated story. With her son Chris, we get a glimpse into the hard and long road to citizenship when she ends up revealing he wasn't actually born in America. Once again, we can look back at Arman's quote with Fi as she does everything she can, using any way she has to fix her mistakes and give her son the life he deserves and longs for. That led her to sell drugs to afford to hire the lawyer that promised them DACA status — even when Thony saw it as a wrong and risky way to make money in the pilot. 

Fiona is also the one with the most experience as a TNT, and spends a lot of time reminding everyone how fragile their lives in this country are, while still trying to live hers to the fullest. With Cindy Lauper still singing in the background, we witness just how fast things can change when a party bus cleanup/celebration of Luca’s successful bone marrow transplant turns into a nightmare in episode 5. The ICE Raid scene was overwhelming but in a good, seizing way and even though we have Garrett to thank (or blame...we'll get to him a little later) for this trip to an Icebox, as Fiona explained in previous episodes, a simple police pull over or ER visit could have had the same outcome. 

I have a name, Fiona tells the ICE agent calling for her with the number she has been given upon her arrival. And I don't care what it is, answers Officer Ruiz. This exchange pretty much sums up the Icebox, and maybe also the lives of undocumented immigrants in general. No one outside this cell cared that a pregnant woman could lose her child or that children were freezing. As they wait in line to get on the bus that will bring them back to their home country and to whatever they ran from, those people are almost treated like packages at a carrier facility waiting to be returned to their sender. 

Their situation is making them incredibly vulnerable, and Garrett wasn't the only one using Thony's fear of deportation. We already saw within the first few minutes of the pilot that the questionable individuals they have to work for simply have to threaten to make a phone call to try to get their way. The lawyer Fiona hired to get DACA status for Chris also used their hopes to charge them heavily and for fees that didn't even exist. On the bright side, it gave us powerful moments, showing us just how supportive and strong they are, standing their ground in those difficult circumstances and refusing to be marginalized.

I think it's fair to say The Cleaning Lady did a beautiful (though heartbreaking) job at humanizing immigrants — they allow their messages to make their way gently thanks to their ability to make the audience empathize and establish an emotional connection with characters they have grown to care about. At the end of the day, they all have a good reason to be here — and just like we talked about earlier with Thony, they hold on to hope. 

Speaking of hope of a better life...let's focus on leading man Adan Canto's character. Arman wanted better and more to be able to care for the people he loves, when his parents just wanted a safer world for their family to grow in. At first glance, he seems to be fine with the life he's leading, but as his story unravels, you find out it isn't exactly what he was hoping for.

Was it all worth it? According to his wife Nadia, Arman wouldn't be satisfied living a simple life where power and money wouldn't play a big part in it — but isn't she just projecting her own needs onto him? At times, he almost seems tired of having blood on his hands, expressing his hate for people using their power to put others down, while we see him using his to help Thony and Luca without ever asking for anything in return. It’s obvious Arman is a good man that just made one wrong choice that had him spiraling down in a world he didn’t truly know at the time. He's a strong and powerful mobster, but he's also a character that has great sensitivity and compassion that lies not too deep under the surface — and Adan Canto plays the part marvelously. 

He seems to have it all, and yet, at the end of both episodes 3 and 5, Arman finds himself standing alone. Both times, Hayak dragged him down, made him feel illegitimate, unworthy of being more than just his employee — but his wife also left him behind. Nadia is a forceful and ambitious businesswoman, but her occasional lack of emotional support to Arman had me suspicious and unsure about her character at times. That being said, as the episodes went by, she proved herself to be trustworthy and was definitely a key player in her husband's success — and, once again, perfect casting as Eva de Dominici's performance is spot-on. 

It's Arman's soft side and apparent desire for a quieter life — mostly brought out by Thony — that has Nadia worried. His parents being seen as the help is probably why he almost flinches every time the word is used and why he sees Thony as a human being (...instead of a breathing garbage bin like Tarik in the pilot) and understands her struggles. But also because, just like her, he came with nothing and had to build his own path in a country that was not his own. We do see him being intimidating and violent, but his heated conversation with Thony in the third episode had him trying to justify his actions: he only uses these methods to protect his family. She was quick to remind him that he actually gave up his real family to choose Hayak’s. Even though we had already seen frictions between Arman and his boss — mainly about him keeping the witness (aka Thony) that could identify his son Tarik as Theo’s murderer alive — this intense scene was the perfect set up for what was to follow and that had been slowly creeping in the background since episode 1. 
"I’ve done some terrible things to help him build his empire, things I never thought I would do. But that’s all about to change now."

The inevitable fallout between the two reaches its peak in the second half of the season when Arman finally decides to take back control and find a way out after Thony confesses that the FBI had been trying to use her to get to him. With her distracting Garrett with false intel and Nadia's help to convince Noah, Arman manages to broker a $6 million deal with the entire gun shipment he had smoothly stolen from Hayak. Using the trust established bond he has with his boss's daughter and knowing her aversion for the criminal world, he fractures Isabel and Hayak's relationship to get the club back and eventually the hotel and casino. He seemed to have everything well under control until Garrett played the telephone game in reverse, forcing him to go to Mexico to conclude the gun deal — which ultimately got Hayak suspicious. 

Blurred lines. One of the recurring themes is the idea of good or bad, or rather the grey area in-between, and once again, this brings us back to Arman’s quote with Thony and Garrett's conversation in the penultimate episode. 
"I tried to do things the right way. By the rules. Got me nowhere. All anyone cared about was that if my son was born here. Because he's not American, he doesn't have the same chances." 
We're not going to pretend Thony didn't break the law a couple of times, but it was worth it for her, she who was so desperate to see her baby run in the park and play with other kids. As we talked about earlier, every door closed on her, except for the new one that appeared when Arman came into her life, and that ended up saving his life — something Garrett apparently can't wrap his head around. 

Garrett Miller has been — let’s say…controversial? From sleeping with an informant on a previous case to using Thony’s fears to get his way, not thinking about the (emotional) consequences of his actions, his methods aren’t conventional and we have been warned from the start. Oliver Hudson is captivating and believable as the pesky FBI Agent that has more depth than meets the eye. Little glimpses into his personal life reveal him as a father of two who separated from his wife after she found out about his affair. Brilliant but also incredibly insubordinate, we see him avoiding his empty apartment and desperately holding on to his job. As he tells Thony, things are pretty simple for him; Arman is one of the bad guys, and he is the good guy in the story. Yet, having a badge doesn't necessarily mean doing the right thing. 

His worst move was definitely the ICE Raid trick that broke an entire family when Gabby became collateral damage, but threatening to have Thony deported and Luca deprived of his trial is just as bad. But I have to say, as much as I still hold a grudge against him, I appreciated the efforts he made to try and bring Thony back from Mexico and the last two episodes had him slightly grow on me…until he decided to arrest Arman despite the plan they all agreed on. 

At the end of the season, Hayak's failed murder attempt on Arman had dramatic consequences for Thony, Arman and even Garrett. With each of them standing to lose everything, the trio was finally forced to work together. Thony and Arman’s agendas aligned, while Garrett still broke his promise and had him arrested. However, Arman is quick-witted and had a contingency plan in place that for the first time involved not only Thony but also Fiona and Samentha as cleaning ladies to retrieve the flash drive that contained the $6 million in crypto-currency. In the meantime, following Arman’s advice, Isabel protected herself and (and good for her) turned her back on her father, serving the FBI everything they needed on a silver platter to make sure he stays locked up. Despite being in prison, Arman's plan worked perfectly — he has everything he wanted and even seems to have gained Hayak trust back. 

Can someone give me the definition of soulmates? Never mind...found them. All jokes apart, I just stumbled on an article called "signs you've found your soulmate" (how cheesy, I know), and spoiler: they tick all the boxes. 

We did it. Thony's loyalty to Arman has been put to the test by Garrett almost every episode. In addition to the threats and terrible ICE Raid trick, he even brought his best James Bond gadgets that (whoopsie) either ended up drowning in a candle or that accidentally didn't record Arman. Even with Fiona detained in the Icebox, she still refused to turn her back on him — she's devoted to the man who was selflessly there for her and her son every time they needed him. 

Meeting Arman has been a blessing in disguise and they had an instant connection from the second they saw each other, sparks flying and everything. Walking on eggshells at first and asking him to let her go, Thony learned to value the resources he disposes and slowly got more comfortable with his world, to the point where it started worrying him when she asked to be put in contact with organ brokers from the black market. Unlike her husband Marco, not once did he try to stop her or judged her for her choices — instead, he made himself available and supported her, giving her tools to save her son, but still letting her make her own rules. 

"I'm just glad I got to do something good for once." 

Arman allowed Thony to see him as the man he once was and still tries to be despite the world he lives in. You can only speculate as to what pulls him towards Thony — but one thing seems to be clear; he missed and craved for something that he found in her. The build up to those two becoming a team, partners, soulmates — whatever you want to call it — was perfectly orchestrated. It was definitely fast, but it didn't feel rushed at all, and raw emotions led to their first kiss (can we really just call that a kiss?) as both were hurting for the same little boy. After trying to assert his dominance in the early episodes, those two are now on the same page, open with each other and on the same level of trust and respect. 

In Thony's own words, she didn't ask for any of this — she was thrown into a world she knew very little about, if anything. But driven by the hope and possibilities it represents for her family and others in need of help, by the end of the season — as there's no one left forcing her to — she decides to stay in it of her own will. With the season finale ending with her holding the keys — or should I say the purse — to his kingdom, Thony is linked more than ever to Arman's world. Now in charge of his money, with Fiona by her side to clean it through a new cleaning business and with the project of opening her own underground clinic, it looks like our main character can finally start over.

Home? Home is where you’ll be. With Luca safe and recovering, it’s only fair for everyone to wonder if or when Thony will go back to the Philippines. After all, she only came to Vegas to save Luca. I'm not sure the Philippines is home anymore, Thony confesses to Arman. We learned a little earlier in that same episode that because of her husband's gambling addiction, there’s nothing left for her back there — she lost her friends, their car, almost lost their house, and one has to wonder if anything is left now that he somehow got money to join them (who's buying the "my boss got me an advance" story? Thony didn't and neither did I).

While it's understandable that Marco wanted to be by his son's side and be useful, he only managed to put more pressure and stress on his family as he pushed for them to go back home with him and judged his sister Fiona for her choices. One thing that he doesn't seem to understand is that home isn’t a place or four walls — it’s the people you love. Fiona and the kids are home. (Arman is home?) Luca is her home — the one she will follow blindly and can’t live or breathe without. And just when it finally felt like everyone could catch a break and make plans for the future...suddenly, in the final 2 minutes, Thony's world crumbles. 

Marco's last straw has probably been his wife telling him that they needed "to decide this together", when a flashback revealed him saying almost the same words a year ago as he ran after Thony sneaking out of the house with their son in the middle of a stormy night. Thony only always had Luca's best interest in mind, and after watching her bust her butt off for an entire season, it's hard to not hate Marco for messing with everything she has worked so hard to get. We're left watching her agonizing as she realizes her husband took Luca away. Marco knows that she will follow her son no matter what, making the scene only more cruel. This is where the closing credits for season 1 roll, leaving us with this beautiful but gut-wrenching song from the show's original soundtrack: Lost Without You by Ruby Ibarra and Nick Isham

With only 10 episodes, The Cleaning Lady managed to pull off a magnificent first season and did a wonderful job at addressing timely issues. Characters were layered and developed throughout the episodes, with backstories expanding their worlds even more. And when on some occasions it felt like things were put to side — Fiona selling drugs to pay the attorney or Tarik disappearing a bit abruptly after being forced to join the Armenian army by his father — the writers circled back on those storylines, and tied everything together to give us some closure while leaving the door open for more. There was holding back in season 1, which can only mean one thing — there's a lot more story to tell, so get ready for season 2!

Don't forget to tune in on September 19th at 9/8c on Fox to find out what's in store for our favorite characters! ICYMI, you can find the promos and the gorgeous new promotional poster for season 2 right here

What did you enjoy most in this first season?
Are you just as excited for September 19th as I am?
Let me know in the comments down below!

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