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Based loosely on a true story, The Exchange is a workplace drama set in Kuwait in 1987. Farida (Rawan Mahdi) and her cousin Munira (Mona Hussain – a common last name in the Gulf region) are the only two women working at the Bank of Tomorrow on the Kuwaiti Stock Exchange. This riveting workplace drama will keep you on the edge of your seat as you watch Farida and Munria make a name for themselves.
Most actors are fresh faces, but you may recognize Michael Benyaer from Deadpool and The Expanse.
The first Netflix series set in the Gulf Region, The Exchange takes us into a world few have seen much less experienced: the daily lives of women living in Kuwait in the 1980s, just before it was invaded by Iraq. Women working in pretty much any industry in 1980s Kuwait faced challenges, but it was especially tough in the bro-dominated world of finance. Even as low-level bank clerks, though, Farida and Munria don’t let the everyday sexism bring them down. They prove they’re just as powerful as the boys.
Rather than rely solely on The Exchange’s unique premise, writers Nadia Ahmad and Adam Sobel tell a nuanced story about the family lives and office dramas of the two women that doubles as social commentary on Kuwait in the 1980s. The tone is similar to other series focused on women excelling in spaces once ruled by men, like Mad Men, and while there are some comedic moments, The Exchange has sharp writing and dialogue that feels true to the time period it’s set in.
The Exchange begins with Farida, who is getting a divorce from her wealthy and controlling husband, a bold and daring move at the time. While getting away from him is a necessary step for Farida, she also ends up broke. This predicament isn’t ideal for her upscale lifestyle; Farida has sent her daughter, Jood (Ryan Dashti) to a prestigious British school and Farida needs to still act and dress the part of a well-off housewife.
After the divorce, Farida moves in with her parents, including her fairly progressive father, who encourages her to get a job and fend for herself. He’s a welcome shift from the usual patriarchs shown in Arab families; he even teaches his granddaughter how to stand up against bullies when she starts public school.
We are then introduced to Munira, who makes her grand entrance in a red convertible. Munira is the opposite of Farida; she hasn’t married and has had to survive in a male-dominated world for years. Munria has no qualms about what others think of her; unlike the other women around her, she drives herself and holds her own as the only female clerk on the stock exchange. She shares a friendly rivalry with her cousin, and Munira and Farida’s chemistry is one of the best parts of the series. Both actresses perfectly support each other as the other’s foil, and watching their playful banter is an utter delight. To pay for her daughter’s school, Farida also gets a job as a clerk on the stock exchange, and as the only two women at the stock exchange, the cousins are set up as rivals, which builds the necessary drama the series needs.
While the acting and writing will draw viewers in, the real stars of The Exchange are the makeup artists and costume designers. In each episode, Munira and Farida don stunning 80s fashion, often fused with the bright colors and geometric designs that have become synonymous with the era in the Western world. So its fascinating to see how — just as the costume design in Mad Men brought 1960s New York to life — the fashion in The Exchange transports you into this time and place. Each outfit is carefully selected to reveal details about a character’s frame of mind. When Farida wears a breathtaking gold gown to a charity event she can’t afford, she’s clearly aware of the fact that she shouldn’t be wearing it. But money be damned — she rocks that gown and proves to everyone that she’s not some sad divorcee.
A smart, unique, and feminist take on the Wall Street genre set in wealthy 80s Kuwait, The Exchange never feels over-the-top or unrealistic. Rather than rely on a love story or some outward villain, it’s a series that traverses our most universal experience: our inner emotions.
Rated TV-14, the adult themes and the complexities of the stock market may go over younger audiences heads. But The Exchange is a must-watch for fans of international series, recent history, and money-driven scandals.
Netflix has said that they see Kuwait as a possible gateway to the Gulf Region, so if The Exchange does well, hopefully, we’ll see more series from the region.