In education, we tout meritocracy as the great equalizer. As long as you keep your head down and work hard, this will lead to opportunities that will allow you to ascend the social ladder. While this is true to a certain extent, there’s also the recognition that some people come into the world with a head start. Partner Track, a show based on the stellar debut novel by Helen Wan, explores the uneven social dynamics in the world of corporate law.
Ingrid Yun (Arden Cho) is an Asian-American female lawyer at one of the top law firms in New York. She’s intelligent, has a zealous work ethic, and is incredibly ambitious. In university, this might be enough to best everyone and come out on top. The problem is, in the corporate world, where things are determined based on the state of your billables and who you know, Ingrid is at a disadvantage. She doesn’t come from money — her parents are immigrants who worked hard so that Ingrid could have a better life — so name-dropping connections is not something she could ever do.
Now that she’s on the partner track, the only way to get a seat at the table is to prove that she’s the smartest person in the room that can solve any problem. With only three positions available in her division (Mergers and Acquisitions), things get even more difficult when another senior associate from the London office transfers in. Not only is Jeff Murphy (Dominic Sherwood) her competitor, he’s the man she had an incredible one night love affair with at a wedding a few years ago. She’s been quietly carrying a torch for him ever since, and now he’s here in person.
Her best friends at the firm, Rachel (Alexandra Turshen) and Tyler (Bradley Gibson), tell her to stay away from Murphy, warning her that he would break her heart if she got too close. So Ingrid stays away, and when the cute Nick Laren (Rob Heaps) flirts with her at a bar, she allows herself to be swept away by his charm and banter. As any rom-com fan worth her salt would know, Nick is the guy who’s perfect on paper, the man you should choose but don’t because common sense just isn’t a factor when it comes to love. Nick is wealthy, well-connected, handsome and incredibly thoughtful, yet Murphy’s always in her periphery, buzzing about with his charm and good looks.
I do wish that Ingrid’s back and forth between Nick and Murphy wasn’t so bland and predictable. The show gives both men tragic backstories in an attempt to give their characterisation some depth, and while Heaps sells this as best as he can, Sherwood just isn’t very believable. There’s something so smarmy about Murphy, which makes it so difficult to root for the pair. Both romances also feel very insta-love, with Ingrid hyper-focused on how attractive both men are. At the same time, Partner Track is also planting romantic seeds for possible future seasons. I won’t elaborate more on this, but I don’t think any TV show would have a man take off his shirt in front of a female protagonist without some future payoff later on.
It’s important to know that despite what the Netflix trailer is selling you, Partner Track isn’t just about the romance. Yes, those parts are incredibly entertaining and messy, but the main focus of the show is really the difficulties faced by minorities in areas dominated by white men. Tyler, an African-American gay man, is very good at what he does, yet at the end of the day, when a conflict emerges between him and a fellow white colleague, all talk of inclusivity flies out the window in favour of money and status.
Both Ingrid and Tyler have to work so much harder than their white counterparts, tolerate microaggressions on a daily basis and smile through it all with grace and good humor. They put up with it because they hold on to the belief that if they can make partner, then they get a foot in the door, a seat at the table, paving the way for others like them. However, it’s not easy to smile through every single injustice, and they both have arcs where they have to decide how to keep their ambitions without becoming submissive.
The pair find themselves having to reckon with the ethics of it all when they’re forced to do things they’re not proud of in order to impress their superiors. As lawyers, they work to fulfill the demands of their clients, but sometimes these demands aren’t exactly the right thing.
Of the three, Rachel’s storyline is the least compelling. Her struggle is related more to the millennial haze of being in a job that she’s good at but doesn’t bring her any sense of satisfaction. Then, she writes a play for the company retreat and discovers her passion. It’s not the worst storyline, but it’s just not as interesting to watch as Ingrid and Tyler’s arcs.
While the three are close friends, the show isn’t afraid to craft necessary obstacles so that there can be growth. Ingrid learns that her sense of morality can still allow her to be a good lawyer, Tyler discovers that there’s a path between anger and quiet complicity, while Rachel realises that allowing something to possibly hurt you doesn’t make you weak.
Partner Track may not be groundbreaking TV, but it’s definitely bingeable and entertaining. And it also has some relevant things to say about workplace dynamics in the corporate world. Good enough, in my book.
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