I thought I knew what I was getting into with Netflix’s newly released show Partner Track: the same tired romcom trope of a woman having to choose between her love life and her law career, only this time, the protagonist was Korean American. I thought it’d be a minimal-brain-cells-needed, Friday-night watch for any young woman of color who once wished she could more fully see herself in Elle Woods. But as the series progressed, more than playing out the plights of a girlboss, protagonist Ingrid also explores the complex moral trappings of the model minority myth.
Based on a novel by Helen Wan, Partner Track stars Ardon Cho as Ingrid, a sixth-year mergers and acquisitions lawyer trying to make partner at her firm Parsons Valentine & Hunt alongside her two lawyer besties, Tyler (Bradley Gibson) and Rachel (Alexandra Turshen). But Ingrid—who takes her climb to the top of the corporate law ladder most seriously (we’re talking streaming legal podcasts while she sleeps)—is knocked back a few rungs when a transfer from the firm’s UK office turns out to be Jeff Murphy (Dominic Sherwood), a dreamy wedding hookup from years back. So far, your standard workplace-enemy-but-there’s-considerable-sexual-tension fare.
While Murphy’s arrival is framed as the biggest obstacle to Ingrid’s #careergoals, for most of the show, the British heartthrob is nothing but low-hanging forbidden fruit. Nay, Ingrid’s fuck-ups come from a much deeper place: the lack of a moral compass. More often than not, at ethical forks in the road, she chooses the wrong one, her sense of right and wrong skewed toward the approval of her boss, Marty Adler (Matthew Rauch), who has the power to name her partner. Sexual tension has very little to do with it. But the unrelenting force that drives many Asian Americans towards excellence sure does.
Some might say they get it; this is the price women have to pay to get to the top, especially in boys club settings like a corporate law firm. But there’s more to it. I read Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning in the summer of 2020 during global George Floyd protests, of which few Asian American communities partook. The reason? Some were nervous about ruining their status as the model minority. Others were complacent about where they fell on the American racial hierarchy (closer to the top than other POC).
As Hong writes, the figure of the model minority emerged after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 was passed. At that point, only “the most educated and highly trained Asians” were welcomed into the U.S. This white collar excellence thus became the singular avenue for Asian Americans to prove their worthiness in white America and to be respected by their white counterparts—an ambition so non-negotiable that they were even willing to take a back seat in fighting for racial justice for Black Americans.
For Ingrid, this exact conflict presents itself when golden boy Dan (Nolan Gerard Funk)—Ingrid’s biggest competition for partner and a lifelong frat bro—performs a racist skit at the company’s annual retreat. [Spoilers ahead.] The comedy routine pokes fun at the concept of “white fragility” and is a direct blow to Tyler (who is Black) for calling Dan out on his own white fragility in the office. Clearly fed up, Tyler storms out of the retreat. Ingrid makes a half-hearted attempt to console him, before asking Marty to do something. What ensues the following week at work is a cringeworthy act of lip service: Marty orders an HR investigation on the incident, in which multiple people recommend that Dan be put on probation, only for Dan to be let off the hook so he can remain in the running for partner.
Then, anticipating Tyler’s resignation, Marty orders Ingrid to offer Tyler $500,000 in hush money to keep the racist debacle under wraps. Breaching pacts of all kinds—of friendship, of solidarity—Ingrid chooses to stay in Marty’s good graces even if it means being single-handedly responsible for perfuming over the company’s stench. To make matters worse, Marty dangles the promise of partner over Ingrid so that she chairs a Diversity Gala, at which he surprises her with an Outstanding Achievement Award. She is then forced to deliver a pre-written speech about Parsons being a great place to work as a “proud Asian American female lawyer.” In the same speech, she also calls Tyler a “bad apple” whose actions (like badmouthing the firm on Instagram Live) don’t “spoil the bunch.” Oof.
While Ingrid deserves empathy for experiencing textbook examples of workplace microaggressions, it’s hard not to consider her complicity. Ingrid tricks herself into believing that if she aligns herself with whiteness—in her actions, in the company she keeps—then she’ll climb not only the corporate ladder, but the racial one. Ingrid falls into the very trap of the model minority myth that Hong warns us about, wherein Asian Americans are “ignored by whites, unless [they’re] being used by whites to keep the Black man down.” At the Diversity Gala (whose entire existence is pathetically performative), Ingrid is not only the messenger who keeps other people of color down, but the vessel of oppression herself, the words of a white man flowing out of her mouth to paint an illusion (or maybe a delusion) of racial harmony.
Ingrid’s predicaments throughout Partner Track weren’t outlandish by any means. In fact, their mundanity made it all the more infuriating to watch her fumble through one PR nightmare after another, but I remained pleasantly surprised by how willingly the show leaned into racial tension in a workplace series ostensibly about sexual tension. I just wish Ingrid could’ve taken her partner blinders off long enough to realize she was charging straight towards self-destruction.
And while Ingrid’s full redemption arc is up for debate—she organizes the overthrow of a white oil mogul and replaces him with a young Asian American environmentalist, but only after she doesn’t make partner—Partner Track takes a crystal-clear stance on whether or not being a model minority actually pays off in the season finale. While she’s getting an earful from Marty about her betrayal, Ingrid learns that in addition to obvious sexism and racism, she didn’t get the promotion because she failed to “put the company first” when she got arrested (on false charges) and didn’t inform them of the incident. But you know who did tell Marty? None other than her literal love interest Jeff (remember him, the non-threatening British eye candy?), who used this information against Ingrid to land partner.
Usually, heartbreaking deception from a male lead comes somewhere in the middle of a romcom. But in this case, Murphy’s actions are used to confront harsher truths about racism in corporate America up till the end, allowing Partner Track to do more than waft only the most perfunctory notes of pop feminism over its final twist. That, while also getting in enough office hookup scenes to hold you down. It’s a weird combo, I know.