“What’s your damage, Heather?” is not the nicest thing for me to be thinking during “The Critical Path,” the second episode of Nine Perfect Strangers. Not the nicest because there is a distinct irritation in Winona Ryder’s delivery of the line in the body-filled black comedy Heathers, and I don’t think anyone on Nine Perfect Strangers should die! But two episodes in, Nine Perfect Strangers is revealing itself to be more invested in certain characters — Frances, Tony, and the Marconi parents — than others, and so Lars, Zoe, Ben, and Carmel end up less well-formed and less compelling. Sure, it’s only been 90 or so minutes of television in total between these first couple installments. But that’s somehow already one-quarter of this season, and I think the narrative imbalance is keeping Nine Perfect Strangers in a holding pattern that hasn’t yet shifted into greatness.
So: “What’s your damage?” Not in an irritated way, but in a genuinely curious way. Tranquillum House doesn’t advertise; awareness of this place is spread around only by word of mouth. How is Masha regarded in the wellness industry? Is she a pioneer, or a renegade, or an outcast? I can’t help but think of Holly Hunter’s GJ on the first season of Top of the Lake: We understood so much about that character’s nihilism and misandry from the first moment we met her. It made perfect sense why her little band of women would follow her to what felt like the end of the earth, and it also made perfect sense why GJ veered between caring deeply about these women and not giving even one single solitary fuck.
Kidman is in full Mrs. Marisa Coulter mode in making Masha precise and performative (notice how her smile drops when the guests aren’t watching!), but I think what Nine Perfect Strangers hasn’t quite laid out yet is why these people would care this much about being treated by her. Why would they give so much money and place so much trust in a woman so guarded? Is the attraction only that she chose them? I cannot discount the appeal of being seen as a beautiful and unique snowflake; think of Jessica’s pained “It’s the most wonderful feeling in the world, to be seen.” But I’m not sure what Masha can offer these people that other therapists, healers, coaches, or spiritual guides have not. “Is Masha crazy, or is the real deal?” Frances asks Tranquillum employee Glory (Zoe Terakes) during that intense acupuncture session, but: Wouldn’t she have investigated that before booking this trip? I suppose there is an argument to be made that these people are so desperate that they jumped at whatever offer of healing was extended to them, but that doesn’t quite gel with the eeriness with which the show is cocooning Masha. And I’ll give Nine Perfect Strangers the benefit of the doubt and leave open the possibility that it will eventually turn on the wellness-industry complex and figures like Masha who amass power and prestige through ambiguity, but we’re not quite there yet.
“The Critical Path” begins right where the preceding episode, “Random Acts of Mayhem,” ended and continues through the group’s second day at Tranquillum. After the uneasy interactions of their first day together, the jarring tone of that first meeting with Masha actually causes some of the guests to build tentative bridges. Frances learns from Zoe that the Marconis are mourning the death of her twin brother, Zach, who “stopped living” three years ago, before the siblings turned 18. (Do we believe Zoe when she says of her and Zach that “We really weren’t close”? I don’t.) Heather looks ready to tear Frances’s face off when she sees the other woman hugging her daughter, but Zoe certainly looked like she needed it, and Grace Van Patten and Melissa McCarthy have a nice, easy camaraderie in the scene.
McCarthy’s Frances has been positioned as the lead of the group, and that becomes clear through her various relationships in “The Critical Path.” There’s that hug with Zoe and Jessica, approaching her poolside to praise her book Nathaniel’s Kiss (and quote from it!), and even some headway made with Tony the next day. Yes, Tony loses his mind after Masha confiscates his vodka and prescription medications, and yes, Tony is an addict. His damage includes three spinal surgeries, a blown-out knee, a divorce, and two children with whom he isn’t particularly close, and Bobby Cannavale’s anguished, angry delivery of “Who the fuck is happy with their life?” channeled all that. But Tony is also gruffly charming when he wants to be, and I’m not surprised that the friction between Tony and Frances has softened so much that Frances shared with him the details of the man who scammed her out of what seems like a substantial amount of money. That laugh from McCarthy after Cannavale’s Tony — seconds after nearly killing Frances with a grape and then performing the Heimlich on her — offers Frances another grape seems genuine, and yeah, it’s pretty clear Nine Perfect Strangers is laying down an eventual-romance subplot here.
Most everyone else who isn’t flirting in the pool after a choking incident remains in varying levels of crisis. Lars and Ben are still ciphers, but otherwise, some details come into focus. Jessica’s layers of anxiety are all caused by her fear that Ben doesn’t love her anymore. Carmel is convinced that she needs to lose weight and bristles at what she takes as Ben’s implication that her kids being with her ex-husband means they no longer need her. The yawning chasm between Heather and Leon is revealed to be caused by the loss of their son and their contrasting approaches to dealing with it, and Zoe is resentful of her parents’ drastically changed personalities since Zach’s death. (Asher Keddie and Michael Shannon are solid together, with the former’s “I miss liking you” being appropriately raw.) And after the grave-digging exercise, when Masha prompts the guests to wonder about their deaths and how their family and friends will react, Heather steps to the edge of a cliff, and Tony returns to his ditch. Whatever healing Masha is offering isn’t working yet, is it? Maybe the answer is in the untested “new protocol” that Masha instructs Yao and Delilah to start using on the guests, and I’ll be damned if those damn smoothies aren’t at the center of her grand “suffering” plan.
Have We Achieved Nirvana Yet?
• What is the artwork in Masha’s office? Is that a gigantic bird with fire wings — maybe a phoenix?
• I have no understanding of what is going on between Masha and Yao, but I’ll try: They were lovers before, maybe, and now that Yao is dating Delilah, Masha is still crossing some boundaries? Or maybe they’re still lovers? Or maybe they never were, and Masha is just … overly affectionate and grateful for Yao saving her life after she was shot? I really hesitate on that last piece because I think kissing someone’s calves while you hover between their legs is pretty romantically intimate, and if I were Delilah, I’d have a whole hell of a lot of questions about that pool scene.
• Is Samara Weaving this show’s low-key MVP? Her very awkward energy, fidgety mannerisms, and constantly-editing-herself speaking style feel like a pointed subversion of everything Annie Murphy did on Schitt’s Creek, and she’s making Jessica achingly relatable underneath all her social-media posturing and Kim Kardashian cosplay.
• Is it wrong to be relieved that all Ben Falcone seems to be doing with Nine Perfect Strangers is appearing as a guest star, not writing or directing? I’m sorry, but his collaborations with wife McCarthy are not the best.
• Those extreme fruit close-ups are making me realize how weird looking a lot of fruit is. A dragon fruit is an extremely strange thing.
• I asked this about Lars in my preceding recap, and now it’s time to ask it of Masha: Who is texting her threatening things? “Congratulations. IT’S YOUR LAST WEEK ON EARTH” is pretty direct!
• Kudos to Cannavale for making me choke on my drink at “You can’t have both cramps and hot flashes … I don’t think.” It wasn’t a grape, but thematically, it was appropriate.
• But Tony’s “What do critics know, anyway?” That was a personal attack!
• The Japanese kintsugi tradition is thoughtful and beautiful, and this video piece from Terushi Sho is informative and well done if you want to learn more.