I was surprised when Michael Shannon signed on to Nine Perfect Strangers. Hear me out: I had read Liane Moriarty’s novel, and I thought it was a little pulpy and a little less demanding than Shannon’s usual TV fare (Boardwalk Empire, Waco, The Little Drummer Girl); he didn’t seem to fit in this woo-woo resort location. In the first two episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers, his performance as Napoleon Marconi was well balanced enough — overexuberant, concerned, obviously grieving — but it didn’t quite feel like Michael Shannon, either. “Earth Day” changes that with a Shannon monologue that feels drawn from the same deep well of fury, sorrow, and disgust that has fueled the actor’s most shattering performances: in Revolutionary Road, Take Shelter, and 99 Homes. I’m sorry to have doubted you, Michael Shannon! Remember that time The Shape of Water won Best Picture at the 90th Academy Awards and you were watching the ceremony from a Chicago bar because you had theatrical obligations that you refused to break? That was nice.
Anyway, back to Australia standing in for California! It’s the group’s third day, and Masha begins by diving off a waterfall into a river. (Did that scene look very green-screen-y to anyone else?) Masha’s idyllic morning of swimming and goat petting is interrupted by more threatening texts (including one later in the day that reveals she’s being watched and followed), so she finally loops in Yao and Delilah. Their conversation clues us in on a few things: that some people are unhappy with what they’re doing at Tranquillum House, including the family of a man named Connelly who was injured — or maybe died? — while staying there. “I won. No negligence,” Masha says brusquely, but Delilah’s response is just as valid: “That’s doesn’t mean they’re over it.” Delilah still isn’t entirely convinced about Masha’s methods, and I think the dissent in the ranks is obviously highlighted as a subplot to watch.
Nevertheless, it seems as though Delilah goes along with Yao in presenting the “new protocol” to the guests. The day’s plan goes like this: smoothies (of course), meditation, a potato-sack race, a long hike, and 11 hours of fasting. A little mindfulness and then a little playfulness — and almost immediately, the group rebels against the idea of being denied food for most of the day and then being forced to traipse into the wilderness. But notice how certain lines are being redrawn at that breakfast. Lars is still an asshole, and his line to Carmel, “Get yourself a vibrator, let off some steam,” does deserve to get him choked out. I cannot argue with that. Heather and Frances both come to Carmel’s defense, and Jessica makes her hatred of Lars known; that jaunty middle finger from Samara Weaving is gold. The women are banding together, and Tony and Frances are maintaining their friendship, too. Things seem good! Even the potato-sack race, which Jessica unexpectedly wins for her team with a series of cartwheels, seems to be helping everyone blow off steam!
But the forced fun of going on a long, hungry hike with a group of people toward whom you may feel increasingly friendly but still don’t really know adds more tension than it relieves. On the men’s side, Tony is distressed when Ben figures out who he is — a former football star whose career was derailed by injury — but then the guys are thrown off when they learn that Ben became rich by winning the lottery and that he seems a little lost by that $22 million. “Never been anything, never done anything,” Ben says, but isn’t that kind of money the ticket that lets you become something and do something? Maybe Ben’s listlessness is part of the problem in his marriage? And on the women’s side, Carmel and Jessica’s initial dislike of each other (cut to me cackling over “You strike me more as a Facebook lady”) melts away in the pool. How could either Carmel or Jessica think they’re unattractive? A husband who left you and a husband who might leave you will do that. But on the other side of the spectrum is Heather, who hasn’t had sex with Leon in the three years since their son died and who offers him to the women for a potential affair. Is any of this fair to Leon? Probably not.
Regret is a strange thing, though, and it freezes the Marconis. During his one-on-one with Masha, Leon quotes William Ernest Henley’s “Invictus,” tying the poem to his son’s suicide (“Zach chose to be the master of his fate”). But all of his statistics-fueled rationalizations for why Zach ended his life can’t stop him from imagining his son whenever Masha tells him to close his eyes. And although it is a shock that Leon, not Tony, killed Masha’s beloved goat, Shannon absolutely sells the character’s choice during his speech about Leviticus 4:23. Heather isn’t the only one who’s broken: Leon blames himself for Zach’s death and is looking for forgiveness and absolution in any way he can. He’s not getting it from Heather or Zoe. He hasn’t yet gotten it from Masha. And if he doesn’t get it from God, then what other options does he have? Shannon’s astonished face as he looks up at that golden light and the despair with which he repeats “If I just got up, if I had just gotten up” — that is acting, folks.
Masha’s best-laid plans at Tranquillum House are careening off course. Her goat is dead. Delilah is wary. And now Heather calls her out: “Have you been medicating us?” That slow backward dolly down the dinner table, with each guest’s face turning to Masha’s in accusation and shock, is a great visual moment of us vs. them — and Masha turning away from her guests to reaffix her placid smile is an indication that things are not going as she planned. Does it feel a little soon for the guests to already know this aspect of Masha’s regimen? Probably. But given that “Random Acts of Mayhem” and “The Critical Path” both felt like they dragged, I’ll take the speedup rather than a slowdown.
Have We Achieved Nirvana Yet?
• How do readers of the novel feel so far about the changes to Masha’s backstory? I think the alterations are a very David E. Kelley way of adding external tension to a character when the story doesn’t quite need it, but maybe they will pay off?
• “Our frame of reference is different” is such a well-meaning but horrendously out-of-touch thing to say during an unpleasant sexual experience, and Melvin Gregg delivers the line perfectly. Watch Gregg in High Flying Bird, people!
• Masha head-patting Frances during meditation and Frances’s irritated eye roll in response is a great little moment. Will Frances ever buy in?
• In Moriarty’s novel, Tony “Smiley” Hogburn is a former Australian-rules football star, and if you’ve never watched a match, I recommend it. It is intense.
• Poor goat.
• “Everyone seems a little different today … anything you want to tell me?” Lars asks, and I’m going to assume that he may be a family member of someone Masha has hurt who knows what her protocols entail and is actually the one following her around and texting her. To what end, though?
• Zoe mentions Lars’s Apple Watch; Leon mentions his iPhone. Why isn’t Nine Perfect Strangers on Apple TV+?
• The song Zach used to love that Heather hears when they approach the pool is Bon Iver’s “Michicant.”