Nine Perfect Strangers
Look, sometimes you just have to microdose psilocybin, okay? Roger and Jane Sterling saw the reality of their lives in the season-five Mad Men episode “Far Away Places,” and the truths they admitted to each other while tripped out on LSD provided by a certain Dr. Leary altered the remainder of their marriage. “I find your product boring,” Roger sniped, but that’s not really true. Roger’s acid trip inspired him to leave Jane, to reevaluate his life, and to act more spontaneously — think of the sexual romp he jumps into with Marie in the following episode, “At the Codfish Ball.” And I bring up all that because LSD and psilocybin’s freeing quality is clearly what Masha is trying to tap into in this fourth episode of Nine Perfect Strangers, “Brave New World.” Just a little droplet in each guest’s smoothie (well, nearly each guest’s smoothie), and sit back and watch what happens, what they say, and what they do. When their minds open, what comes out?
“Brave New World” suffers from the same kind of stutter-step pacing that most of its three preceding episodes have too, in that I think some of these characters are stepping into the limelight and seemingly making progress (Tony, Leon), and others just seem to be floating (Lars, Zoe). Maybe I am impatient! But we are now halfway through this eight-episode season, and this story doesn’t feel halfway done. And, excuse me if this is rude, but: So far, aside from the mind-altering drugs, is Tranquillum House really doing anything different from what other retreats offer? Facing your critics is pretty standard stuff. Leaning into your emotions, whether anger or sadness or fear, is also pretty standard stuff. Maybe that’s why Frances seems so unfazed; she’s been through a lot of this before, and if she wants to get drunk on her trunk vodka, she will.
But I struggle to see how Masha’s tactics are really revolutionary, mainly because the show has made that authority and mystery so integral to her character. People are drawn to her — including Yao, who, yes, is sleeping with her, to Delilah’s awareness and frustration — but has Nine Perfect Strangers really done the work to explain why? And then there’s the whole stalker subplot, which is a typical David E. Kelley twist. Someone is texting Masha, following Masha, and has now broken into her home and destroyed her beloved kintsugi bowl. “It’s good to die” is scrawled on those sticky notes that the person put up on her bird painting. Who shot Masha, and are they back?
“Brave New World” has tonal whiplash even before that cliffhanger ending. Beginning after the events of “Earth Day,” when Heather correctly guessed that Masha was drugging the guests, practically everyone turns on Masha. But she holds a hard line: psilocybin is safe, it has healing properties, and it’s in the smoothies, so they better drink up. The only exclusions to the drug regimen are the under-21 Zoe, who will receive the drugs the next day on her birthday, and Jessica and Ben, to whom Masha eventually gives MDMA. “Exactly how crazy are you?” Ben asks Masha, and Nicole Kidman’s smug little “Just the right amount” is delivered well. And her calling out the various guests for their own hidden identities or motives provided some needed backstories. Lars is an investigative journalist who might be working on an exposé about Tranquillum House, while Tony is struggling with an Oxy addiction. She just puts them on blast! And then … they all agree that continuing to do the psilocybin is okay?
It’s a little bizarre how quickly the guests move from scandalized to onboard, but they do. Heather, who was the first to recognize what was happening, initiates sex with Leon for the first time in three years when her trip hits. “I came a little outside myself,” she admits to Leon the next morning, and the Marconi parents are all in. Frances and Tony accept the smoothies, leading to a vulnerable exchange in which Tony shares with Frances that he was involved in a bar fight a few years ago that ended in a man’s death. And in a sweat lodge, after being left alone by the scream-encouraging Glory, Zoe and Lars call each other out on their bullshit. Lars insists that he should be treated like a real guest, but he also was awful to Carmel and refuses to spend time with barely anyone else. Zoe can’t stand being around her parents, and without any drugs in her system, sees more clearly that things at Tranquillum House are deeply strange. Their outsider status pulls them toward each other, and perhaps it’s because of that shared quality that Lars can cut through Zoe’s air of disinterest in her twin brother’s death. “Of course you’re depressed,” he says in response to her saying that she’s not depressed over her brother’s death. When Zoe deflects with “We weren’t close,” Lars retorts, “I don’t believe that.” I sense another flashback coming soon to explain Zoe and Zach’s relationship! And although Lars and Zoe are still somewhat unformed, Luke Evans and Grace Van Patten razz each other well enough that their tentative friendship continues to work.
Finally, there’s Carmel, whose abusive husband left her for a younger woman. Regina Hall has a great fake smile, and she’s been using it often as Carmel; it’s a relief to see her drop it and reveal who this character really is during her one-on-one meeting with Masha. Carmel’s abusive husband, who cheated on her constantly and eventually abandoned her for a younger woman, conditioned her to be small (and that nipple scar; yikes!), and Hall lets the depths of rage the character has been holding back just spill out. That samurai-sword scene was a little corny, with the slow-motion shot of Melissa McCarthy twirling around and hitting the dummy as she imagined Ben Falcone’s con man. But Carmel’s extremely intense attack after Delilah and Masha read her husband’s insults back to her was great work from Hall, even if the character’s motivations are perhaps overly familiar.
“Fuck you for not loving me,” Frances says during her offense on the dummy Mr. Kendo, and that lack unites nearly all of the nine perfect strangers. The withering romance in Ben and Jessica’s marriage; Tony, Lars, and Carmel’s loneliness; the gap between Heather and Leon. Now that so much of this is out in the open, does Masha exploit it with the upcoming “level two” regimen? Happy 21st birthday, Zoe, have some psilocybin and some other wild shit! How much longer will Delilah — or whoever is threatening Masha, if it’s in fact a different person — stand for this?
Have We Achieved Nirvana Yet?
• Kidman’s “Pour me a martini, I’m going to fuck your lights out” was very reminiscent of The Paperboy, and if you haven’t seen that movie, well. Do it!
• Also a movie you should see: Regina Hall in Support the Girls. Do that, too!
• Is Frances eating the wine and the Kit Kats together? I should try this combo.
• Michael Shannon remains this series’s MVP; the way his face collapses when Heather tells Leon that their son’s death isn’t his fault is gut-wrenching, evocative stuff.
• Notice Masha’s bonfire outfit: braided hair and a floral, bohemian-style dress. She’s less uptight, perhaps to mirror the looseness of her guests. But how does that change during the next step of the protocol?
• Nine Perfect Strangers keeps feinting toward a class-based critique of what is going on at Tranquillum House (Jessica thinking she’s paid for the psilocybin and is getting ripped off by not receiving it; Leon’s “I don’t want to seem ungrateful for the discount”), but it hasn’t gone all the way. That ultimate disinterest isn’t exactly a surprise for David E. Kelley, who never met a story that he didn’t glaze over with a veneer of wealth.
• I’m not sure if that actually was Manny Jacinto’s butt, but I’m sure internet stans are already analyzing every angle and every possibility. Thank you for your service!
• Where is the think piece about how wellness retreats engage in Orientalism by picking and choosing various elements of Asian cultures to randomly incorporate into their teachings? Bueller? … Bueller?!
• So Yao and Delilah are also expected to take psilocybin as a condition of their employment; perhaps that should have been obvious from Yao’s leaf stroking. But Delilah’s refusal to do so definitely positions her in the “going to take Masha down” column, right?