Nine Perfect Strangers
Well, well! Did David E. Kelley look into the future, assess my complaints about Nine Perfect Strangers, and then decide to address all my frustrations in this episode? I surrender, Mr. Michelle Pfeiffer! Please stop incepting me!
There is so much to discuss in “Sweet Surrender,” an episode that basically throws solution after solution at my myriad frustrations. Nine Perfect Strangers mostly heard my criticism that Zoe and Lars were underwritten and offered up a solid concentration of character development on these two. It laughed at my guess that Delilah would turn on Masha and instead gave us Delilah and Masha as secret lovers who are actually stringing Yao along, rather than fighting over him. That close-up kiss between the two women? A straight Cruel Intentions throwback! My soap-opera-loving heart was so pleased even as I actually shook my head and laughingly said, “Wait, what?”
There’s a lot of “Wait, what?” going on throughout “Sweet Surrender,” the first episode of Nine Perfect Strangers in which it feels as if everyone is having fun performatively and everyone is on the same page narratively. Again, there are numerous plot details that do not add up, and again, Ben and Jessica feel a bit like the odd couple out in terms of not having “real” trauma to work through. (Did these characters not need Tranquillum House, and the series ends by basically suggesting they were fine from the beginning? Maybe!) But I think this episode benefited by really digging into the other characters’ pain in ways that felt emotionally true (Zoe’s conversation with Zach) and were legitimately entertaining to watch (the Marconi jump off the waterfall), rather than underwhelming (the predictable “beating the wooden dummy” scene from the fourth episode, “Brave New World”). Let’s assess!
Melissa McCarthy’s Frances going toe to toe with Ben Falcone’s Paul Drabble and then waking up from the drug-induced hallucination in her oatmeal was gut-wrenching, revealing, and funny. All of Samara Weaving’s amused line readings (including “I think maybe you’re giving her, like, too much of that stuff” when Frances wakes up in said oatmeal), then the exhilaration that plays over her face when Jessica and Ben start bending toward each other again, added levity and vulnerability. And every single thing involving the Marconi family on Zoe’s birthday and the third anniversary of Zach’s death walked the affective tightrope that I think Nine Perfect Strangers has been aiming for. Zoe’s shock and then her joy when she sees Zach and he asks something very legitimate: “Why do you keep telling people we weren’t close? … You’re my only legacy.” Leon doing his best to cheer up Zoe and Heather with his stripped-down Grease performance, then remembering the dream in which he’s John Lennon. Heather’s fear at Leon’s jump off the edge of that waterfall, then the way she entwines her fingers with his before they leap together. The Marconis may actually be healing, and is it really so bad that drugs and “dream logic” are helping them along that path? “Celebrate every moment, big or small, because the moment may not last,” Zach says to Zoe while quoting Leon, and he’s right.
Does that Masha-Delilah stuff have the same impact? I mean, in terms of pure shock value, sure. When Masha kneels beside Yao and Delilah in bed together and apologizes to Delilah for her role in the death of Connelly, that Tranquillum House guest whose family sued, I initially read that as a continued blurring of their professional and personal relationship. “The trauma that you witnessed. I should have been more attentive to you. You’re so strong, I forget” could be motherly, I suppose! But no. It is loverly, and I wonder if Yao knows what’s up. He stirs in bed during Masha’s appeal to Delilah, and I’m not sure he would like being referred to as just an “adjustment.” “He never did know. He never will know,” the women say to each other. How long has this been going on? And why even entangle Yao in this way? I doubt Nine Perfect Strangers has the attention span to explore these women’s sexual identities because I have watched many a Kelley program, and I know my man loves to scintillate for short-term gains. But we have three episodes to go! Sure! I can extend some patience!
Elsewhere, Nine Perfect Strangers continues to align certain characters into certain configurations, and nearly everyone is offering up more of themselves after sucking down the psilocybin smoothies. Character development, I am grateful for you! Lars, who wanders through memories of his own bullied childhood, shares his dream about birthing Tony’s son, a manifestation of his own guilt over the dissolution of his relationship with Ray over children. Jessica and Ben, who are in literal symmetry at breakfast (saying “It’s oatmeal” in unison to Frances when she asks what’s on her face), reconnect further during a hike and at Zoe’s birthday party. Melvin Gregg’s “Something going on here” is smooth indeed. So are Ben and Jessica really going to give away their remaining money? Or is this just post-smoothie existential musing? (Another or: Do they provide the infusion of cash that Tranquillum House may need to stay open?) And Tony and Frances — the former now off Oxy and looking back at the mistakes he made with his family, while the latter is finally coming to terms with how Paul conned her — maybe they’re not entirely good people, but they worry about each other. And they’re definitely going to kiss soon, right?
But then there’s Carmel. Carmel, who lodges her fork in the wooden breakfast table. Carmel, who flees the hot spring when she sees Ben and Jessica having sex in it. Carmel, who admits to Lars (in a great, tumbling monologue from Regina Hall) that she’s sick of pretending to be happy for the sake of her children, for the sake of her ex, and for the sake of his new girlfriend. Will she take Lars’s advice to “get over him by getting under someone else”? Maybe. I think it’s important, though, to note that Tony is still suffering from feelings of suicidal ideation, and Carmel is still struggling with her rage. Those seem like important character beats moving forward.
As is the mystery of the final moments of “Sweet Surrender”: What the hell is Masha talking about when she calls Zoe “the key”? Zoe’s birthday party includes a heartfelt speech from Zoe about how the fellow guests are beginning to feel like her family, an appreciation toward Lars for being a genuine friend, and an admission that she’s beginning to feel more like herself than the “patient” and the “victim” she has been since Zach’s death. And then, toward the end of the party, she sees Zach sitting at the pool’s edge. To Lars, she had earlier described her morning experience with Zach: “It wasn’t a dream. He was there. He was as real as he ever was.” What is Masha giving Zoe that has convinced her of Zach’s physical presence? What could make her not only emotionally but also physically feel him? And why would Masha want her to feel that way? “I feel like we’re moving into a new space,” Yao tells Masha of his relationship with Delilah, but that could apply to everyone at Tranquillum House, right? And “new spaces” can be just as haunted as old ones.
Have We Achieved Nirvana Yet?
• I hope I’m wrong on this, but was that a Black man shooting Masha in the parking garage? Kelley adding in this new story line for the show and then making that choice … yikes.
• I was unaware of how much I needed a boxer-shorts-clad Michael Shannon singing a falsetto version of “You’re the One That I Want” or Shannon getting baritone-y with “Happy, Happy Birthday, Baby,” but now I am very grateful. What do you think Shannon’s go-to karaoke track is?
• John Burroughs, whom Leon quotes with “Leap and the net shall appear,” was a naturalist whose work aligns well with Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman. If you want to weep at the beauty of the natural world, his essay “The Heart of the Southern Catskills” is a good place to start.
• Tiffany Boone’s little “nope” when Delilah gathers Carmel’s knife and fork at the breakfast table was very satisfying.
• When Paul said of Frances’s work, “There’s no story at all, there’s just
-isms,” it was an unexpected overlap with that art critic in Candyman. And frankly, the “critic who doesn’t understand art” trope is kind of played out!
• “I just think the world is a tough place,” Lars says, and same, buddy.
• What publication do we think Lars works for? I would say Vice, but then it pivoted to video and fired everyone.
• Were Delilah and Yao giving each other reiki orgasms? I have a lot of follow-up questions that I will keep to myself!
• Masha is still being text-stalked, and the picture of the cooked goat that she receives confirms again that the stalker is someone in the group of nine. Any bets? I almost think … Carmel? Regina Hall’s “She’s probably flossing her teeth with his little pencil dick right now” was delightful, and we know Carmel is capable of more than her persona suggests. My hypothetical money, if I had any as an evil critic, would be on her.