Nine Perfect Strangers Recap: An Illusion

Nine Perfect Strangers

Wheels on the Bus
Season 1 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating 3 stars

Nine Perfect Strangers

Wheels on the Bus
Season 1 Episode 7
Editor’s Rating 3 stars
Photo: Vince Valitutti/ HULU

Forgive me for quoting myself, but: Carmel! Carmel? I predicted it, but I didn’t really believe it! But now here we are, with Carmel revealing one icy-blue Mr. Freeze eye, throwing out threats at Masha, and going full Rorschach with her “I’m not locked in here with you. You’re locked in here with me!” closing scene. Carmel shot Masha in that parking lot (while wearing a fake beard and an oversize hooded sweatshirt), and now Carmel is back at Tranquillum House to finish the job. Does this development work because Regina Hall is committed as hell? Sure. Does it make sense narratively? I don’t really think so.

Let’s back up a bit before diving into the events of “Wheels on the Bus,” the penultimate episode of Nine Perfect Strangers. For the past couple of episodes, Nine Perfect Strangers has been laying the groundwork for this. Carmel stabbing her fork into the breakfast table. Carmel attacking Lars. Carmel losing it with Mr. Kendo. Carmel resenting Ben and Jessica’s happiness. Carmel not progressing through therapy, or the smoothies, or all the wellness exercises. And finally, Carmel attacking Masha at the beginning of this episode, appearing out of nowhere to slash and smash and scream that Masha is really her ex-husband’s new partner, Lillian. Masha’s blood splattered upon the pristine white lace of her dress — an effective visual representation of everything sliding downhill at Tranquillum House!

Through these seven episodes, Hall has balanced emotional extremes and effortlessly unveiled an array of physical quirks and impulses. Carmel is alternately pathetic, pitiable, enraging, horrifying, and sympathetic, and I do not deny Hall any praise in making her such. But: I simply do not understand the characterization of Carmel at all. Is she intentionally stalking, harassing, and torturing Masha? Or is she suffering from mental illness and unaware that she’s doing these things? (Remember that Carmel has said, more than once, that she’s on psychotropics and is worried that perhaps Masha’s regimen will conflict with them.) Or finally, is Carmel purposefully going after Masha but using mental illness as a cover for her actions?

I hate to use the word “problematic,” so I won’t cross over into that realm yet. But I do think Nine Perfect Strangers is failing to back up its shocking moments by going back and forth with the character development for Carmel. Did we need that whole “Xanadu” song-and-dance sequence? Did that help us understand Carmel better? I think the answer to both of those queries is a “no.” But was it quite jarring when Carmel super-casually reached into the light fixture next to her bed and pulled out the illicit cell phone she’s theoretically been using to send those anonymous text messages to Masha? Sure. But then, isn’t it surprising how loosey-goosey Masha and her staff seemed to be in searching the guests’ luggage? Lars snuck in a phone. Carmel snuck in a phone. Maybe if you had left Frances’s Kit Kats and trunk vodka alone, we wouldn’t be here!

There is a real lack of clarity in terms of Carmel’s motivations and identity, especially now that we know she was Masha’s shooter however many years ago. The same goes for the series’ other Black female character: Delilah. As the increasingly withdrawn employee, Tiffany Boone has delivered some of the series’ best sarcastic, disaffected line deliveries. But who the hell is this woman? How does she actually feel about Masha, or Yao, or about Tranquillum House, or their mission, or about their guests? Of course, people exist in shades of gray, and perhaps Delilah once believed in Tranquillum House and no longer does, or once loved Yao and no longer does, or once loved Masha and no longer does. But was the death of Aaron Connelly her only radicalization moment? What did she live through that brought her to this place?

In the rare moments when she actually speaks about herself, Delilah’s dialogue is so opaque and her actions so illogical that she’s practically impossible to either understand or empathize with. And I can no longer look with Cruel Intentions–nostalgic fondness upon the Masha-Delilah-Yao love triangle, which has served zero storytelling purpose in the episodes since its reveal. Why shove Masha and Delilah’s faces together if the characters aren’t then written to consider each other in their decision-making? Delilah drove through the Tranquillum House fence, and I felt nothing at all.

“Wheels on the Bus” had the disappointing significance of being packed with plot reveals but ultimately inconsistent in its pacing, with noticeable gaps of time where it felt like David E. Kelley was hitting the same beats over and over in his script. Frances wants a future with Tony but also misses the girl she used to be: Got it. Tony wants a future with Frances but is afraid of the man he might still be: Got it. Ben and Jessica are recommitting themselves to their marriage but realize that their $22 million in lottery winnings might be the only thing holding them back: Got it.

Cinematographer Yves Bélanger was having a fair amount of fun with fish-eye lenses, refractory visual effects, and askew angles. And editor Ben Lester, by switching between perspectives and messing with our sense of time, drew some good beats out of scenes in which under-the-influence characters spoke at, rather than with, each other. Think of when Frances imagines Tony as Fabio and gets lost in her own fantasy, or when Masha runs away from Jessica and Ben after they excitedly announce they are going to renew their vows. But for a fair number of characters, “Wheels on the Bus” felt, well, like the wheels on the bus going round and round, round and round, round and round. In terms of definitive forward movement, aside from Carmel and Delilah, only Lars and the Marconis really progress. And I’m not sure the choice they made is necessarily going to end well.

Through an expanded version of Masha’s flashback, we see more details of the day that her daughter died (the heart locket she always wears was her daughter’s, it was a snowy night, that kind of thing) before Masha pledges to see Tatiana again: “If not now, when? I will be there soon.” As expected, Masha wants to help the Marconis see Zach again, sure. But she really wants to see Tatiana again, and it’s clear that she’s been working toward this moment for some time. In fact, it’s what she was helping Aaron Connelly do — connect with his dead brother — before he had a heart attack and died. Connelly’s wife was Lars’s tip-off for Tranquillum House, and she didn’t buy Masha’s blaming Connelly’s diet or lifestyle for his death. And neither does Lars. He’s wary of Masha and of her insistence that the trip she’s going to guide the Marconis on is safe. If it’s only been tried once, and the person on whom it was tried died, those odds are pretty bad!

Nevertheless, the Marconis are desperate. So Zoe pushes through her belief that this is a delusion, Leon pushes through his caution and suspicion, and they join Heather in deciding to see Zach again. Masha’s explanation sounds, uh, less than believable (“The human brain can transfer illusions”), but we’ve seen what her drugs can do. Maybe whatever special proprietary blend of psilocybin, LSD, and other substances she’s developed for this experience will actually work, and maybe the Marconis will see Zach, and maybe Masha will see Tatiana. “I know this feeling of wanting to go back, wanting to be better, wanting to be happy,” Masha says to Frances; “We are going to go together, as a family, to the other side. Let’s go together to Zach, and beyond,” Masha says to the Marconis. But time definitely doesn’t move that way, and reality certainly seems not to move that way. Where is Masha taking the Marconis? And what happens if she can’t bring them back?

Have We Achieved Nirvana Yet?

• The amount that David E. Kelley has abandoned Liane Moriarty’s novel is so much.

• I need Yao to make a decision for himself at some point. Get it together, Yao!

• Nicole Kidman’s little huff of irritated aggression when Lars dared to second guess Masha’s dosing plan in front of the Marconis was very Satine barely tolerating the Duke in Moulin Rouge!.

• Stop besmirching the delicious power of the American cheeseburger, Masha!

• Did Masha have a romantic partner or co-parent for her daughter? Of course, an additional person would not be necessary to raise a child. But Masha fleeing Russia because of the grief of her daughter’s death — I wonder if we should anticipate any characters unexpectedly appearing out of nowhere in the September 22 finale episode, “Ever After.”

• The internet confirmed for me that lapochka means someone sweet, lovely, and little, which fits with Masha’s whole “I’m going to take care of you and be your authoritarian Russian mommy” thing. Also, Masha, how are you going to sneer at “some western mental-health facility” when that is basically what you are running here?

• Frances’s glasses and sunglasses both being tucked into the collar of her robe as she looked over the edge of that cliff was a nice “She’s harried!” costume detail.

• I am not sure if this was a screener issue or if the final episode that aired on Hulu also did this, but while I watched the episode, its lighting kept flickering between being lighter and darker. It was distracting, and my epilepsy did not appreciate it! I did not need that effect to understand that everyone was under the effect of drugs!

• The scene when Carmel is strapped down on the gurney, and she goes in a split second from screaming in rage to sobbing in fear — that better be on Hall’s Emmys consideration reel.

• From now on, in Masha’s honor, I will always call pets “home animals.”

• “Fuck these fucking smoothes!” Agreed, Tony. Agreed.

Nine Perfect Strangers Recap: An Illusion