Nine Perfect Strangers
I don’t know, guys. Was that … it?
I don’t mean to diminish the very intentional happy endings everyone received at the end of “Ever After.” Certainly, many of the titular Nine Perfect Strangers needed to, as Masha reiterates, forgive the people who have wronged them and then forgive themselves. But that catharsis felt underwhelming because, frankly, Masha is a manipulative and selfish figure whom Nine Perfect Strangers fully rehabilitates in this finale! I felt like I was watching that final Steve Carell season of The Office, during which all the characters who had previously (and correctly) thought that Michael Scott was an irredeemable moron were suddenly and tearfully calling him the best boss ever. What is happening here?
“But Roxana,” you might say, “don’t you think Nine Perfect Strangers was actually pointing out the echo-chamber nature of some of these self-help retreats, in which people suddenly ‘get better’ because they are told by a rich person that they are ‘now healed’?” Eh. Not really? Maybe that would be the case if we didn’t get a literal final shot of Masha in Ben’s stolen Lambo, with her hallucinated daughter in the passenger seat, driving along the ocean. “But Roxana,” you might continue, “Don’t you think that entire scene was imaginary, just an ending that Frances was scribbling on that waitress’s pad?” I mean, possibly? Certainly, the lyrics from Kidman’s husband Keith Urban’s song “Crimson Blue,” which plays during this scene, suggest this: “Am I inside a dream or wide awake? / If I can find the key, would I escape? Caught in between the ledge and letting go / Nothing’s the way it was anymore.”
But even if Frances is dreaming this up, it is still a positive image: a free, unencumbered Masha, with the threat of Carmel nullified, with her daughter by her side, with no police charges against her, and with Tranquillum House in her rearview. Does such a conclusion reveal that Masha’s promise of helping people was fueled primarily, if not entirely, by her own self-interest? I don’t think Nine Perfect Strangers intended to communicate that about Masha, but yes, I think Masha was high-key self-serving! Masha gets her daughter back, and so Masha’s quest of providing transformational wellness to others is over — or at least on hold until more clients start calling after they read what appears to be a glowing New Yorker profile written by Lars. It seems kind of crappy!
Protagonists do not need to be “good people” for a story to itself be entertaining, enjoyable, or engrossing. But I’m not sure that sanding off Masha’s edges in the final moments of “Ever After” was the way to go. I far preferred Nicole Kidman when she was devious as Masha than when she was vulnerable; her smirking at those detectives and getting into the police car like it was a throne was true “I’m going to become the Joker” energy. Kidman sold the moment when Masha first sees Tatiana as emotionally overwhelming and heavy with meaning — but the following scenes with Tatiana seemed incomplete. We don’t get a translation of what she said to Masha in Russian, and so we don’t get the full 360-degree sense of this 7-year-old girl. At least with the Marconis and Zach, his recurring sarcasm, jokes, and deadpan treatment of Heather, Leon, and Zoe gave shape to his character. Even if he was imaginary, and reflecting what the Marconis thought about him rather than who he really was, we still had something to go on as viewers. Masha’s daughter Tatiana is a symbol and a puzzle piece, but she doesn’t unlock any greater meaning than what Nine Perfect Strangers has already hammered home episode after episode about reconciliation and compassion. “Ever After” doesn’t offer any deeper or more distinct truth.
In fact, you could say that about a lot of the series’ mysteries, no? Many of the dramatic deviations Nine Perfect Strangers took throughout this season are either left totally unresolved or turn out to be meaningless. Whatever Masha had going on with Yao: abandoned. Whatever Masha had going on with Delilah: abandoned. Was Tranquillum House really running out of money? Was Connelly’s wife correct that Masha was partially responsible for her husband’s death? And then there was how the whole “Oh hey, Carmel shot Masha!” drama evaporated in approximately five minutes. All of that built-up tension, all of those fish-eye lenses, all of those askew angles, and “Ever After” ends with a fairly conservative message about family, forgiveness, we get it, we get it. Overall, “Ever After” felt like a deflation, as if subplots that served only an obfuscatory purpose were immediately tossed aside to save a hot-air balloon that was unfortunately already on its way down. Manny Jacinto deserved better than this!
“Ever After” handles everything tidily, and it starts with Carmel. I’ve seen some people commenting online that they thought Carmel’s “I shot you!” reveal was a hallucination on Masha’s part because she had started dosing before she went into Carmel’s locked room, but no, Nine Perfect Strangers isn’t that experimental. Carmel was obsessed with Masha because of her husband’s affair, she had a gun with her (although “I didn’t go there to shoot you that day”), she did her makeup really well because of her history of working onstage, and when Masha threw $500 at her and told her to “fuck off,” she lost it. Yes, she’s been sending Masha threatening text messages, but also, yes, she still wanted Masha to fix her. Lo and behold, Masha’s approval and repeated utterances of “lapochka” take care of business! Pipe in Coldplay’s “Fix You,” Carmel is finally on her healing journey.
Here’s what I can’t figure out, though: How did Carmel get in that sensory-deprivation chamber? It didn’t seem like Carmel agreed to that. Did someone give her more drugs? Did someone carry her? Did someone put in/take out her contact? Regardless, Carmel ends up in the sensory-deprivation chamber, thinks fondly about her daughters, and then realizes that she’s actually in a locked room — and, eventually, she’s joined by Frances, Tony, Ben, Jessica, and Lars, who hear her screams and come searching for her. And then they’re led to believe that Tranquillum House is burning down, but we know it’s not because we see Masha give Glory the go-ahead to pipe in smoke and start playing some crackling fire noises, and so this scene never felt actualized or genuine. Still, it provides the wrap-up these guests want.
Tony and Frances wanted a vacation and a fresh start, and they found each other. Ben and Jessica wanted to reconnect, and they did. Carmel wanted forgiveness, and she received it. Lars wanted to find the truth, and he captured it within himself. And whether or not the “ever after” for each character is real life or Frances’s writing, everyone’s outcomes sync up. A calmer, pleasantly mustachioed Tony and a still-caftan-rocking, successful Frances have made a family with her dog and his two daughters. Ben and Jessica, who wanted to get back to work, now run Tranquillum House. Lars is back with his ex, they have a baby, and he published the story on Masha. And Carmel is now a therapist or counselor of some kind, drawing on her own mistakes to guide people past theirs. (I am flabbergasted by an attempted murderer becoming a self-help maven, but I guess that’s America, baby!)
Which leaves, of course, the Marconis, who are being guided by (or used by?) Masha, who appeals to their shared sense of loss to gain the family’s trust again after Lars tells them of Connelly’s death. Masha’s “I am you” trio works, and soon the Marconis are in their final meeting with Zach. Every family member gets the closure they need as Zach affirms that it was no one’s fault: “It wasn’t any of you, okay? I mean, it wasn’t even me. Do you get that? It wasn’t even me. It’s something that just happened, and if I could take it back … I would.” Are we supposed to believe Zach is “real”? Nine Perfect Strangers clarifies that neither Lars, Masha, or Yao see Zach by showing the Marconis interacting with thin air. But this is what the Marconis needed — to figure out whether they were “running to or from,” as Zach asks — and when Zach tells them, “Maybe it’s time’s up on mourning my suicide,” they listen.
That was a clunky line from David E. Kelley, but then again, the last few minutes of “Ever After,” and what it seems like Nine Perfect Strangers is ultimately trying to say about itself, are a little jagged, too. Zoe becoming Masha’s guide: The student becomes the teacher. Tatiana reuniting with Masha: The daughter leads the mother. “Never up, never in,” says Masha as she repeats Frances’s father’s words back to her: If you don’t have enough velocity or enough force behind a putt, you’re never going to reach the cup. If you don’t put yourself out there, you’ll never reach out there. That’s all very carpe diem, very Dead Poets Society, very seize the day — and these moments would feel more sincerely emotional if Nine Perfect Strangers had paced itself better, or had committed to an understanding of who Masha really was, or had dared to present something different about self-help, rather than a rote “know your worth” message. Oh well. Never up, never in, I suppose.
Have We Achieved Nirvana Yet?
• Nicole Kidman could do Joker, but Joaquin Phoenix couldn’t do Nine Perfect Strangers.
• Tony’s dinner order — two cheeseburgers, a Coke, and an ice-cream sundae — sounds like a good time.
• David E. Kelley making Frances the author of Nine Perfect Strangers reminded me a bit of how Baz Luhrmann made Nick Carraway the author of The Great Gatsby in his 2013 film. If it sells some books in real life, I guess that’s good?
• If you haven’t seen Kidman and Hugh Jackman in Luhrmann’s Australia, get on that. It is ludicrous and inarguably white savior-y, but that continent sure is pretty.
• Who says “trousers” when they can say “pants”? There goes Frances, overwriting again.
• I’m very sad that we did not hear Samara Weaving clarify “girl boss” after Jessica said she wanted to run her own business, because although that would have been an unneeded explanation, it’s one Jessica totally would have given and that Weaving could have nailed with her very artful line readings. Alas.
• Just give Michael Shannon the Emmy already; I do not want to wait a year, thanks.
• “I realized it was none of my business,” but Lars Lee still gets a New Yorker cover story? Come on, man.
• “They disappeared my car!” Put Melvin Gregg in the same column as Manny Jacinto under “didn’t have enough to do.”
• Brave New World was certainly an on-the-nose choice to summon Zach using various hallucinogenic drugs, wasn’t it?
• I will not comment on Yao and Delilah joining the Peace Corps except to say that they are obviously more Doctors Without Borders people.
• I have been critical of “Ever After” throughout this recap, but I will be grateful for handsome forearms wherever I can get them.
• Thank you for reading this season!