“If my life was so perfect, why would I try to end it?”
From the outside, Sophie (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) leads a seemingly idyllic existence. She has a hot, super-rich husband (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), she lives in an inexplicably all-black row house in San Francisco, and she is quite probably one of the most gorgeous people on planet Earth. So why would she ever try to end it all?
Because, of course, things aren’t always what they seem on the surface. (Hey, that’s the title of this show!) In the premiere episode of Surface, we meet Sophie as she’s tentatively reentering public life approximately five months after she (allegedly) attempted suicide. She has a peculiar state of amnesia where she can’t remember her friends or important details of her marriage, but she does remember to go on a brisk jog every morning. Gotta keep it tight, girl!
Sophie seems to be a mere shell of a human, just going through the motions every day. Her activities include the aforementioned jogging at dawn in a head-to-toe black ensemble (again with the black), attending dinners and parties where she feels hopelessly out of place, and meeting with her brusque therapist (the great Marianne Jean-Baptiste).
Sophie’s transient, muffled existence is visually illustrated through moments on camera that are depicted as fuzzy or out of focus around the edges. At times during her therapy sessions, director Sam Miller focuses so intensely on Sophie’s face that the rest of her — including her sweater and her voluminous hair — is merely a blur surrounding her tortured facial features. The jury is out on whether this technique is just a stylistic choice or if Miller is trying to say something deeper about Sophie’s journey, but at this point in the narrative, it seems unnecessary either way.
Very little of what Sophie does seems to bring her any joy or even any life satisfaction. Following the accident, she’s clearly been adrift. As the episode progresses, we find out that Sophie not only has no memory of the events leading up to her suicide attempt but she’s also lost many key memories of her life writ large. She doesn’t remember where she and her husband got married, and she certainly doesn’t remember the police officer she was having a steamy affair with. (More on him later.)
While Sophie’s overall memory loss concerns her, she’s most focused on attempting to regain her memories just before her fall into the ocean. She can’t believe she would potentially attempt to harm herself, and she wants to fully understand what happened in the moment.
Unfortunately, her therapist is a mixed bag when it comes to helping retrieve those memories. The therapist refers her to a place that does neurofeedback therapy, which is a fancy way of saying that Sophie’s brain will be hooked up to a machine and a tech will guide her through her emotions with the help of a computer readout of her brain waves.
Sophie’s first neurofeedback session does seem to yield a snippet of the memory she’s looking for. As the tech guides her through her feelings of anxiety, Sophie remembers holding onto the rail of the boat in the wind. She peers over the railing and into the dark ocean. But then, she seems to hear someone approaching and swivels around to look behind her. That’s all we get. That’s all Sophie gets. But it’s enough to fertilize the seeds of doubt that were already in her mind.
As Sophie continues to work with her therapist, the woman is a no-nonsense presence, but she also suspiciously encourages Sophie to stop obsessing over the trauma element of her experience and instead focus on moving forward in her life. In my other life, I’m a trauma-informed therapist, and this all sounds pretty suspect to me. Ideally, a therapist will meet a client where they’re at and attempt to help them neutralize or, at the very least, work through the feelings of helplessness, anger, sadness, etc., that they’re associating with a traumatic event they’ve experienced. FWIW, therapists don’t often ask patients to discount or stuff their difficult feelings way down deep so they can move on and enjoy their perfect lives.
It’s never explicitly stated in the episode, but it seems very possible that Sophie’s husband, James, was the one who found the therapist. Add the therapist’s suspicious treatment tactics to the various things we learn about James throughout this episode, and the husband becomes the number one suspect in potential foul play surrounding Sophie’s suicide attempt.
James does dote on Sophie, cooking her egg whites for breakfast and leaving her a lovingly curated record collection when he has to go away on a business trip. But, at times, he also seems controlling and possessive. There’s a sequence in which Sophie wakes up early, strolls through her stadium-sized closet, and finds a slinky black dress. She’s enjoying the way it hugs her body and makes her feel when James wakes up and immediately starts asking questions. Of course, she doesn’t know any of the answers; she just knows that the dress has somehow transported her back to something that once made her happy.
Instead of reveling in this moment with his wife, James insists that Sophie wear a glorified prom dress to his investors’ dinner that night. She does. And it’s a bummer. But when she heads to the dinner, she runs into Officer Thomas Baden (Stephan James). He slips her a matchbook to something called the Li Bo Lounge, and Sophie’s boring, hollow life starts to open up into something more.
The moments in the episode where Sophie feels like she’s reconnecting with pieces of her lost self are the most electrifying, and the sequence in which she meets Baden at the lounge sings with possibility. She was once a regular here. As the bartender wordlessly fills her glass, we can see that she was serious about her liquor; her drink was Johnny Walker Black, neat. When Baden shows up and shares some information — namely that there is an investigation into Sophie’s alleged suicide attempt, her husband is the number one suspect, and that Baden is the lead on the case — Sophie rounds on him in anger. We get a glimpse of the grit and fury that may have embodied the woman she once was as she turns a venomous eye to Baden and warns him to leave her alone.
But Baden has a way of showing up again anyway. Later that night, when James is asleep, Sophie sneaks down to the kitchen for some mindless iPad scrolling. She finally figures out her Apple password — it’s the name and address of the lounge — and she’s rewarded with a flirty (and hella reckless) video of her and Baden in a hotel room. She’s wearing the slinky dress that James disapproved of earlier that week, and she and Baden are talking about running away together. In this iteration of Sophie, Mbatha-Raw serves the camera a deliciously devilish look before putting it down and concentrating on her lover. I’m hoping that this Sophie comes out to play soon because she seems very fun.
In the morning, Sophie goes on her daily jog and runs smack dab into Baden again. And she warns him to stay away. Again. Big yawn because we know he’ll be back. However, Sophie continues her jog to the pier and coincidentally sees the woman from the Coast Guard who helped rescue her from the ocean. The Coast Guard lady is glad to see Sophie, and she tells her that she was saying all sorts of nonsense on the day they pulled her out of the ocean. Namely that she was pushed by a man and that her name was Tess. Curious.
• The title of this episode, “Ictus,” can mean many things, but in a medical context, it means a sudden blow, stroke, or seizure. The therapist uses the term to contextualize the moment when Sophie lost her memories and her brain “rebooted,” but this feels like the therapist is just using a fancy term to make herself sound more professional than she really is. I do not trust this therapist, y’all.
• Ari Graynor plays Sophie’s bestie, Caroline, and she’s quite fantastic at playing a friend who is very probably a frenemy. I’ve got my eye on her, too.
• Swaths of satin fabric seem to be on screen a lot in this first episode. Illusions of Sophie’s presumably smooth and frictionless life are everywhere.
• Reese Witherspoon is an executive producer on this series, and it certainly seems like the story would make for a fantastic frothy beach read like many of her book club picks. I’m excited to see where it goes from here.