Surface wastes no time in picking up right where the previous episode’s massive cliffhanger left off. A haggard James immediately begins recounting his relationship with Sophie from the very beginning as a (very hung-over) Sophie soaks up every word.
While this episode gets us much closer to the truth of what’s happening with Sophie — it provides a satisfying answer as to how and why the millions of dollars went missing from James’s venture-capital firm — it’s careful to note that this is only a slice of Sophie’s life, as seen from her husband’s biased perspective. Early on in their courtship, we see a bubbly and luminous Sophie wax poetic about the “myth of California,” meaning that in the Golden State people can reinvent themselves into whomever they’d like to be. James is fully enchanted, and Sophie has found a person whom she can mold her new life around.
From previous snippets of flashback — and the name of “Tess Caldwell” on the loaded bank account — we know that Sophie had another life before meeting James. And despite her frequent insistence that they tell the truth in their relationship, she only gives James the sketchiest of outlines of her life before meeting him. However, because that brief outline happens to include sadness, loss, and trauma, James buys it as a full picture of her past and oddly doesn’t seem to press her more about it as their relationship deepens.
The broad strokes of Sophie/Tess’s history as an orphan from a poor single mom living in London seem to track. From Sophie’s perspective, we’ve seen a few memories of her and her mom having what appears to be an idyllic evening on a beach during her childhood, but there haven’t been any other memories featuring family members. The only other thing we know about Sophie’s mother is that she struggled with psychosis, but, again, this is something that pre-accident Sophie told James, so it could very well be a lie in service of the shiny new California identity she was trying to create for herself.
Pre-accident Sophie goes full “manic pixie dream girl” in the weeks after she meets James. She builds him up, makes bold moves on his behalf, dons frilly, unthreatening attire, and generally shapes herself into a whimsical and intelligent sidekick with the singular aim of helping her boyfriend rise in the ranks at his VC company. In one scene, Sophie sidles up to a white whale named Vince Hawkins at a party for James’s firm. No one has been able to nab Vince’s golden wallet, you see, but Sophie is able to charm him with a simple smile and feigned interest in his fancy Breeders’ Cup cuff links.
Brief aside: Sophie’s deep knowledge of horses is still a huge unsolved puzzle piece here, as a person generally needs a good deal of disposable cash to access the means to become an expert rider and/or learn about the world of horse racing. But I digress.
Of course, Sophie’s sparkling beauty and charm (and an outright lie) land James the account. Even though James is a bit flustered about the lie, he rides the train to success. Sophie’s assistance in landing this account is the first step in a meteoric career ascension for him at his company. The pair revel in attending parties thrown by James’s rich friends ,where Sophie pumps her partner up from the sidelines with a totally fictional story about how he tripled her rich British father’s investment.
However, it’s not long before James doesn’t need Sophie to spin stories for him any longer, and James’s story shifts from a fun tale of courtship and blossoming love to a portrait of a marriage in decline. First, he buys a whole-ass house without telling Sophie about it. Ugh.
Later, at the housewarming party, she sneaks away to be by herself. James’s slimy buddy Harrison finds her and tells her that he knows what she’s up to. It would obviously be nice if Harrison could expound a bit more on what he discovered about Sophie, but in the interest of preserving the Tess backstory for future episodes, he doesn’t. Instead, he just levels accusations at Sophie and tells her that she’s undeserving of James’s love. She retorts that she’s trying to become worthy of him.
Soon after, though, Sophie decides to break from this life she’s made with her husband. In the present, James admits to Sophie that he didn’t think he could’ve become successful without her, as she “shined so bright,” but in the past, we see him brusquely stop Sophie when she’s trying to sell the narrative about her father to a potential investor at a company gathering. James tells her to cut it out. They’ve won. He’s reached the top of the ladder, so her stories aren’t cute or helpful anymore; they’re embarrassing.
Yes, this moment is a bit cruel and definitely illustrates that James has fallen quite far from the hopeful midwestern boy he once was when he first met Sophie. Clearly, he feels like acquiring Sophie was just part of the package deal here, and now that he’s risen in the ranks in his company, she can just transition into a role as his accessory instead of his sidekick. But Sophie has faults here, too. If she genuinely wanted to try and be worthy of the life she’s built with James, she would have evolved once their relationship reached the peak of upward mobility. Yet she can’t seem to switch gears beyond creating fanciful lies and schemes.
So it’s fitting that she meets Baden on the night that James chastises her at the party. We’ve seen this scene from Baden’s perspective before, but the moment has been colored from James’s perspective now. Sophie was just looking for a way out, and meeting the handsome Baden in the rain was a convenient way to create a new California identity. He wasn’t a love affair; he was an escape hatch.
It’s of note, though, that Baden still doesn’t know that Sophie had the money. He also didn’t know why she was on the ferry. So, if Sophie was ostensibly escaping to create a new life with him, then why wasn’t he in the loop?
Perhaps subsequent episodes will circle back on that question, but for now it seems that Baden was just an unwitting tool that Sophie used to help facilitate her escape. Eventually, James hears Sophie canoodling with Baden at their house in Marin. Sophie has redirected the security cameras, but James can still hear what’s happening. This moment seems purposefully orchestrated by Sophie to irk James. It does, and James heads out to have his own affair with Caroline.
Despite the fact that they both cheated, James is still fully onboard with their relationship. He knows they both messed up, but in a tense argument in their gorgeous kitchen, he tells Sophie that he won’t walk away from the marriage, no matter what. He must be Catholic.
This moment of loyalty shakes Sophie to her core. She tells James that she’s ended it with Baden and that she wants to try to fix things in their marriage. A few months later, she’s volunteering at the hospital. (What does she even do there? I still have no clue.) And she has an investment proposition for her husband. But now, instead of helping him, she’s working her own angle. James seems excited to make an investment in this new tech venture and agrees to run the $11.25 million through a third party — Sophie, a.k.a. Tess Caldwell. But the money never reaches its intended destination.
After James realizes what’s going on, we finally get to see the confrontation between James and Sophie at the pier. He says that he knows what she’s doing, and he cuts her to the quick by serving her up a line that’s very similar to the one we saw mystery ghost girl tell Sophie during a hallucination the previous evening. He says, “You use people up. You take everything you can.” But he also notes that she’s just running from herself, and that nothing is ever going to change for her. And, in a reversal from his earlier statement about never letting her go, he lets her go.
Later, James gets a call from the hospital and he races over there, still very much in love with his wayward wife. When he finds out that she’s lost her memory, he takes the doctor’s suggestion and tries to consider it as a new start.
In the present, James laments that he and Sophie have become “shitty fucking people,” presumably corrupted by the moneyed life they’ve chosen to lead. He desperately wants to fix their relationship, and he appeals to Sophie by proposing that they fix it together. Sophie’s tense and confused face says she’s not so sure.
• For all of the endless running Sophie did in the first few episodes of the show, she doesn’t go on one single jog or put on one piece of her signature black running gear in the entirety of this flashback episode. Did the accident somehow make her into a devoted runner? Do I just need to fall off a boat to knock a love of physical fitness into my lazy brain?
• Who is the real Sophie? Have we seen her yet? Does a “real” version of Sophie exist, or is she just a transient sponge, soaking up the lives of the people she comes in contact with because she doesn’t have a defined identity of her own?
• Every episode of Surface has had one absolutely hilarious line delivered by a peripheral character. This week, it comes to us courtesy of a housewarming guest who tells Sophie, “It must be such a relief to know you finally bought the house you’re going to die in.” Reader, I legit laughed out loud.