Let’s all stop to imagine a version of Surface in which this finale was actually the third or even fourth episode of the season. Are you picturing it? Are you excited about what’s to come next week? Me too! Alas, this is not what happened with the first season of this show, and for all its brooding cinematography, monied set design, and introduction of an intriguing concept with a talented lead, the narrative dragged on for too long to make much of an overall impact.
In a world in which this show aired on old-school network TV and had 22 episodes to explore character and plot, perhaps the carrot of the promised narrative would have been enough to keep me going. But this is not 1995; this is the fast-paced era of streaming where there are often only eight episodes total in a season of TV. Things need to progress and evolve in an engaging way, and Surface did not deliver on that front.
Wherever this story is going, it seems clear that it would have benefitted from putting all the twists out there much quicker. Throughout the season, I thought several times that the show would have worked better as a limited series. Clearly, there are more twists to come, so why hold them back? As the credits rolled on the finale, many questions remained: Who is Sophie, really? Why, exactly, did she jump? What’s up with her horse obsession? How did she find that random ghost memory girl in the hundreds upon thousands of pubs in London?
If Surface never gets picked up for a second season, we won’t get answers to any of these questions. And, quite frankly, throughout the plodding first season, the show has wasted most of the viewer’s goodwill and patience, so it might not deserve a sophomore outing, even on the very forgiving Apple TV+ platform. Other than a desire to continue watching the wonderful Gugu Mbatha-Raw continue to unpack her mysterious character, the conclusion of season one doesn’t make me very excited to tune in for more. In fact, it kind of makes me furious.
But let’s start at the beginning, shall we?
The top of the episode deals with the fallout from Baden’s completely unnecessary death. It’s initially assumed that James set up the hit on Baden, but throughout the course of the episode it’s revealed that Harrison was the one who planned it because he didn’t want Baden’s research taking their precious VC firm down. James decides to take the fall with Sophie because he doesn’t want Harrison to get in trouble, but he fails to realize that Sophie would use the situation as an excuse to bolt. Honestly, she would have probably bolted anyway. Memory loss or no, the urge to flee is in her bones.
What really gets Sophie thinking about her past as Tess and her experience on the ferry is a visit from Baden’s supervisor. He’s investigating the case, but he also knows that Sophie and Baden had a past. He recommends that she start back at the beginning with her ferry accident and asks her why she was on the ferry to begin with that day. This seems very much like a question that someone — anyone — should have asked in the very first episode.
Motivated by the detective’s words, Sophie takes a bath and slips underwater, unlocking a whole host of memories that she couldn’t retrieve in therapy, in the sensory deprivation tank, or while tripping on street-grade hallucinogens. She had the power to remember simply by dunking her head underwater the whole time?! THE WHOLE TIME?! This turn of events is very frustrating, but sure, whatever.
We don’t fully find out what Sophie recalled in her lavish soaking tub until a bit later in the episode, but we see a different woman when she emerges. She starts saying good-bye to people, telling them what she really thinks of them — the scene where she dresses down Harrison at the bar is particularly fun — and she starts to give away her possessions. (Or, perhaps she’s just giving the illusion of donating these items and she’s packing them up for later use. Who’s to say?)
These are all classic behaviors that might be exhibited by someone who has decided to die by suicide (therapist Hannah confirms as much to James later in the episode), so it’s no surprise when Sophie packs a neon orange bag with all of her identification and sets off for a run across the stately Golden Gate Bridge. Eventually, the bag is found, but Sophie is not.
A long, painful interlude unfolds in which James starts to lose his mind a bit. He mourns the loss of Sophie, but also seems to realize that she’s probably still alive. He trashes their house, cries into his whiskey on the rocks, and the run time drags on because we obviously all know she’s not gone.
And, surprise! She’s not.
Eventually, Caroline comes to talk to her friend, and she reveals that James’s debt to her has been paid off. James is confused, but he knows where to start looking. He heads to the bank and finds out that Tess Caldwell’s bank account has been closed, because of course it has.
So, now he knows that Sophie is still alive, and he finds a trail of clues that lead him to a good-bye video that she has left in her iPad. This type of overt goodbye seems very out of character for Sophie/Tess, but Gugu Mbatha-Raw’s performance in the clip is full of searing confidence and renewed vigor. She taunts James by alluding to Baden’s death and telling him that he deserved to lose her.
The video continues in voice over as Sophie unveils her motivations like a villain monologuing in a Bond movie. Although her confessions are vague, she gives James more than enough to realize where she’s headed, and he’s concerned. Onscreen, we see Sophie remember a small storage locker key sewn into the clothing she wore on the day she fell off of the ferry. In the locker, she finds a duffle bag full of goodies such as oodles of plastic-wrapped cash and Tess Caldwell’s passport. Aha!
Still obsessed with this woman who utterly ruined his life, James gets his own unnerving voice over as he leaves a message on Sophie’s burner phone. He is determined to find her and protect her from whatever she finds in London. From what he knows, things are not safe for her there, and he intends to swoop in and save the day.
The final scene of the finale sets up a reunion between Sophie (now Tess) and the mystery ghost woman from her recovered memories. The woman recognizes her and runs out into the street to intercept her. “Tess!” she shouts, “What are you doing here?!”
Will we ever find out? That depends on the grace of Apple TV+ and whether or not they green-light a second season. I think the more pressing question here is whether or not viewers will care to tune in for another season, especially if the show is going to be so stingy about the way it delivers secrets.
• One thing I loved about this episode is that James begins to wear all-black outfits, just like Sophie. The wardrobe mirroring was effective in showing how attached and rooted he is to his wife.
• Another clever reversal of roles takes place when Sophie/Tess arrives at the bar in London to snoop on her old friend. The dialogue, camera angles, and pacing throughout the brief scene recall the moment in the first episode where Baden creeps on Sophie at the bar and Caroline notices. I have to admit that this parallel is kind of neat, but I’m not sure it serves any significant narrative purpose because while Baden knew exactly why he was watching Sophie, Sophie isn’t too sure why she’s watching this mystery woman.
• Thanks so much for following along with me throughout this season of Surface! Make sure to wear some sort of reflective colors if you jog on busy city streets and always keep your secrets close. Maybe I’ll see you on the other side.