I have to agree with Masha that this Nine Perfect Strangers group definitely needed a shove in the momentum department. We finally get that in episode three, “Earth Day,” as the group spends the day outside, broken down by gender and forced to fast except for what they can forage on the Tranquillum grounds.
As the day drags on, emotions are released, secrets are opened up, and it seems like food deprivation is causing our fractured little groups to finally gel, whether they’re bonding over swimming naked in a river or tracking down some livestock. But people seem really chatty and eager to overshare: It’s one thing for everyone to figure out that Tony is a former professional football player who blew out his knee, or for Ben to finally admit that he has that Lamborghini because he’s a lottery winner. It’s quite another for Heather to suggest that one of the women sleep with her husband on the retreat because she’s just not ready yet. There are some welcome slanted camera angles during the men and women’s gatherings, along with some ominous music, which begin to introduce the possibility that perhaps there’s more than hunger pangs going on here. A lot more effective than close-up blender footage, anyway, and just the dose of mystery that Nine Perfect Strangers was sorely lacking.
Lord knows, this series has its issues, but from the start the stellar lineup of performers in this series compels it toward “must-watch” status. Just one case in point: Michael Shannon’s performance in Napoleon’s one-on-one with Masha, in which she tries to get him to picture his son, Zach. As he’s unable to do so, it’s clear that Napoleon’s “good-time dad” facade is as thick as steel, a fortress he’s built to protect himself from the unimaginable pain of actually facing his son’s death. It’s really, really hard not to like a character that’s that nice without being cloying (like the way he happily welcomes Carmel onto the Marconi potato-sack team), but Shannon’s glimpses into Napoleon’s actual anguish are heartbreaking. Those cracks open wide by the end of the episode, as it’s revealed that he’s the one who killed the goat with his bare hands, not Tony, culminating in his drawn-out, painful monologue at the celebration dinner, which is out-of-character enough for Heather to finally realize that yes, they’re all being drugged.
I’m still trying to get over Nicole Kidman’s Masha accent, but she also displays those Emmy- and Oscar-winning skills several times this episode. Just the scene where Tony dumps the dead goat at her feet is incredible: Masha is attempting to be proud of her guests, effusing praise and promising a banquet, but behind her eyes, there’s clear devastation over the loss of her animal friend. At least Yao gets it, but the reveal that it was actual Napoleon’s grief-struggling, Biblical-inspired self that resulted in the goat’s death somehow makes it even more devastating. Masha’s startled expression after being called out at the end of the episode, which she quickly transforms into a beatific smile, is also effectively unsettling. But the decision to end each episode with a closeup on Masha’s beaming face is a… choice, let’s put it that way.
Also have to give it up for Regina Hall’s frumpy Carmel. Hall is always a standout, even in standard fare like Girls Trip and About Last Night, but it’s fun to see her play against type as a dowdy mom who’s all sweet on the surface and nothing but rage underneath after getting ditched by her husband for a younger model, especially after he insisted that she give up her career to be with the kids. (Although her snarl behind Jessica’s back was a bit on the nose.) It’s a character that could fall into a one-note ditch if not for Hall’s portrayal, as she pisses off nearly all of her fellow inmates in turn—Frances, Lars, Tony, now Jessica—but somehow still elicits sympathy, as she so desperately wants to be taken seriously, even more than she wants to be liked. It’s why Carmel’s character communicates much better than Luke Evans’ Lars’, who at least is rightly identified as the shit-stirring dickhead he is this episode.
Napoleon equates entering Masha’s care at Tranquillum with “jumping in a river and see where it takes you.” Heather responds that “rivers just take you downstream from wherever you are,” yet she herself winds up in a river this episode that takes her farther than she even expected. Yes, the guests undoubtedly got a lot out of opening up to each other, like Jessica’s insecurities and Frances’ inability to be present—but to get there, their trust in this mysterious spa was violated, as they were medicated unknowingly. That’s a spooky suspense-filled shot at the end of the episode, a slowly dawning realization among the nine that Tranquillum—and Masha—may turn out to be more diabolic that they could have ever imagined. Also, as “Earth Day” proved, they are wholly dependent on their keepers for basic survival—for sustenance, say—and, thanks to loss of their phones, are basically cut off from the outside world. It’s like the lab rats becoming cognizant of the fact that they are, in fact, lab rats: So what do they do now?
- Yes, Masha is far from the ideal guru, but isn’t serving wine at a dinner with at least a few substance abusers on board a bit irresponsible?
- Between The White Lotus finale and Tony peeing this episode, I really don’t need to see the bodily functions of any more of my TV characters.
- Related: Napoleon, please stop with the scatological metaphors, I beg of you.
- Was Delilah actually flirting with Lars with that puppy training rolled-up newspaper bit? Odd if so.
- “I’m not participating. I’m here socially.”
- At the top of the Nine Perfect Strangers list this episode: Have to say Heather again, for being the first to figure out that the group is being drugged.
- Next week: The episode is titled “Brave New World,” which seems overly optimistic, all things considered.