“Who the fuck is happy with their life?” Bobby Cannavale’s Tony demands of Nicole Kidman’s guru Masha this episode, and it’s a valid question. Behind Nine Perfect Stranger’s nefarious plot of whatever Masha has hidden up her white and flowing sleeves, lies the even more engaging bigger question: How do we make ourselves better? If we could just go off somewhere, to a Tranquillum retreat, say, and accomplish this, well, we’d probably all do it if we had the means. As Melissa McCarthy’s struggling novelist Frances lays it out for her fellow perfect strangers this episode, they’re all trying to be a little bit better today than they were the day before.
But what does “better” even mean? For Carmel (Regina Hall), it’s a lower number on the scale, even though that apparently wouldn’t mean anything to someone like Ben. For Jessica (Samara Weaving), it’s her number of Instagram followers, an effort she’s finally recognizing as futile. For the Marconis, it’s the possibility of dealing with their immense grief after the loss of their son/twin brother Zach. Masha says that part of the healing is finding a wound, positing that we need to go through the pain to get to the other side (possibly the “suffering” she was referring to last episode). She also equates “damage” with “potential,” tapping into that room for improvement that with any luck, can make us feel better about ourselves.
Unfortunately, for such an ambitious quest, episode two of Nine Perfect Strangers basically amounts to more place-setting and wheel-spinning. There are some heartfelt interactions—the most effective, surprisingly, between Frances and Jessica—but very little progress. Also, if practicing trust falls is Tranquillum’s idea of life-changing transformation, I would demand my pricey entrance fee back.
But most of these interactions, especially for a second episode, drag on long enough to seem pointless, especially Frances and Tony’s life-threatening grape-throwing incident. It’s obvious that these two are headed for a new level of closeness—couldn’t we find less childish ways for them to get there, like Frances pretending that she can’t hear when Tony speaks, like some kind of fourth-grader would do? (The guilty grape floating in the pool was pretty funny though; has a grape ever appeared to be so ominous? As was Frances equating her near-death grape experience with Masha getting shot.) As with the Marconis, the reasons for Frances’ current crisis gradually unfold: not only is her career in trouble, but she recently fell prey to an online con man who swindled her out of some money by saying that his nonexistent child was in an accident (also love that the con man is played by McCarthy’s real-life husband, Ben Falcone). Frances’ life is at a crossroads—which maybe helps explain her rudeness to nearly everyone—which helps trace the route that brought her to Tranquillum, and perhaps her recommitment to staying at the end.
A bit more dramatic is the metaphorical digging-your-own-grave exercise (again, I am too claustrophobic, and would protest, especially with the dirt-throwing), leading into Masha’s mantra of the value of rebirth. For the Marconis, this exploit cuts a bit close to home, as we learn that they’re getting over the loss of Zach, who “stopped living” three years ago. Both Masha and Heather come perilously close to the edge of the cliff this episode, gazing into the abyss that separates this life from whatever comes after it. Heather looks forward, as if the abyss could possibly answer the questions plaguing her over why her son isn’t with her anymore. Masha has the tendency to look backwards, with all those strange snippets from her childhood, as well as the returns to that fateful night in the parking garage. But these flashbacks are not really as effective as they’re meant to be, because they presuppose that, like her guests, we’re dying to know the mysteries that exist in Masha—and frankly, her Heidi-like braid and floaty white wardrobe and tendency to over-pronounce her consonants just aren’t doing it for me.
Much more intriguing are what the nine perfect strangers are actually going through: Jessica’s realization that a life lived online is basically meaningless in the real world, Heather and Napoleon’s futile attempts to reconnect because they’re grieving their son in entirely different ways, the cracks in Tony’s rough veneer that show that he’s actually a nice guy. Masha does have a point when she points out the tragedy of an unfulfilled life: “You want your life to be important, to mean something.” Is that where the true unhappiness comes from? The feeling that we’re wasting our lives?
Which brings us back to Tony’s original question: Who is actually happy with their life? Even if we have the things considered essential—family, friends, food, a home—many of us are still striving for whatever we think the the next thing is—a promotion, a bigger house, a new relationship—and therein the unhappiness lies. Napoleon tells his wife: “You have to seek out the wonderful, Heather, because it doesn’t just come knocking” (yes, kind of a clueless aphorism to offer to a grief-filled mother). But most of us, I suspect, would be secure with just contentment, if we could quit looking ahead and really appreciate what we have—and to find importance in our yes, smaller lives. Could Masha’s rebirth exercise really toss all those unnecessary thoughts that keep us from happiness away?
Apparently not, because so far we’re two-for-two in episodes ending with ominous proclamations from Masha. Here she tells Yao and Delilah to prepare the new, untested protocol, and even Masha’s devoted minions look nervous. But hey, if the new protocol speeds up the so-far pokey events at Tranquillum, I am all for it.
- What is up with the love triangle between Masha, Yao, and Delilah?
- “I told you, she’s like a gifted writer.”
- Where were Ben and Jessica during the trust falls?
- Any guesses on who could be behind Masha’s threatening “Congratulations. This is your last week on Earth” texts? Guessing a dissatisfied client who had issues with Tranquillum’s unconventional self-improvement methods.
- People who haven’t read the book: Are you more intrigued by the Masha character than I am? Honestly curious to hear your thoughts!
- At the top of the Nine Perfect Strangers list this episode: Tony, who was able to get his meds and is making some headway with Frances.