I have avoided discussing the Nine Perfect Strangers source novel in this space because I was afraid of spoiling anyone watching the series who hadn’t read it. Also, it had been a few years, so I recently re-read the book out of curiosity to see how it stacked up against the series. It’s kind of astonishing how little happens over the course of its approximate 450 pages. The first five days of the 10-day retreat, the guests are in a state of silent meditation, which really would not translate well to the small screen. There is a detailed group hallucination session. Then the majority of the nine’s time together is the last task featured in this episode, as they’re trapped in the meditation (not the steam) room, smell smoke, and are forced to work together to find their way out. Masha just gets progressively more unhinged as the story unfurls (the reasons why aren’t really explained very well), and after some jail time, she’s back on the self-help circuit.
Curiously, all of the book nine do seem improved after such a trying experience. Lars is a divorce lawyer, not a journalist, and he helps Ben and Jessica get an amicable divorce. Ben then winds up with Zoe, and they have a kid named Zach. Frances and Tony get married, obviously. Carmel makes friends with her husband’s second wife. Yao finds a lost love and becomes a house husband. The Marconis appear to heal, with Napoleon deciding he needs more extensive therapy.
Masha’s affair with Carmel’s husband (and the resultant shooting and stalking), and the throuple of Yao, Masha, and Delilah were just some of the elements added to the plot of the limited series. And obviously, the story needed a bit more mystery and intrigue to help draw the viewer in. Granted, over the past few episodes, these adds appeared to spin the plot unnervingly out of control. But much to this viewer’s surprise, Nine Perfect Strangers was able to stick the landing, giving all of its characters satisfactory endings—even more successfully than the book did.
In the novel, Masha is a tall, commanding presence with a buzz cut who still sometimes favors the nightgown-resembling wardrobe of Nicole Kidman’s version of the character. But at least in the filmed version of NPS, there’s a clear and understandable reasoning for all of Masha’s plottings, far beyond just general dominance: She’s attempting to reach her daughter, who’s on the other side of this mortal coil. (As my TV editor Danette Chavez astutely described, this is where this show became its own version of Flatliners.) This certainly explains why Masha would dose the Marconis so liberally, using them, as Heather points out, basically as test subjects for this journey into the (trippy) beyond. And though his performance across the course of this series has been extraordinary, Michael Shannon was just heartbreaking as Napoleon becomes consumed with grief for his son (I for one did not make it through that scene dry-eyed).
Kudos to you, commenters, for pointing out that I totally missed the mark on Carmel being Masha’s shooter/stalker. And as unlikely as this plot add appeared to be at first, I like how it neatly tied up all of those dramatic loose ends. (I totally forgot the part about how Carmel used to do stage makeup! Nice callback, show.) Granted, I don’t know if that past necessitated locking up a clearly unwell person in a sensory depravation tank/steam room, and I think Carmel’s journey from that unwell person to leader of her own seminars appears to be quite a leap. But as she points out, it was Masha’s forgiveness that set her free and allowed her to heal (for all the criminal acts committed on this show—and the presence of the police in the finale!—there appears to be very few consequences for any of these actions).
In the book, the lockup happened in the meditation room over the course of several hours, and it was up to the nine to figure out how to escape. Yao’s feeble attempt to explain how that brush with death was supposed to make them realize what was really important to them seemed ludicrous—but again, the methodology appeared to work. I suspect that that’s why none of the nine called Masha out to the cops, along with a health dose of Stockholm syndrome. But due to these unconventional methods, they all walked out of Tranquillum happier people, just as Masha said they would: Frances and Tony end up together, and Frances writes a book that looks exactly like Liane Moriarty’s source novel. The Marconis finally come to terms with the loss of Zach. And in my favorite turn of events, Ben and Jessica stay together and keep Tranquillum open. But here the results have more of a direct correlation to what Masha intended for her guests in the first place. Or maybe I have Stockholm Syndrome.
In the book, Masha lost a child (a toddler, strangled by blinds cords in his crib); she was pregnant at the time and walked away from her husband and new baby in Russia. But Kidman’s Masha was much more convincing as a grief-enveloped mother who would do anything to get to see her young daughter again. Her tragic circumstance goes a long way toward if not excusing, than at least understanding her beyond-unconventional methodology. Frances gets it, when she asks Masha if she’s found what she’s looking for, as does Zoe, who serves as the conduit because she’s a young person open to this creative blurring between the living world and what’s beyond it. The series ends with Masha and her dead child driving off into the sunset, an image that is as nonsensical as it is strangely satisfying.
Finale grade: B
Season grade: C+. I just can’t get over the rough watch over the past few episodes, even though the finale brought us back to moments of “Earth Day”-like greatness.
- And that’s a wrap on Nine Perfect Strangers: Thanks for reading everybody! What do you think: Have I been drinking the smoothies or was that finale pretty solid?
- Although… if Ben and Jessica are in charge of Tranquillum now, another season could be squeezed out of this, I guess. But as that did not turn out that well for Big Little Lies (give or take a Meryl Streep), I hope that David E. Kelley et al. resist that temptation.
- Glory appears out of nowhere to be pretty villainous this episode, but granted she was one of the only truly loyal minions left.
- I have a strange connection to the Nine Perfect Strangers novel, which you can read about here.