surface explains everything, and we really wish it hadn’t [apple tv+ recap]
★★☆☆☆

Sophie (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) isn't who, or what, we thought after all. Bummer. Photo: Apple TV+

Apple TV+ mystery Surface, about a woman suffering from amnesia at the center of a dark web of mystery, finally tells the truth about who mystery woman Sophie really is.

Turns out she was the brains behind the operation, bringing herself and her husband from nothing to a beautiful house, a six-figure income, and more problems than they know how to handle.

So just how did she and James go from a young power couple lying their way to the top to a couple of criminals looking at the barrel end of jail sentences?

Surface recap: ‘The Myth of California’

Season 1, episode 6: In this week’s episode, entitled “The Myth of California,” Sophie (played by Mbatha-Raw) finally figures out she’s complicit in her husband James’ (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) financial crimes.

She demands he tell her everything about how she got here and who she was. Turns out she was a waitress when they met, and he picked her up one day after work. He lied about being a hotshot broker instead of the office pariah. He gives her a sad song about being the only guy at the firm without an Ivy League education. Boo hoo.

Together, they worked some connections and she helped him rise through the ranks, much to the astonishment of James’ best friend and colleague Harrison (François Arnaud) and his one-time lover and now friend Caroline (Ari Graynor). Sophie convinces James to just lie his way to the top.

In fact, Sophie’s so slick, Harrison thinks he’s taking advantage of her. She was the scumbag of the two of them once upon a time. In fact, he had to beg her to stop her wheeling and dealing on his behalf. She did it to feel alive because she had no real business or work to call her own, no success to show for herself that wasn’t attached to James.

Birth of an affair

One night they fought about it, and she met Thomas Baden (Stephan James). Everything changed. Suddenly, she was spending time away from James. He grew bitter and paranoid and ran back into Caroline’s arms — and they fought about that, too.

They eventually healed, kinda. Sophie suggested an investment opportunity, and James had the bright idea to make her a phantom investor, to make it look like more people were in on the deal. But she took the money out of the account and tried to flee with it, messing up his deal, putting him in millions of dollars of debt.

He caught her, confronted her — and she got on the ferry by herself. So what happened on the boat? All we really know is that James handed the police her break-up note and said it was a suicide note. (Disingenuous, but I guess it throws the scent off her financial crimes. Maybe? Feels like too much business for no reason.)

After these revelations, Sophie is crestfallen. She’s not who she thought she was. But there are still questions left unanswered.

So much for mystery …

This week’s episode was a bummer. Whatever momentum and tension Surface generated building up the mystery, it just let out like air out of a balloon.

Now that we know everything, these characters aren’t mysterious — and they’re even less interesting. I don’t want the show to suddenly make James the good guy. He’s still the most boring character. And I don’t really think it’s fair play to flip us on Sophie, who, while not an interesting character, was at least kind of interesting to be around.

The trouble, really — and I suspected this was going to happen — is that when you make a show about the characters instead of the mystery, you leave the viewers stranded. I don’t care about the world of finance. I don’t care about a woman leaving her finance bro husband out of envy.

And I certainly don’t care about James at all. Part of that is because he’s written as a pathetic drip. And part of that is because Oliver Jackson-Cohen plays the character like a statue just barely brought to life.

James’ dead eyes are the real problem with Surface

The first shot of this week’s episode shows James and Sophie looking at each other. It’s meant to be the low point of their relationship and their lives, before they reveal the twin criminal histories that led to this climate of mistrust and brokenheartedness.

Gugu Mbatha-Raw is all in, weeping and intense, and then they cut back to Jackson-Cohen and it’s just nothing. Nothing behind the eyes. Hilariously giving absolutely nothing back to his scene partner. Handsome ain’t everything, folks. You gotta be able to hold the close-up once they give it to you.

But the really curious thing is: He’s fine during the flashbacks! So he made a choice to play new criminal James as a dead-eyed basset hound with a heart rate well below resting.

They even give him a big moment (several big moments!) this week by telling him his wife, who was going to leave him, almost died and lost her memory of their marriage. He cries one silent tear. Not really the showstopper I was hoping for, but whatever.

There are only two episodes of Surface left. Let’s just see how they’re going to set up season 2.

★★☆☆☆

Watch Surface on Apple TV+

New episodes of Surface arrive on Apple TV+ every Friday.

Rated: TV-MA

Watch on: Apple TV+

Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.

Keyword: Surface explains everything, and we really wish it hadn’t [Apple TV+ recap]

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