Surface squanders an intriguing premise [Apple TV+ recap] ★★☆☆☆

Apple TV+ thriller Surface circles the drain this week as it strains for meaning and solves its many mysteries in as tidy a fashion as possible.

Sophie hears two conflicting versions of events about who she really is and where her life was headed before what was either a suicide attempt or an attempted murder. Meanwhile, her husband James and cop Thomas Baden lock horns — with Sophie’s affection their reward.

Surface’s writers have one episode after this to really make everything fall into place.

Surface recap: ‘It Was Always Going to End This Way’

Season 1, episode 7: In the miniseries’ penultimate episode, titled “It Was Always Going to End This Way,” Sophie (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) has finally figured out who she really is. She goes to talk to her therapist Hannah (Marianne Jean Baptiste), and apologizes for how neurotic and paranoid she’s been about her treatment. Sophie says she believes she did try to kill herself, and that it wasn’t a murder plot like she’d been suspecting since officer Baden (Stephan James) came back into her life.

Next, Sophie must go to Baden and beg him not to bring all the evidence of financial shenanigans that he’s collected on her husband, James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). Now that she knows she’ll go down, too, she isn’t as gung-ho about giving over James to the police.

She goes to her bank to try and take out some money for an undisclosed reason. But, since getting into the account involves answering questions from her past (which she doesn’t remember), it looks like she’s trying to commit fraud. Still, she gets out of it easily enough, because a few hours later she’s having wine with Caroline (Ari Graynor). They try to apologize for their various misdeeds and go about their nights.

Ugly business everywhere

After James and Harrison (François Arnaud) figure out that their colleague Todd (Andres Joseph) was cooperating with the police, they shake him down on the roof of the building where their company is stationed. James now knows the full extent of how screwed he is. That’s when James says Baden’s name and Harrison hears it.

Turns out Harrison knows Baden, too. He hired Baden all those months ago, before the accident, to investigate Sophie. Harrison thought Sophie was a conniving gold digger and wanted some dirt on her. And he hired Baden to do the digging.

So the question is, who is Sophie supposed to believe? The man who told her she’s a criminal or the man who didn’t tell her he was stalking her when they first met? The point is, Sophie’s whole existence hinges on two competing versions of events from the people who profess to love her most.

She goes to Baden and tells him if he turns in the evidence she’ll tell everyone he’s only doing it to destroy the husband of the woman he was sleeping with. This rightfully stings, as he’s risked a lot to bring James to justice. But if he doesn’t, he knows the financial crime bureau of the San Francisco police will come after him for impeding their investigation after essentially starting it.

A few days go by, and Baden hasn’t moved on them, so James and Sophie think maybe the coast is clear. But then Baden approaches her in a restaurant with a USB drive, and a plea for her to forgive him. James sees him and a fistfight ensues. When Sophie gets home, she looks at the drive’s contents — including a video of her fall from the boat. No one pushed her.

Surface squanders an opportunity

Knowitall try-hard Neil deGrasse Tyson has, for many years now, tweeted about movies he watches, just to suck the fun out of them by saying how much he knows about science, as if filmmakers are after scientific accuracy first and thrills last. It’s a fraudulent demand for attention, but occasionally there’s a little truth to some of the ideas he puts forward in the name of being as annoying as possible.

When reviewing Christopher Nolan’s dopey spiritualist space odyssey Interstellar, Tyson summed up his disdain in one sentence: “On another planet, around another star, in another part of the galaxy, two guys get into a fist fight.” With this great big canvas — whole universes to explore — Nolan was showing men doing the same things they’ve always done on film.

Whether or not that kind of criticism is valid when it comes to Hollywood spectacle, there is something to the idea of turning on a movie with a high concept and seeing the same old same old. I thought about that when watching James and Baden fighting each other in a restaurant over the girl they both love.

The paltry sight of two guys just duking it out over a woman hit home how magnificently Surface had squandered whatever interest its premise might have engendered once upon a time. Much like another Nolan movie, Memento, there is pathos and intrigue to be drawn from the idea of someone solving the mystery of their own trauma, to find out how their life ended up this way. There’s a lot of emotional potential in the idea of realizing one day that you’ve been lied to about your life, that you were someone very different just yesterday.

This all feels so small

And yet, in Surface, all of that fog has cleared with just one episode left. And the show’s central mystery has whittled down to: Is my husband a bad guy? It’s anticlimactic, to say the least.

When Caroline and Sophie start talking about love triangles, it really and truly took me by surprise.

“How can you be in love with two people at once? Doesn’t that mean that eventually, someone is going to get eviscerated?” Caroline asks.

“Everyone does,” Sophie replies.

First of all, how are two women in their late 30s just now having this thought? And second, what business does this have in a show where there’s a chance Sophie’s going to jail for financial crimes tomorrow? It just feels like way too much and way too little at the same time. The show still seems headed somewhere, I guess. Unfortunately, I just don’t care where.

P.S. The video is unintentionally funny.

★★☆☆☆

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.

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