Dreary Apple TV+ series Surface — about a woman who can’t remember her life, and the trouble her condition causes everyone around her — wraps up with a new set of twists and turns and an unrelated mystery.
Despite trying to make it seem like Sophie has finally done something for herself, the particulars and the ambition don’t bear this out. Surface ends by starting from the beginning, having apparently decided its central mystery isn’t interesting enough.
I could have told them that after episode one.
Surface recap: ‘See You on the Other Side’
Season 1, episode 8: In the finale, entitled “See You on the Other Side,” Sophie (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) and her husband James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) are trying to get on with their lives after the murder of her lover (and his tormentor), police officer Thomas Baden (Stephan James).
One of Baden’s colleagues stops by to ask some questions, but also just to say that the dead man spoke to him about Sophie’s case. The impression he got was that Sophie wasn’t safe. If she needs anything, he says, she should call.
James goes to work and chews out his best friend and colleague, Harrison (François Arnaud), who apparently orchestrated Baden’s murder when all James wanted him to do was intimidate the cop. But whoever Harrison hired went a step further and just killed Baden instead.
Sophie’s got a secret
Meanwhile, Sophie’s therapist, Hannah (Marianne Jean Baptiste), is heartened that her patient is finally putting on a good face after all of trauma of her near-death experience. That night at a work party with James, Sophie runs into Harrison and Caroline (Ari Graynor) and attempts to have frank conversations with everybody, smiling all the while. It’s suspicious.
Sure enough, the next day, Sophie writes a suicide note, parks her car near Fort Point National Historic Site near the Golden Gate Bridge, and vanishes. The police not unreasonably believe it to be a suicide, because, well, what else could they think?
But, of course, she’s Gone Girling James. She faked her suicide so she can go live another life. She has a mystery to solve involving the girl, Eliza (Millie Brady), who she kept seeing in her flashbacks. Presumably, Sophie will solve all of that next season, if Apple TV+ renews the show, with a jealous James hot on her trail, still in love with her.
A failed homage to Hitchcock
No. Sorry, but no. I just watched a whole season of a mystery show that was supposed to be about a woman’s memory having vanished, leaving nothing but questions and confusion in front of her. However, it actually turned out to be a show about a woman who was sleeping with two guys until one of them got whacked.
To make things extra-insulting, the creative team staged some of this final episode as an homage to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, maybe the best and weirdest American movie to achieve canonization. That dog don’t hunt. There isn’t a memorable shot in all of Surface. Vertigo is nothing but memorable images and ideas.
Also, an aside: Surface’s directors have been doing something with the cinematography that’s bugged me from the start. In some compositions, and there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason to the choices, everything but a face will be out of focus. Now, I get why you make this choice — you’re showing that Sophie can’t focus on too many things in her life, so she misses facts right in front of her. She’s easily taken in by some small detail and can’t see anything else, her perspective is warped, etc., etc., etc.
It’s not unmotivated but it is, I feel, a kind of lazy way to express that someone’s understanding of the world is failing her, especially because the shots chosen to exhibit this technique aren’t on anything in particular. It feels like the directors hit a “suggest damaged psychology” switch every time they hit a lull.
So that’s how you end a miniseries?
So, after seeing this limp erotic thriller crawl to the finish line, now we might face a whole new season with exactly the same style and beats, that has nothing at all to do with what we just saw? That’s just rude.
Furthermore, why did Sophie need to fake her death to go solve another mystery? I get that she’s mad that James had Baden killed. But wouldn’t leaving him deliver more of a sting? Plus, in the suicide video she sends James, she plays the victim, even though we’re still pretty sure she was a lunatic who was about to ruin his life before she originally tried to kill herself. (It’s still insufficiently motivated, but I can’t even be bothered at this point. Add that to the pile of unsatisfying plot developments from this season.)
“I woke up and you told me a lie,” Sophie says. “Now you know how that feels.” Well, no, those two things aren’t really the same … at all!
All along, Surface felt like the creative team had no endgame in mind. It seemed like they were making it up every week. Why did we go through all this business with Baden if he’s, spoiler alert, got nothing at all to do with Sophie and her journey, which the writers have decided is this other thing in England that she has to go deal with now?
Baden gets murdered and we just move on. No fallout from that, no investigation? Nothing? Even if they catch James for the murder in a second season, who is that going to impact? James is the most dull character on the show!
Surface is misguided and boring, a headache that won’t end or get interesting. And it’s got the gall to compare itself to Hitchcock.
Watch Surface on Apple TV+
You can watch all eight episodes of Surface on Apple TV+ every Friday.
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.