surface takes us on a trippy journey into sophie’s mind [apple tv+ recap]
★★★☆☆

Can drugs help Sophie (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) sort out reality? Photo: Apple TV+

Surface, the Apple TV+ mystery about a woman with no memory, goes tripping in an episode filled with twists, turns, memories and hallucinations.

Sophie has a secret identity. Her husband, James, has a secret file that Baden the cop needs to steal and investigate. And literally nothing is going to go as planned. Sophie treats herself to a little psychotropic therapy when her therapist lets her down.

She learns a little more than she bargained for in this mostly OK episode.

Surface recap: ‘It Comes in Waves’

Season 1, episode 5: In the episode, titled “It Comes in Waves,” Sophie (played by Gugu Mbatha-Raw) meets up with Thomas Baden (Stephan James) to tell her what her therapist Hannah (Marianne Jean Baptiste) revealed last week.

Sophie’s mother was mentally ill, so whatever’s wrong with her (if anything) could be hereditary. Baden tells her not to sweat it, and besides, there’s good news coming. The police have enough evidence on James to take him down. And it’s happening tomorrow, if all goes according to plan.

Meanwhile, James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen) gets some good news of his own from his pal Harrison (François Arnaud). He’s going to help James pay back the remainder of the money he stole from their company. He’s also not going to snitch on James.

Of course, neither man knows, for instance, that Todd (Andres Joseph), an associate at the company, is working for the police. He got arrested on a drug related offense and is desperate to get out of it. Todd calls Baden to say he got information off of James’ computer. And while they’re on the phone, Todd begs him for some drugs when Baden comes to get him.

Baden obviously says no, because he’s a police officer, but Sophie overhears their chat about drugs and he confesses that, as a narcotics officer, he keeps a stash of synthetic drugs in his apartment for use in busts and the like.

Drugs, you say? The kind that might make you access parts of your brain your memory can’t connect with after a traumatic injury? Well, Baden wouldn’t notice one or two them going missing, would he?

A journey to the center of Sophie’s mind

Todd’s findings turn out to be a lot of nothing, unfortunately. So Baden asks Sophie to check James’ home computer for the incriminating evidence. The trouble is, she’s already at a gala for Caroline’s (Ari Graynor) gallery — and she took the drugs she stole from Baden’s stash.

Sophie’s got about five minutes before she’s too high to function, but she needs to get the phone away from James to dismantle their home security system long enough for Baden to sneak in.

Sophie gets very high indeed and wanders away from the gala just as Caroline and James get into it about their affair. (“My wife jumped off of a ferry!” he screams, in probably the low point of this not terribly distinguished performance.)

Sophie heads downtown to the club she doesn’t remember being a regular at, where she first met up with Baden. She meets a woman named (Millie Brady) who she recognizes from one of her memory k-holes.

Then, Sophie freaks out and flees the scene, only to run to the waterfront and jump into the water once again. She wakes up dry on the pier and asks someone, finally, where the boat she jumped off of actually goes. Turns out she was headed to an island with a private airport on it.

Curious…

That’s a trip

The drug stuff was OK this week — I wasn’t anticipating that. Good visuals, good sound design, unhurried pace, exactly what it called for.

The episode started with some counterfeit Khalik Allah photography showing Sophie reliving memories of her childhood. This is a little silly to me when you could just hire Allah to run your show. It would instantly become the most interesting thing on TV, but when has that ever stopped anyone from making smart decisions?

The actual trip was a nice sequence, allowing us to get lost in pockets of light and of Sophie’s unconscious. That’s not an everyday move on TV, though drug use has obviously become more normalized onscreen in the last 20 years. I also dig the way they show Baden using sober-friend etiquette to try and reach Sophie while she’s still tripping downtown. Nice when reality penetrates an otherwise unreal show.

And that’s some quality acting

There was also a good note of Jackson-Cohen’s performance this week for a change. When Baden shows up at home to wait for Sophie to get back from her bad trip, he and James have their first confrontation.

“You’re the fucking guy!” James says.

“No you’re the fuckin’ guy,” Baden shoots back.

Obviously, Stephan James makes a better showing for himself. But both actors do great with the clearer objectives the scene provides for them. Mbatha-Raw also does good work sinking into Sophie (kinda sorta literally in the case of the drug trip scenes) in a way she hasn’t really been given the chance to before now.

Sophie is written not so much as a character but as a series of objectives and mysteries, which is why the actress can’t do much with her week after week. Sophie’s in a constant state of discovery.

Hopefully that part’s over. What concerns me slightly still is that when James reveals he committed all his financial crimes to cover up for Sophie, what is this show actually about now? Is it just a whodunnit?

I’m gonna be a little bummed if I have to watch eight hours of glossy aimlessness just to solve a mystery in which I’m not that invested.

★★★☆☆

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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