There’s something about Surface that pulls you in right from the start.
An atmospheric thriller with a stellar cast, Surface starts with the big event, the catalyst for this whole story; Sophie Ellis submerged underwater, fading down, down underneath a boat, headed directly toward the propeller.
It’s a dream sequence, but it’s one we’ll see more than once throughout the first three hours. And it sets the tone for the start of this series, as we too find ourselves falling down, down into this twisted tale.
Apple TV+ made the brilliant decision to drop Surface Season 1 Episode 1 and the following two episodes simultaneously because while the first hour is fine on its own, when paired with the other two, it allows for a more complete introduction.
And that’s not a knock on the pilot, which does exactly what a pilot is supposed to do. We meet the big players and start to figure out what kind of story we’re in for.
Sophie is our protagonist, a woman dealing with life post suicide attempt. Unable to recall her memories before the event, the series puts her in the precarious position of basically starting over. And the deeper we get into Sophie’s life, both she and the audience realize that nothing is what you think it is.
You want to like Sophie from the start, and the series does an excellent job of making her a sympathetic enigma. You root for her while also recognizing you don’t know this woman. We’re meeting her at a time when it’s obvious she’s unsure of herself, and in turn, you watch with a sort of apprehension.
I often found myself wondering so much about before Sophie and if I would even enjoy her. They do a good job of straddling this fence with Sophie and slowly peeling back her layers instead of dropping us in and out of flashbacks.
Sophie is never content to just let things go, even at the urging of those around her. And within the first hour, she ignored her therapist and her husband and plunged herself into a quest for answers.
James: I thought we agreed to put that behind us.
Sophie: Maybe that’s easier for you than for me. You know what happened. You were there. But for me, it’s all a blur.
James, played to creepy perfection by Oliver Jackson-Cohen, is painted early on as the bad guy. Or, at the very least, the one they’d like us to distrust. He does himself no favors by immediately showing his controlling nature and unique ability to disregard his wife’s feelings with a well-meaning smile.
Nothing about this version of Sophie and James makes sense, so it’s easy to jump on the James hate train, especially as we learn over each hour that he’s keeping secrets and isn’t nearly as well put together as he appears.
And while we could have come to our own conclusions about James, the series decides to ram the point home by having Stephan James’ character, Baden, call him out immediately upon our first hearing from him.
It’s a bit on the nose, and Surface can suffer from telling as opposed to showing at times, but you can almost allow it here because it’s basically all Baden is meant to do. He makes his presence as a central figure in Sophie’s old life clear and then fades away until he’s needed again.
The real meat and potatoes of the first episode are the subtle clues dropped to kick off the idea that maybe Sophie didn’t kill herself, and she’s not crazy to believe otherwise, even though literally everyone around, save for Baden, is hammering the point home with her.
The big reveal at the end that she told the Coast Guard she was pushed and had a different name hits in the way an end of a pilot scene should because all hour, you’re aware that something is off, but you can’t put your finger on what it is.
Now, you’re allowed to start guessing.
And while James is the obvious suspect because we’ve all seen this story before and have caught an episode of 20/20 on a Friday night, truthfully, everyone surrounding Sophie is suspicious, which only ups the intrigue factor.
Hannah is a therapist who I immediately pegged as someone with an agenda. Sophie is laying her thoughts and fears raw in that room, and Hannah pushes back in a way that almost seems like it’s her job to make Sophie feel like she’s wrong.
It’s not until we spend a little more time with her in Surface Season 1 Episode 2, that she seems less like an adversary and more like someone who’s trying to help.
Overall, we spend very little time with Harrison, but it’s evident that James’ co-worker and best friend is not Sophie’s biggest fan. He also drops a line or two that would make it appear that in the past James was an aggrieved spouse, and isn’t that something to consider, especially once we find out the nature of Sophie and Baden’s relationship.
From the beginning, Baden appears to want to help, and unlike virtually everyone else, he seems more genuine. They try to get you to look at him a little sideways during that obligatory scene where no ones ever heard of him at his place of employment, but it’s dissipated so quickly that it doesn’t stick with you.
And he’s not always truthful, but at the same time, he’s the only one encouraging Sophie on her quest to understand herself and what happened to her. It’s hard to connect that support to someone who wants to bring Sophie harm.
Sophie: You know, my whole life made sense, until you walked into it.
Baden: Did it? Did you just believe the story people been selling you? That you just jumped.
Baden: Who do you believe, Sophie? Me or him?
Now, this could all be part of a larger plan to pull the wool over our eyes and slowly unveil Baden as the one who pushed Sophie from that ferry, but it’s hard to buy into that thus far when each hour he proves himself to be just about the only person with Sophie’s best interest at heart.
The second episode is all about Sophie coming to terms with the fact that she doesn’t know herself, and isn’t that a terrifying thing to uncover. The idea that you have deep-rooted secrets you can’t remember is scary, and Sophie realizes over time that there’s really no one for her to trust.
One thing we can glean is that not many people knew Sophie. Caroline was her best friend, yet she couldn’t tell her much of anything about herself. Baden knew enough about Sophie to fall for her, but even he seems to have only known what she wanted him to know.
And James? Who knows anything about James or what he knew. All we know about James is that when he’s not stalking his wife, he’s getting caught up in workplace drama that seems out of place but perhaps will come into play eventually.
Sophie’s overhearing Caroline and James plotting behind her back was another one of those moments not only on the nose but unoriginal, though it’s just another way to push Sophie forward and expand the mystery. Could Caroline and James have had an affair and teamed up to kill Sophie and start a life together?
My money is on no. Way too obvious. But we do find out during Surface Season 1 Episode 3 that the two did have relations, but we don’t know what that means overall. Though it reminds Sophie that her life was far from perfect pre-accident, and there are many things people are keeping from her.
James is the classic red-herring character, and with each episode, I felt less suspicious and more like this man was just an obsessive narcissist, but perhaps not a killer. He’s doing his best to keep it together on the outside and keep up this facade he’s crafted while slowly breaking down internally.
It’s clear he needs to have control in all things, and the minute that slips away, he spirals.
But even amongst James’ breakdown, this hour belongs to the Baden and Sophie dynamic and further explores it.
Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Stephan James have fantastic chemistry, and when Sophie is with Baden during this installment, it feels like the most authentic version we’ve seen of her. She’s a little lighter, though she always has her guard up, and when Sophie and Baden share their first present-day kiss, it feels more earned than it probably should.
The flashback to how they met is cute, and it once again shows a woman far less happy than certain people in her life would like her to believe. It also harkens back to the pilot and Sophie’s suicide note. Was it a suicide note? Or was Sophie preparing to run off and start a new life with Baden?
One of a dozen questions comes up as you watch Sophie’s story unfold, and we still have five more episodes to enjoy. Here’s hoping the rest of the mystery plays out as beautifully as these early episodes. They’ve set a great pace for an eight-episode miniseries and have all the pieces in play for a satisfying conclusion.
Everything Else You Need To Know
- They shot certain scenes in a way where the background is hazy, and only the center part of the screen is in focus. It’s an interesting technique that gives certain scenes a dreamlike quality and makes you feel like you’re truly on the outside looking in, similar to how Sophie sometimes feels throughout the opening episodes.
- Harrison seems like a devoted friend to James, but I do not trust him. He feels like a slow-burn character. One that will factor into things later but in what way?
- Sophie’s memory about riding horses must mean something, and I like the idea of them eventually going further into her memories. There’s more to look at than just what led up to the accident.
- As much as I enjoyed Sophie, you can tell that the old Sophie was probably a lot to handle. Hopefully, more flashbacks are coming from different periods in Sophie’s life.
- The conservatorship will almost certainly come into play, especially if Sophie mounts any sort of case against James. We know he’s a mess, but he still seems to be a powerful and influential player from the outside.
- San Francisco, as always, is a picturesque backdrop. And it’s done on purpose, as it further adds to Sophie’s journey since she’s afraid of bridges while living in a city surrounded by water.
- If Sophie’s real name is Tess, do we think she changed it? Or did she perhaps craft an alter ego for herself? And maybe most importantly, who from her present-day life knows about Tess?
Alright, guys, now it’s your turn to let me know what you liked and didn’t like about the start of Surface! I could ask a hundred questions, but I’d rather hear what you thought and what has you most intrigued about what’s to come.
Hit me in the comments, and remember to come back here to watch Surface online whenever your heart desires!
Whitney Evans is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.