This Twisty TV Thriller Puts Gaslighting Under The Lens

·4-min read

Warning! Spoilers ahead for episodes one to three of Surface on Apple TV+

“Tell me, what is so wrong about your situation? You have a beautiful home, friends, a husband who wants to love you,” a therapist narrows her eyes, probing her patient. After a pause, the patient responds: “That’s what I don’t understand. If my life was so perfect then why would I try and end it?”

This is the premise of Surface, Apple TV+’s twisty psychological series produced by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Hello Sunshine, and based on S. J. Watson’s bestselling novel Before I Go To Sleep. It follows Sophie Ellis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw), the wife of a wealthy philanthropist who has been left with long-term memory loss after a traumatic head injury. She’s been told it’s the result of an apparent suicide attempt where she jumped from a ferry, and her dreams seem to confirm the same. In fact she has been having the same nightmare every night: she plunges into icy cold water and in the shadow of a ship’s hull she finds herself being pulled into the propeller. It is at this point she usually wakes up.

As her husband, James (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), and friends are tasked with helping her piece her memory back together, Sophie starts to feel that something is off. She goes for drinks with her circle of friends. Shrill and materialistic, they talk about weight loss and Peloton. She is baffled and asks her self-proclaimed best friend, Caroline (Ari Graynor): “Is this who I used to hang out with? I don’t feel a connection.”

Elsewhere, James is charming, successful and objectively handsome. But there are red flags. One night, when Sophie is getting ready to go to a black-tie gala with him, she finds herself drawn to a black gown, sexy and low-cut. Her husband spots her admiring herself in the mirror and his jaw clenches and he pulls a more modest floral dress from its hanger: “You know I’ve always loved this one.” When Sophie raises her eyebrows, he kisses her cheek and insists: “Wear the one with the flowers, okay?” For some reason it feels less like a loving suggestion and more like a threatening demand.

As the show’s eight episodes tick on, other developments come to light. Before her alleged suicide attempt, her doctor reveals that Sophie had broken her arm. She has no recollection of sustaining such a serious injury and when she asks best friend Caroline, she is cagey and offers suspicious reasoning, telling her she tripped while drunk. There’s more. Sophie finds that she has been locked out of her credit card account. James reveals that after her suicide attempt he filed for conservatorship, taking full control of her finances. He tells her, patronisingly: “You weren’t capable of making decisions on your own.”

As time goes on, Sophie feels her world closing around her. How do you rely on a version of the truth that only a few people give you, or trust that people won’t use artistic licence to manipulate the truth according to their own, fucked up agenda? It’s the ultimate form of gaslighting. Sophie not only doubts her reality but senses it is being withheld and falsely reconstructed by the people who are meant to be closest to her. Ultimately, our memories are fragmented at best, coloured by bias and chaos. One person cannot account for another person’s hidden dimensions, secrets and personal pain. There’s no doubt that Sophie hit the water but she is starting to wonder if someone pushed her.

Gugu, who has had hit roles in Black Mirror and The Morning Show, is incredible as Sophie, confusion or distress flashing across her face as we see her attempt to recover from PTSD and retrieve her memory. Surface also delves into coercive control as a form of abuse; how it can masquerade under a thin veneer of so-called protectiveness. James is secretive himself yet monitors Sophie, calling her incessantly and following her movements on their home security system. We trust the ones we love to have our best intentions at heart but the sad reality is that this isn’t the case for everyone. In the same vein, the show also puts the insidious effects of conservatorship under the lens. We see how the legal practice of exerting governance over a woman by cutting her off financially is systemically misogynistic and can have deadly consequences.

The first three episodes of Surface air on Apple TV+ on 29th July, followed by new episodes weekly

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