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[The following story contains spoilers from the sixth episode of Surface‘s first season, “The Myth of California.”]
From the beginning of Apple TV+’s psychological thriller Surface, Oliver Jackson-Cohen’s James has viewed his wife’s near-death experience as a chance for the two of them to get a second chance at their relationship and move beyond their past mistakes.
But with Sophie’s (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) realization at the end of episode five that she was the one James was covering for with the missing money he was trying to recover and that she could be the bad guy, Sophie and James’ fresh start is over.
“That kind of opens the floodgates for James to realize there’s no more hiding behind an idealized version,” showrunner Veronica West tells The Hollywood Reporter. “There’s no second chance — that’s a fairytale.”
With that discovery, episode six breaks open what viewers think they knew about the characters and motivations at the center of the drama. With the present-day timeline taking place within the living room of their lavish townhouse, James tells Sophie how they met and fell in love through the early part of their relationship until he started to get jealous of her and things degraded as she began her affair with Stephan James’ Baden. He also reveals how a mysterious investment led to her taking the money and what happened between them before she got on the boat.
As for deciding which parts of James and Sophie’s story to show, West, who co-wrote the episode with Raven Jackson, says they focused on “the moments that meant the most to James and felt like the things in the relationship that were so pivotal but also things in the relationship that Sophie could have misinterpreted the most, like the reason she was with Baden in the first place.”
James’ explanation, West says, reframes some of the key choices and discoveries Sophie has made “not just with James’ side of the story but a more fuller side of the story once he allows himself to be honest about not only his actions and feelings but her past actions and feelings, at least what she was willing to share with him.”
But the new information revealed in episode six doesn’t necessarily contradict what Sophie, and viewers, learned in prior episodes.
“Nobody is who you think they are when this show starts,” West says. “Every character and the people you are suspicious of, we wanted to make sure that everybody felt very real and had real character motivations and once we got to the reveal of the truth and everybody’s different truths, everything that happened before that moment still made sense. You can’t just try to make somebody look like a villain because it’s good for the story. Telling an episode from that particular character’s point of view, it had to do a 180, put a mirror up to everything that had happened before then to explain to you why that person was acting the way they were, even if it was for reasons we didn’t expect.”
James telling Sophie about their relationship, West says, was inspired by the Netflix documentary Tell Me Who I Am, with Surface‘s larger concept inspired by the 1961 French film Last Year at Marienbad.
With James, what may have seemed like controlling behavior in the earlier episodes of the series was him trying to help Sophie.
“This protectiveness over her,” West says, “came from a deep, although potentially misguided, love.”
She adds, “And finally getting to see the same story from his point of view allowed us to really feel what he felt for Sophie and understand that, even though he has done some really questionable things, where they were really motivated from, that they all really stemmed from this idealized version of her that he fell in love with so long ago. That’s why it was key to start that episode with the purest version of the two of them and see that he came into this with a pure heart and it was maybe actually Sophie’s fault that things started to go wrong.”
When asked what initially draws James to Sophie, Jackson-Cohen tells THR, “There’s such a strength that he admires and sort of a fierceness to the way she sees the world that James is probably a lot more scared by the world than she is. I think it’s that fierceness that she has and her outlook on the world that anything is possible. She is sort of his confidence and his rock.”
Jackson-Cohen explains that he was made aware of James’ storyline soon after he got involved with the project.
“I think the first thing they sent me was a bible to explain the whole series arc. And that in itself was quite compelling to read. It was brilliant to then see how scripts would appear,” he says. “But I knew from the get-go where everything went, where James went, what the twists were. I feel like you couldn’t go into something like this blind, the performance would be all over the place. We had to kind of ground it.”
By the end of the eight-episode first season, West teases that viewers will know “everyone’s truths completely except Sophie’s.”
“She’s the one that still has the mysteries, and I purposefully embedded some things, even in the DNA of the pilot itself so that this show could answer all of the mysteries of season one and still have legs and go forward,” West says, adding one of the lingering questions with Sophie. “Sophie’s British: She came to America; she’s lied to everyone about her past. What was she running from? There had to be those nuggets in there for the story to have the chance to move forward past this season.”
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