If you know many TV and film writers, you’re probably aware that they can be a cynical bunch. The longer a person has been doing this, in fact, the more dismissive they may very well be toward new movies or shows that look at all familiar or derivative—it just gets harder and harder over time to summon up the enthusiasm to watch hours of similar programming when you feel like you inevitably have a sense of how it’s all going to turn out. This kind of genre literacy is helpful for examining the TV or film landscape in a broader way, but it can simultaneously suck the simple pleasures out of the evening ritual of hunkering down with a new favorite show.
It does, however, occasionally make for a different kind of enjoyable experience, when you’re forced to officially dump your expectations by the wayside by a show that continuously befuddles you. And that’s exactly what has been happening to me for the last few weeks as I continue to be drawn further into weekly episodes of Hulu’s Nine Perfect Strangers.
On first inspection, and throughout its initial marketing materials and trailers, Nine Perfect Strangers looked like it might be more than a little familiar—a TV prestige drama that leans entirely on the quality of its stacked cast in order to tell a conventional story about power, control, victimhood, coercion and predation, in a setting that conjures up comparisons to every drama or docuseries about cults you’ve seen before. And indeed, all those themes are present, and the cast is just as good as advertised, with spellbinding turns from the likes of Michael Shannon, Bobby Canavale, Regina Hall and Melissa McCarthy. But when it comes to the presentation of antagonistic influences, Nine Perfect Strangers veers far from the trope-laden path I now realize I was unconsciously expecting. This show simply doesn’t have a traditional “villain”—at least not yet—and the resulting uncertainty this has generated is making each episode that much better as the audience waits for a payoff to the gathering tension. And in the end, it all comes down to how this story has treated Nicole Kidman’s Masha Dmitrichenko.
Masha is the New Age queen at the center of the absurdly named Tranquillum House, the exclusive health and wellness resort in which our “strangers” all find themselves currently expanding their consciousness under the influence of a variety of mind-altering drugs. She has exactly the sort of ethereal, mysterious presence you would expect this character to have—aloof, exotic, beguiling, the kind of woman who invariably gets what she wants, and convinces you that it was your idea all along. In any conventional story occurring in this particular setting, this would be all you’d need—Masha would be our primary antagonist by default. One looks at the setup for Nine Perfect Strangers and expects it to be a story about nine vulnerable people being taken advantage of by a woman who exults in expanding her power over them, effectively dominating their lives, as they learn to resist her machinations. The archetype for Masha’s character seems to demand a secret sociopath, a sadist who built this “wellness” retreat as a way to not only be able to abuse people at her leisure, but be paid to do so.
And yet … that’s not really Masha in Nine Perfect Strangers. She’s flawed, yes—deeply so—and her questionable methods of therapy and pharmacology are often both arrogant and profoundly irresponsible. We come to understand throughout the show that her treatment has even proved deadly in the past for at least one guest who is implied to have experienced a medical emergency in the course of his stay, almost certainly because of the steady stream of drugs she feeds all her patients. But one thing Masha isn’t is sadistic. Nor does she seem to be a sociopath, or to be primarily driven by fueling a sense of power over those who submit themselves to her ministrations. Instead, everything we’ve come to understand about this woman—and we understand more about her than I ever expected to understand—seems to suggest that she genuinely believes she’s helping the people who come to stay with her at Tranquillum House, and may in fact be helping many of them for real. Or in other words, although Masha does have ulterior motives, you’d be hard pressed to genuinely call them “sinister.” Self-serving, perhaps. But she simply isn’t the domineering cult leader I was expecting her to be, and Nine Perfect Strangers is far better off for it.
We can say some of these things with relative confidence because Nine Perfect Strangers makes the unexpected decision to show us quite a bit of the proceedings from Masha’s perspective, which works to immediately shatter the image of her as a mastermind orchestrating every event being experienced by every guest at the retreat. Seeing the world through her eyes, it instead becomes clear that Masha is rarely truly in control of what is happening—the composure and control she radiates to the guests is mostly stagecraft and roleplaying to portray herself as the infallible leader they largely expected to find. In private, Masha is beset by anxiety and doubt, questioning whether her grip on the program is slipping away, and increasingly desperate to succeed, to the point that she’s willing to take dangerous chances to boost her odds. These moments build our familiarity with Masha in a way that none of the guests experience, which has the twofold effect of making her less mysterious to the viewer, but immeasurably more real. It seems increasingly likely, in fact, that Masha’s true end goal is in service of trying to come to terms with her own personal tragedy, a motivation that can’t help but be sympathetic.
And if there was any doubt that we’re meant to sympathize with Masha, it should have disappeared the moment the series introduced its most mysterious plotline—the fact that Masha is receiving a regular stream of cryptic death threats on her phone from someone who seems to have complete access to Tranquillum House. This reveal, which happens quite early in the series, immediately takes the burden of “primary antagonist” off Masha’s shoulders and transfers it to some stalking presence on the fringes of the narrative—physically removed and never so much as glimpsed in the first six episodes, but unmistakably present all the same. It’s clearly impossible to commit to “Masha as bad guy” when we’re aware that someone is trying to play a deadly game of cat and mouse with the woman—empathy is inevitable. As long as this sword of Damocles remains suspended above her, we’re left in the dark about the nature of the story’s most genuine antagonist … along with what are presumably Masha’s gravest sins, the impetus for the threats.
Do I still have some cynical concern as to where Nine Perfect Strangers will head from here? Of course. A large part of me is still living in fear of a nonsensical reveal that attempts to shoehorn in why someone like Manny Jacinto’s character would secretly be plotting Masha’s death, complete with the reveal of some secret rationale that completely redefines the character after investing 7 hours or more in their story. But even if that does turn out to be the case, it will still be preferable to the rote “cult indoctrination drama” I had wrongly envisioned before the show began. Nine Perfect Strangers has managed to make Masha one of the most intriguingly strange characters of the year, and rarely have I been so pleased to have been wrong. With only two episodes left, I still have no idea where this story is headed, and that’s the kind of suspense that makes for appointment viewing.
New episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers air Wednesdays on Hulu.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident genre geek. You can follow him on Twitter for more film and TV writing.
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