Note: Although this article is a broad, thematic discussion of the first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers, it does contain some spoilers, so I recommend watching the first three episodes before reading it.
Nine Perfect Strangers
The Hulu original miniseries Nine Perfect Strangers is about nine people attending a 10-day wellness retreat in a place called Tranquillum House. The series, directed by Jonathan Levine, is based on the bestselling book of the same name by Liane Moriarty (author of Big Little Lies).
Hulu simultaneously released the first three episodes of Nine Perfect Strangers on August 18th, 2021. This release made sense after watching Episode 1 (“Random Acts of Mayhem”) because the first episode primarily serves to introduce the guests, staff, and primary facilitator of Tranquillum House, Masha Dmitrichenko (Nicole Kidman). Beyond character introductions, little else occurs in Episode 1.
Thus far, Nine Perfect Strangers is nothing out of the ordinary. Within the narrative, there is little action, but what makes the show interesting is the interactions between the characters, including their language and communication, as well as the way they respond to their environment, the staff, and Masha.
This series is somewhat reminiscent of watching people begin psychotherapy, but in truth, it is mostly not like therapy. Boundaries are crossed, people are manipulated, and unrealistic promises are made, all for an undisclosed cost.
In this article, I explore the way language and communication are depicted in the show, as well as its themes of resistance, power, and control. I also discuss personas from a psychological perspective and explore how the personas of the guests and staff change in the first three episodes.
In Episode 1, the guests travel to and arrive at Tranquillum House. We get a taste of their personalities and struggles, and a few of them end up interacting on the way, mostly resulting in conflict.
The guests who arrive on their own are Frances Welty (Melissa McCarthy), a heartbroken but commercially successful romance novelist, Tony Hogburn (Bobby Cannavale), an ex-football player struggling with addiction, Carmel Schneider (Regina Hall), a distraught and at times frenzied mother who has little awareness of personal boundaries, and Lars Lee (Luke Evans), perhaps the most enigmatic figure of the series.
In Episode 1, we learn that Lars recently ended a romantic relationship with a man named Ray, but by Episode 3 (“Earth Day”) we still know very little about him or his intentions, excluding his curiosity about the origins of Tranquillum House and his distress at having his Apple Watch taken away.
The rest of the guests arrive as a pair and as a family. There is a struggling married couple, Instagram influencer Jessica Chandler (Samara Weaving) and lottery winner Ben Chandler (Melvin Gregg), and the Marconi family, consisting of Napoleon (Michael Shannon), his wife Heather (Asher Keddie), and their daughter, Zoe (Grace Van Patten).
The Tranquillum House staff consists of Yao (Manny Jacinto) and Delilah (Tiffany Boone), another romantic couple, as well as Glory (Zoe Terakes) and Lulu (Isabelle Cornish). Beyond the guests and staff, there is the ever-elusive Masha.
This is a large cast, even for an ensemble series. This is one aspect of this show that makes it both enjoyable and frustrating, as it is impossible to give an equal amount of screen time to each character, even within the main cast.
Resistance and Control
Like many psychotherapy narratives, both real and imagined, Nine Perfect Strangers begins with resistance.
Almost immediately after arriving in the lush, intricately curated retreat center, the guests have their phones taken away, with varying degrees of resistance. Later, their rooms are searched, and certain items, such as alcohol and chocolate, are confiscated. The dreamy façade of Tranquillum House begins to fade as we watch the staff take vials of the guests’ blood. There are cameras everywhere on the property, even outdoors, so the guests are almost constantly being observed by Masha, who sits in the dark and stares at several video monitors.
Each guest’s food is individually curated, and Masha even designed the group itself based on their personal histories and personality types. From the outset of the story, Masha is in control, or at least it appears that way.
As the episodes progress, the innate unpredictability of human beings becomes more and more evident. Human beings will reject any rules, even if they are beneficial. In a split second, we will transform the glass walls of an overpriced retreat center into the oppressive bars of a prison. And, given the right circumstances, even the most gentle people can become violent.
The Language of Nine Perfect Strangers
In Nine Perfect Strangers, language is used in very intentional and specific ways, by both the guests and staff.
For example, there is the wellness jargon, such as the repeated use of the word “transformation” and terms like “forest bathing” (also known as “sitting in the woods”). The word “well” is also frequently uttered. In Episode 1, Masha tells Frances, “We’re gonna get you well.” But what does that really mean? And can any therapist or self-proclaimed healer promise wellness to another human being?
When guests have their luggage searched or temporarily confiscated, the word “contraband” gets thrown around. The guests immediately feel they are being treated like prisoners, even though they (most likely) paid thousands of dollars to come to Tranquillum House. They simply have no other frame of reference for someone else looking through or temporarily holding their belongings.
Then, there is psychologically defensive language, such as Zoe’s language regarding her brother’s death. At the beginning of Episode 2 (“The Critical Path”), Zoe tells Frances that her twin brother Zach passed away three years ago. But she doesn’t say he died. Instead, she repeatedly says he “stopped living.” It’s a defensive attempt to protect herself from the reality of his death.
But I wonder if this defensive language is, in a sense, reinforcing her panic attacks, because she is panicking about something that has already occurred. It’s another manifestation of unprocessed loss, and it lives in both her body and in her speech, trying to call itself to her attention as she continues to run away from it, both literally and psychologically.
In addition to language, another interesting aspect of Nine Perfect Strangers is the way its characters communicate, both alone and with others.
In Episode 1, Carmel sits in the forest and tells herself, “You shall be new again. You shall be who you came here to be. Yes. Get a grip, Carmel.” Carmel communicates her wishes and desires aloud as if affirming them will make them so. We see how effective these affirmations are in Episode 3, when she lunges at Lars’s throat across the breakfast table.
Masha’s communication with guests is also interesting because she bounces back and forth between empathy and pushiness. This is most evident in her one-on-ones with guests, especially with Jessica. She comments on Jessica’s obvious nervousness and fear during their meeting, but when Jessica admits she isn’t sure about what she wants, Masha tells her that this is, in fact, what she needs. This is not a therapeutic interaction. Ignoring someone’s stated confusion or ambivalence and steamrolling them in the name of “wellness” is, to put it mildly, manipulative.
One scene that did resemble therapy took place in Episode 3 when the group of women sit together in the hot spring. Delilah tells the group that feelings often bubble up in the hot spring and asks if anyone has had any feelings come up. Carmel begins by saying that she is starting to feel like herself again, after not feeling like herself all day. Delilah asks her to elaborate.
Carmel: I’ve been snapping at people. And, well, Jessica told me to f*ck off, so I suspect I did something to her, too. Did I?
Jessica: You dismissed me, I told you. You’ve been judging me about being a cheerleader, and Instagram. You said, ‘It’s not real if I don’t post it.’
Delilah: And that hit a nerve?
Jessica: Yeah ‘cause it’s true. I check it first thing in the morning. To make sure people think I’m pretty. It’s pathetic.
Carmel: Do you really not think that you’re pretty? How?
Then, Jessica launches into a list of all the things that she perceives as being “wrong” with her body. The reason I highlight this interaction is because it doesn’t devolve into a fight or a blame game. Rather than Carmel being chastised for making a snide remark or Jessica portraying herself as the victim, Delilah’s intercession deepens the interaction and opens up more intimacy between the group members. Thus far, this is one of the only scenes I consider to be genuinely reminiscent of therapy.
However, the scene quickly devolves, and Heather asks Frances to have an affair with her husband (in front of their daughter, no less). But it is quite possible she says this because the guests have all been unknowingly drugged.
The Question of Transformation
Even though Masha and some of the guests frequently mention the word transformation, to me, one of the blaring messages communicated by this series is: “People do not change overnight.” And, for that matter, they do not transform in 10 days.
This includes Masha, who was shot, killed, and resuscitated by Yao. For all her talk of having changed since that incident, she is just as controlling and perfectionistic as she was, except instead of ruling over a corporate empire in the city, she rules over a wellness empire in the countryside. Her past, both recent and distant, continues to haunt her, and her attempts at “healing” her guests through manipulation seem to end only in disaster.
The whole notion of personal transformation is a tricky one. To transform means “to change in form, appearance, or structure.” The more I explore the definition, the more bizarre it seems to apply this word to each other or to ourselves, but the fact is, “transformation” sells.
I think this is another significant question this series brings up: Who gets to heal? Who is allowed to transform (if such a thing is possible)? And the answer is: those who can afford it.
The Masks of Nine Perfect Strangers
In Nine Perfect Strangers, we see many personas.
Derived from the Latin word for mask, our persona is the face we want the world to see, be it the face of confidence or of martyrdom. Personas are a necessary part of living in community with others; ideally, we wear them when appropriate and remove or change them depending on the context.
However, if someone identifies too strongly with their persona, it becomes rigid and inflexible. The mask becomes glued to their face. The person wearing it forgets about the expansive, fluid human being behind the mask, which is detrimental to the development of their personality and their relationships.
In the guests of Tranquillum House, we see many individuals who are partially or fully adhered to their persona. Napoleon is the rigidly optimistic father whose defensive, rampant positivity burdens his family. Tony is the relentlessly confrontational jerk and the “black sheep” of the group. Jessica is deeply insecure and believes she has no influence over her own life. And Frances is the self-deprecating heartbroken lover who has decided her professional life is over because of one bad book deal.
In the staff, we see the personas of gentle, self-assured healers who seem overly contained and emotionally opaque. They parrot statistics about what is beneficial for the mind and body, while often presenting themselves as somewhat joyless, blank human beings.
In Masha, we see the mask of “the expert,” the “one who knows the answers,” and the savior who has literally died and returned to life.
The characters, both guests and staff, are all overly identified with a single idea of themselves, a single story, or a single role, which they reinforce through their words and in their interactions with each other. Fortunately, there are cracks in each of these masks, and the characters gradually begin to gain more dimension and complexity.
As the story progresses into Episode 2 (“The Critical Path”), we learn more about the various tragedies and traumas suffered by the guests, particularly the Marconi family, who lost Zach, Zoe’s twin brother, to suicide three years prior. Their weekend visit to Tranquillum House coincides with what would have been his 21st birthday. Then, in the final scene of Episode 3, Napoleon gives a searing monologue about his feelings of guilt and responsibility for his son’s suicide.
But this moment is tempered and sobered by Heather’s realization and final question to Masha, which ends the episode: “Have you been medicating us?”
Masha, still in reverie from Napoleon’s speech, hides her true feelings with that remarkable, duplicitous smile. We are left only with questions, but I’m eager to know what happens next.