Gugu Mbatha-Raw, ‘Surface’ Creator Veronica West on How Sophie’s Revenge Catapults the Series Into a ‘Dangerous’ New World

·7-min read

Spoiler Alert: Do not read if you haven’t watched “See You on the Other Side,” the Season 1 finale of “Surface,” now streaming on Apple TV+.

What began with a leap ended with a cliffhanger as Apple TV+’s “Surface” closed out its first season with some good old-fashioned revenge and an enticing tease of the future.

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After a season spent piecing together her lost memories after an apparent attempt at suicide by throwing herself off a ship, Sophie Ellis (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) learned she’d never actually intended to kill herself. It was all a calculated ruse to escape back to her old life as Tess Caldwell, a mysterious woman with a past she’s only remembered in bloody flashes.

After discovering she had stolen money from her husband’s firm, and left herself a go-bag in a storage locker that was packed for a return trip to her native London, Sophie made it look like she jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge in the finale, severing ties with her posh San Francisco life and fulfilling her own plan to chase down her past.

In the episode’s closing moments, she arrives back in England without any memory of who she was as Tess, or any idea of who might be waiting for her. Her only lead is a single London address stored in her go-bag’s burner phone for Eliza Huntley (Millie Brady), the blood-soaked woman plaguing her memories. After not-so-subtly tracking her to a cafe, Eliza confronts her shadow with a question ripe with concern — “Tess, I know it’s you. What are you doing here?”

Oliver Jackson Cohen as James.
Oliver Jackson Cohen as James.

The interwoven danger and thrill of diving headfirst into Tess’ past is what excites Mbatha-Raw and creator Veronica West about a potential second season, which Apple has yet to order.

“She crossed an ocean 10 years ago to come here and she was obviously gearing up to go back, so what was she running from?” West says. “What was she ready to go to battle with? That is the exciting, dramatic conundrum for our heroine. You know you are about to arrive to do something you have been planning for a long time, but you don’t know what that is.”

Even though Sophie and Tess are one and the same, Mbatha-Raw says she played Season 1 entirely as Sophie, peeling back the layers of her memory as Tess’ influence crept in.

It wasn’t until the final scene that the actor flipped the switch to play Tess.

“It felt really empowering to get to that point,” Mbatha-Raw says. “We met Sophie in such a fragile, vulnerable state in many ways, and looking to others to define her. By the time we get to the end, and she has evolved into this discovery of Tess and what she’s capable of, it really felt like her agency can just grow from there. I think it is such an interesting turn that she makes to take the reins of her own life.”

Sophie’s journey wasn’t without its casualties – human and matrimonial.

In seeing through her escape-by-suicide plan, Sophie left behind her husband, James (Oliver Jackson Cohen), who has oscillated between suspect and savior, as Sophie came to realize he used her memory loss to paint the picture-perfect life they decidedly didn’t have. Even though she was hardly an innocent bystander of their lives – she did swindle his company out of millions while also having an affair – it was Sophie who tore down what West said the writers’ room referred to as James’ “castle of lies.”

“When she dismantles that castle and realizes what he’s done, even though I think he did that for altruistic not malevolent reasons, it drives Sophie crazy,” West says. “His choice to misrepresent their life really robbed Sophie of the opportunity to get to know him. I think, in a lot of ways, what she does to him [in the finale] is turning the tables, showing him what it feels like to live in a false reality and how damaging that can be. It is revenge but maybe it also gives them a chance for a fresh start.”

Sophie may have gotten her revenge, but Mbatha-Raw isn’t sure she is done with James — or vice versa. Despite successfully convincing the world she was dead, she still left her heartbroken husband a video explaining why she cut him so deep. And he’d, in turn, left her with a menacing promise: “You take of yourself, until I get there.”

“As much as they have been through, I feel like there is a deep, intense love there,” Mbatha-Raw says. “The trust kind of went out the window, but there is a connection. Consciously or not, it is a game to them, and that connection is definitely going to lead him to keep her with him and them together.”

However, should the show get a second season, West cautions that James might not be as driven by undying love as he has been thus far.

“If James is to find Sophie and re-enter her life, I think he wants to be an agent of chaos,” she says. “He’s lost everything, has nothing left to lose — and on the surface of that wants to be a problem in Sophie’s new life. But underneath it all, there’s always going to be their love for each other, if they can ever sort their toxic relationship out.”

Toxic being the operative word, as their castle of lies claimed at least one life in Baden (Stephen James), Sophie’s former lover. The undercover detective was killed in Episode 7 after his identity was blown by James’ recklessly over-protective friend Harrison and business partner (François Arnaud), in an effort to cut him out of Sophie’s life. West said Baden’s death was part of the story before scripts were ever written – and James was cast – to show the actions of those perched in the ornate homes of San Francisco have a price.

“When we broke the season arc, I think we really wanted to have a dark moment where Sophie and James and Harrison and Caroline, they all realize their actions have consequences and there’s no going back,” she says. “I think they all had to reach the darkest depths.”

Ultimately, James takes the blame for Baden’s death in Sophie’s eyes, covering for his friend and giving her the ammunition to carry out her disappearing act.

If some viewers watched “Surface” thinking it was a limited series barreling toward a conclusive finale, they wouldn’t be wrong: West designed the show to answer what happened to Sophie on that boat by the end.

But as she built out the character, she became hungry to know what made her tick. By the time Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine came on board to produce, Tess was part of the story, and the potential for future seasons was baked in. West said all parties were receptive to the idea of more, but remained coy as to whether Apple gave her any assurances that if she leaped off that narrative cliff, there would be the safety net of a second season there to catch her and viewers.

“We found who Sophie really was in Season 1, and the next chapter for me was always why?” West says. “What is the origin story of someone who is capable of those decisions? What traumas has she gone through that she forgot when she was reborn in that water that we can now go discover? I think for Sophie as a character, she now needs to know those answers as well.”

While both West and Mbatha-Raw know what secrets exist within Tess and her mysterious past, they are hesitant to share anything about the new protagonist – or antagonist? – they left viewers with in the finale.

But Mbatha-Raw did offer a bit of psychological insight.

“Tess is so much more than she knows, even at the end of this season,” she says. “I think we’re all kind of a combination of our roots and family legacy and history, and we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg.”

She even borrows the exact words James used in his parting message to Sophie.

“In Season 2, Tess’ past is a dangerous place to be,” she says.

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