The second episode of Sweetbitter, the new Starz half-hour drama set in the NYC dining world, is all about the main character Tess (played by Ella Purnell) getting to know her new coworkers outside of the restaurant. Some drugs are snorted, a few fists fly, countless shots are downed, people kiss each other in the bathroom and hallway of a bar, and Tess ends the night puking on the pedestrian pathway of the Williamsburg Bridge.
This wild night begins after Tess completes a busy shift, when she learns that her manager Howard (Paul Sparks) is a widower and that she’s not supposed to eat the leftover food she clears from people’s plates — but her boss shows her how to steal chips from the kitchen and scoop them up in leftover mashed potatoes, as a snack. After leaving work, Tess attempts to buy some street meat from a halal cart, but realizes that she forgot her wallet. Upon returning to the closed restaurant, she finds that all of the staff is having a “shift drink” party, and she’s invited to join in the revelry. Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald), the restaurant’s mysterious wine buff, gives Tess a crash course into how to detect the four primary taste sensations: sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.
As things are winding down at the restaurant, Sasha (played by Daniyar), a Russian club kid, convinces Tess to go to Home Bar, a watering hole where employees from all of the other hot spots in downtown Manhattan congregate after work. Tess gets roped into delivering a message to a hostess from another restaurant, and subsequently gets smacked in the face. Her coworker, Ariel (Eden Epstein), helps Tess clean up after the slap with a few bumps of cocaine and a clandestine kiss in the bathroom. When Tess sees Sasha, she slaps him for setting her up to get pummeled by the hostess — as it turns out, Sasha orchestrated this plot so that he could steal a cellphone during the fracas and find the number of an old acquaintance.
Meanwhile, Jake (Tom Sturridge), a bartender who works with Tess, reveals that he is not in a relationship with Simone, but rather knows her from Cape Cod, where they both grew up. Tess also shares a quiet moment with Will (Evan Jonigkeit), a friendly server at the restaurant. And at the end of the evening, all of her coworkers laugh at Tess when she tells an awkward story about inviting John Lennon to a childhood birthday party.
Since Sweetbitter is based on Stephanie Danler’s popular (but divisive) novel of the same name, Team Eater thought that it might be appropriate for an editor who has read the book to discuss the themes and plot points of each episode with an editor who has not. Here, now, is an unedited Slack conversation between Eater director of editorial strategy Sonia Chopra (she’s read the book) and pop culture editor Greg Morabito (he hasn’t):
Sweetbitter Episode 2, “Now Your Tongue Is Coded”: The Eater Slack Convo
Greg Morabito: Want to talk about episode two, “Now Your Tongue Is Coded.”
Sonia Chopra: Hello! I do! What a title for an episode.
GM: What a title indeed. My issue with that title sort of sums up my issue with this episode... it lacks... subtlety? It’s sort of... in your face? But anyway, after a surprisingly successful first episode, what did you think of this continuation of the Tess in the City saga?
SC: Hmm I gotta stay I still like Tess although I still can’t remember her name. I think what it is is that she’s so awkward that I’m just waiting for that ’90s-movie moment where she blossoms — not that anybody has to blossom into a certain thing — but I’m excited to see her feel more comfortable with herself.
GM: When the glasses come off and she walks down the staircase.
SC: LOL yes. Can you imagine the soundtrack?
GM: Indeed, and I can imagine some hunky doofus literally turning his head like, “What? Who’s that??” Anyway, this episode made me like Tess more, because it shows she has an edge and she’s not afraid to get her hands messy with the business of life, or something.
SC: Yeah, I liked that she showed that she can really hold her own — like with that punch.
GM: Oh the punch. So to backtrack a bit, things are going okay at the restaurant with no name. People are giving Tess a million little requests, and she’s staying on top of it all. This, I thought, was actually pretty faithful to the life of a backwaiter at a place like this. And then, she’s emptying out her bus tub and has the impulse to eat a lamb chop that’s headed for the garbage.
SC: Oh, yes, the lamb chop scene. What I liked about that too is that she handled it so well. I would have been MORTIFIED.
GM: Yeah she kinda DGAF. Another plus in the Tess column. Instead, she changes the subject by saying that she admires what she thinks is Howard’s wife’s floral arrangement.
SC: What did you think about that scene? I liked Howard way more in this episode. He felt less stilted.
GM: Me too! He’s a good force in Tess’s life, for now.
SC: I was so relieved he didn’t feed her that potato chip. I was ready to cringe, but then he handed it to her.
GM: Oh man, I was expecting him to feed it to her and expecting to cringe. So, leather jacket-owning bartender Jake kinda gave Tess the wrong intel about the flowers, or didn’t communicate it very well: They’re not arranged by Howard’s wife; they are a tribute to his deceased wife. As Someone Who Hasn’t Read the Book, I do not want Howard and Tess to become romantically involved. Howard is like a dad or an older brother or a chill RA.
SC: Gah yes. Also that introduces this whole gross power dynamic that I know can be common in the industry — an industry you and I report on and think about every day — but I would love for this show to stay fun for me.
GM: Word. So Tess clocks out, tries to buy some street meat, realizes she forgot her wallet, and returns to the restaurant to find that it’s bumpin. Shift drinks for everyone!
SC: Shift drinks! As a person who worked in restaurants like this one, was this your experience of shift drinks?
GM: Yes. The vibe was pretty much spot-on. Only difference is that they were drinking top shelf stuff out of nice glassware, and most shift drink parties were like, emptying out the opened bottles of wine and drinking from the tap. But I worked at a place, like the one in the show, where the owner was cool with this... up to a point. This was over a dozen years ago and I imagine things have changed, but sure, I’m on board with this so far.
SC: So true, though, about how it was explained to Tess: You need to let off steam so you can go back to your normal lives. It’s not an easy job!
GM: Totally, totally. This was nicely articulated. Okay, so what I’m curious about: What do you think of this Sasha fellow?
SC: Oh man. Sasha has attitude. He seems like a person you definitely want on your side but who you can’t trust at all.
GM: Totally. Loose cannon.
SC: I loved that he called Tess racist for asking if he was drinking vodka. But I was kind of confused by the whole thing about his wife in Arizona?
GM: I was also confused.
SC: When he first mentioned Uncle Mark I assumed it was going to be, like, a drug thing.
GM: Me too. That plot is too confusing for this show. But instead it was like, some plot to offend a former sex worker to find out where her john was living or something?
SC: Yeah... from another life? Did you catch that line?
GM: I honestly couldn’t parse through everything that was happening there. So, this is my main complaint with this episode: Once they leave the restaurant and go to Home Bar, the show became sort of implausible to me. It reminded me of like the cantina scenes from the Star Wars movies, where all the different people from all over the galaxy converge.
SC: Haaa. Okay, yes, I have a few things about Tess I want to call out.
SC: If you realize you left your wallet somewhere and go back to get it, you should actually pick it up. Don’t leave again without it! And then walk home across a bridge!
GM: Ugh so true. Oh man, that made me almost queasy. And also, she clearly had no game plan in terms of what she was imbibing. Nobody did in that scene.
SC: Like, I have definitely left a credit card somewhere and decided to let it go until the next day but not a WHOLE WALLET with my ID in it, while I’m drunk in a huge city where I don’t know anyone. Also... she had to ask if biting into the lime left her with a sour or bitter taste. Who doesn’t grow up learning that limes are sour? This is an actual serious question I have.
GM: Haha well, she’s new to flavors, apparently.
GM: Tess never had food before coming to NYC.
SC: That explains so much. Some things are more plausible, like not knowing that riesling is a grape (can’t wait to take about Simone again), but of course a lime is sour.
GM: She’s way into learning about flavors. She kept repeating the four of them over and over like it was a hard thing to memorize. So, Tess had a tasting, of sorts, with Simone. Did your feelings about Simone change at all during this episode?
SC: Hmm yes. Simone in the show is just so much nicer than Simone in the book. She likes Tess. She wants to help Tess. Now that I’m typing it out I wonder if it’s in the framing — what makes the book so unlikeable is that Tess herself is completely unlikeable. And so the way that Simone’s interactions with Tess play out in the novel, through Tess’s eyes, portray Simone as very intimidating and sometimes cruel, even when she’s helping her, but in the show, we’re not in Tess’s head.
GM: Interesting. Yeah, did not get that vibe in the show.
SC: So the cool blonde woman who knows everything can be nice and there’s no anxiety questioning that.
GM: I still get the vibe that Simone is going to become an overbearing presence in Tess’s life, and that perhaps Simone knows this too (or something) and is just giving her some room. It’s weird, but the Simone/Tess thing is one of the more intriguing parts of the show so far. I lost some interest in Tess/Jake this episode, and remain neutral on Tess/Will.
GM: So, who was the person who kisses Tess in the bathroom after the coke bump?
SC: Ari, I think, from the restaurant. That scene plays out the same way in the book. What did you think about it?
GM: I liked how it wasn’t made out to be this huge moment, actually. Like, okay, one minute she’s innocent Tess, the ingenue. The next minute she’s kissing a woman who just rubbed coke all over her bruised lip, and then she asks for another bump. Like, it’s not a huge deal.
SC: Yeah. She says she’s not into it and the moment moves on.
GM: Yeah, that made me like her more...
SC: I lost interest in Jake a little in this episode, in general, I think.
GM: ...like, okay, she’s open to the world around her but knows when she’s not into something and can extricate herself from that scenario.
SC: Yeah, and Ari listened! Which is important!
GM: Wait who is Ari?
SC: Oh the woman in the bathroom I think.
GM: Oh yes, yes. So, later she tells a story about John Lennon and her birthday party and all the people are bored, which I thought was pretty realistic actually.
SC: Ha, yes.
GM: Tess is doing no wrong, but like, these cool boozy server people don’t want to hear about child’s play.
SC: Well Tess did tell a boring story, but we’ve all been there.
GM: We’ve all been there.
SC: Maybe that’s why we don’t hate this show — we’ve all been new to this city and this world and it’s nice to remember how hard it can be and how far you can come.
GM: Yes! That’s why I think I’m forgiving this show for its transgressions sometimes... like presenting the bar as basically a hangout for all the different restuarant gangs. ”We’ve got Cucina Whatever over there, and then the people from Trattoria Whatever over there,” like it was West Side Story, in a bar. Anyway, any final thoughts on episode two? Are you still interested in this show?
SC: Ha, yeah. I feel that way when I walk into certain #media bars in NYC too — you can immediately point out people from different companies. Felt pretty real.
GM: Thats true, I didn’t think of that.
SC: Hmm I will keep watching. I am super intrigued by Simone. I want to know who the love interest is.
SC: I want Tess to eat some fancy food and drink some cool orange wine or whatever the ’00s equivalent was.
GM: Oh hold up, I did not know orange wine was part of the Sweetbitter universe.
SC: Sadly, I think that was just me projecting.
GM: So a good quote, perhaps a bit of a wink from the author, that Simone had in this episode: “Bitter is poison, although we’ve cultivated a taste for it, but Sugar — SUGAR! — was the first addiction.” So I can deduce that perhaps, as the name of the show implies, Tess will develop a taste for something addictive but poisonous, and that might be... Simone? Only time will tell.
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