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‘Sweetbitter’ Depicts a Perfect Decadent Afternoon in Episode 4

A new romance blossoms for Tess on her day off

Jake (Tom Sturridge) and Tess (Ella Purnell) right before a big moment

In the fourth episode of Starz‘s restaurant drama Sweetbitter, the young protagonist, Tess (played by Ella Purnell), gets sucked into the complicated, intertwined personal lives of two of her co-workers.

At the start of “Simone’s,” Tess imagines going on a sexy date with her bartender colleague Jake (Tom Sturridge) at the New York City restaurant where they work. After shaking off her daydream, Tess decides to go to the Met, but changes her mind when she runs into two acquaintances from her hometown in front of the museum. She instead decides to order a glass of wine at a French restaurant downtown, and when that fails to lift her mood, Tess visits her older co-worker Simone’s apartment on the pretense that she wants to borrow some wine books.

Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) is surprised to see Tess at her door, but invites her in for lunch and they open a bottle of Champagne together. Over the course of a leisurely afternoon full of candid conversations, Tess learns that Simone and Jake were neighbors in Cape Cod growing up, but he moved in with her family after his mother died. Simone warns Tess not to get involved with him romantically.

Ignoring Simone’s advice, Tess later decides to meet up with the rest of the crew from work after their shifts are over, and in the middle of dinner, she kisses Jake on the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. He promises that after a trip back to Cape Cod the next day to settle an issue related to the house where he and Simone grew up, Jake will take Tess out for a night on the town.

Since Sweetbitter is based on Stephanie Danler’s popular 2016 novel of the same name, Team Eater thought that it might be appropriate for an editor who has read the book to discuss 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 4, “Simone’s”: The Eater Slack Convo

Greg Morabito: Are you ready to talk about “Simone’s”?
Sonia Chopra: I sure am.
GM: Sweet. Can I just say off the bat that I’m sad that, with that title, the ENTIRE episode did not take place at Simone’s cool apartment?
SC: Very misleading. Can I just say that Simone’s cool apartment is very cool.
GM: Very cool, and not even in a Friends way. Like it looks like an apartment that could actually exist, and someone like Simone would live in. So, this episode starts uncharacteristically with a scene that almost made me close my laptop, since I was watching it in Vox Media’s SF office.
SC: Okay, same — our coworker Stefanie walked by me and I blushed.
GM: Tess is dreaming about a date with Jake, she’s alone, yadda, yadda, yadda, and she decides to go to the Met.
SC: Her dream date from the beginning felt very much like it was a dream. So at the Met, she runs into a friend from home and the friend’s mother and it’s so awkward.
GM: Totally agree about the dream. I didn’t, for a second, think it was reality. But dreams are dreamy sometimes, I guess. Anyway, yes, that awkward moment at the Met was pitch perfect: the casting, the dialogue, what everyone was wearing. So happy to see some Uggs in a show set in 2006.
SC: Hahaha, yes.
GM: I don’t know if this is my favorite episode yet, but it’s up there... because I think it fairly accurately portrays how sad and boring it can be to have a day off in NYC when you don’t know anyone, and you have to like... entertain yourself all the time in this great city, but you’re just feeling blue.
SC: And you’re annoyed by your friend’s mom who is so surprised that you were able to move here “all by yourself.” But yeah, sometimes it’s sad and lonely!
GM: Yes. So, we learn something about Tess in that scene: Her mom died when she was little. A lot of people’s moms and spouses are dead in this show!
SC: It’s very sad! I wasn’t sure if Tess’s mom died or if she just wasn’t in the picture.
GM: Oh yes, I didn’t even think of that.
SC: Wait, okay, now that we’ve said her name, I have to ask: Are you getting better at remembering Tess’s name? Or is it still a struggle?
GM: In my notes I wrote “Ella” a few times, since that’s the name of the actress who plays her, Ella Purnell. Tess still doesn’t really stick.
SC: Ella! I keep calling her Rory Gilmore.
GM: Hahaha. We should start a petition to get her name changed to something easier to remember. So, she goes to a French restaurant and orders a glass of merlot, but it does not bring her joy. Nor does the copy of The New Yorker that she brings as her only reading material (I’ve been there before).
SC: It’s California merlot.
GM: Not what she was hoping from a French restaurant, and presumably, she wants to drink that merlot to become more of a wine snob, possibly to impress Simone.
SC: Yeah, Simone’s gotten to her.
GM: Simone looms large over this episode and the entire series.
SC: Which brings us to Tess’s next stop on her day off: Simone’s cool apartment.
GM: What an apartment. It’s got everything: a bathtub in the living room...
SC: Artfully arranged tray of cheeses just ready to be sliced into a grilled cheese sandwich...

Simone (Caitlin FitzGerald) in her cool apartment

GM: Shelves full of old jazz and classical records, and a vintage hi-fi system...
SC: And real Champagne from the actual region of Champagne in the fridge, with flutes to pour it in.
GM: It’s quite the pad. Simone is somewhat surprised to see Tess and then she stops being surprised.
SC: Haha yes, because she’s Simone and she’s very cool.
GM: She’s like, okay, yeah you can come in. Here’s a bottle of Champagne, start slicing this tomato, please. I liked the whole scene at her apartment, which is like half the episode.
SC: Tess, of course, cannot slice a tomato or even a loaf of bread.
GM: She has to learn everything an adult does from scratch. She’s pretty hapless. This is not a complaint, but I feel like Simone is hiding some MASSIVE SECRET and her entire life is just tip-toeing around it. Like, if the conclusion was that she was in fact Tess’s long-lost mom, I wouldn’t be that surprised. (It would be a preposterous ending, but still.)
SC: That would definitely be something. Okay she’s definitely hiding some kind of major thing, possibly in her cool studio that she’s probably been in for a decade. Possibly at the restaurant, like with her frenemy Serena.
GM: Rent control.
SC: Rent control! The dream. Maybe with Jake, who is the one who helped her install her shower head.
GM: And, we learn, is sort of like her adopted younger brother or even adopted child, since his mom died when he was young and moved in with Simone’s family. (At least, that’s the story that we know right now.)
SC: Yeah, Simone hints that there’s more to it than that, and they do have some weird fraught tension, but when Tess finds out Jake was in Simone’s apartment and helped set up the shower she just kind of stares longingly at it, which feels very Tess but also incredibly weird. What I wrote down was just, “Oh gosh Tess and the shower head is too much.”
GM: Hahaha. I missed that beat but it is so very Tess. ”Wow, the shower head that Jake made, how dreamy.” Simone has some advice about Jake.
SC: She does!
GM: While Tess is testing out the waterless tub and wondering aloud if moving to New York was a mistake, Simone says, “New York is never a mistake. Jake, however, is.” Pretty harsh words for someone who is maybe like a sibling.
SC: Okay, do you really think there wasn’t any tension between them, though? Of the romantic sort.
GM: Between Simone and Jake, or Simone and Tess? I think there’s tension between all of them.
SC: Simone and Jake, in this case. But you’re right, there’s a lot going on.
GM: It’s a lot to process — that’s what I like about this show. I think there is/was some romantic tension between Jake and Simone.
SC: So Simone is either protecting Tess from experience, or jealousy, or both, or neither.
GM: The Jake/Simone/Tess triangle is really what this show is all about, I think. Anyway, Tess falls asleep like a real scrub.
SC: She falls asleep in the bathtub in someone else’s living room in the middle of the day!
GM: Definitely not a pro move. When she wakes up, Simone is doing a very Simone thing: She’s getting dressed up for a dinner date that she previously did not mention.
SC: And Tess feels very awkward, understandably, because she... fell asleep in the bathtub.
GM: Yeah, it’s time to go. So she goes back to her sad old apartment and tries to sleep but then she hears the sounds of people having fun outside. This is also a pretty realistic detail: When you’ve got nothing to do and no one to hang out with in NYC, the sounds of people having fun are amplified by a factor of 10.
SC: Absolutely. So she goes out to find some fun. Oh wait, one quick thing about the bathtub is this quote from Simone when she’s talking about why she hasn’t let her landlord renovate: ”I had to live a life worthy of the bathtub.”
GM: Oh yes. Haha, I love it.
SC: That quote is so over the top, but Tess EATS it up.
GM: It’s ridiculous. Simone is definitely the seminal cool older person in Tess’s life. Anyway, Tess puts on her jean jacket and heads to the restaurant where her pals are just leaving work.
SC: She pretends like she was just in the area, but nobody buys it.
GM: The crew is headed to a late-night Sichuan restaurant, but Will, Tess’s former paramour, opts out once he sees her joining the party.
SC: Awkward.
GM: I was weirdly happy to see him leave. He’s a bit extra.
SC: He cares too much, maybe.
GM: Yeah, he brings some baggage to the table.

The seduction begins over Sichuan food.

SC: Meanwhile, Tess obviously cannot handle neither chopsticks nor Sichuan spice.
GM: She’s never used chopsticks before! And then, in the middle of the meal, Jake swings by to freeload some food — something he apparently is famous for — and he asks to bum a Camel Light from Tess, who, btw, maybe bought them just so that she could offer one to him? We’ve never seen her with cigarettes before.
SC: I meant to re-watch this scene because for a minute I had thought that he put them on her thigh and then asked her if he could bum one, which would put him firmly in Extra category too.
GM: Haha, definitely.
SC: But in any case, there’s some :flame: there.
GM: He gets really excited when she says, “Home is the past, and who wants to visit the past?“ And goes in for the kiss.
SC: The kiss!
GM: This is the kiss, I think, that was used in the trailer for the show to indicate that it’s steamy. He heard all about Tess’s afternoon at Chez Simone, because they are in constant contact, and vows that, after the trip to Cape Cod the next night, they will get dinner. So, everything’s coming up Tess, but maybe it’s not a good idea to get involved with Cape Cawd Jake. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
SC: Only time will tell!
GM: So, we’re now 4/6 of the way through this season, and I’m curious: How closely is Sweetbitter adhering to the book? Slash, what are your current thoughts on the book versus the show?
SC: I continue to like the show more than the book. And have even gone so far as to recommend it to people looking for something mindless to binge, though my Twitter followers may disagree.
GM: Haha yes, I’m getting some blowback from people when I recommend this show. too.
SC: Some things are pretty straightforward: The scene with the bathtub in Simone’s apartment felt just as awkward in the show as it did in the book, which I thought was a really nice touch. But the Jake-Simone-Tess triangle feels way more in favor of Tess in the show.
GM: Oh interesting. Do you think that, knowing the plot, you’re at a disadvantage as a viewer? Or is it still interesting to see how it develops and how it deviates?
SC: Honestly, I’m probably more invested because I want to see what happens and how it turns out, but only because I didn’t love the book, so I was so skeptical of the show. And now that I’m enjoying it, I’m intrigued.
GM: Cool cool. Well, I look forward to learning about the Cape Cod trip next week and seeing if Jake makes good on his dinner date promise.
SC: If you were a betting man, what would you think the odds are that they do their dinner date?
GM: Hmmm, I’d bet 10 Eater dollars that it doesn’t happen.
SC: Whoa, okay I’ll take the chance that it will.
GM: Deal.
SC: Does that bring us to our final question: If you didn’t have to watch this show for work, would you tune in again next week?
GM: Right now, it’s my favorite show to watch each week (it’s a sort of dry TV period for me though). So, yes. You?
SC: You know, I think I would. I’m hooked to Tess and Jake. Wow I finally figured out why I keep wanting to call her Jess: It’s Jake + Tess = Jess??
GM: Boom, better than... Take.
SC: So true.

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