The below features our first thoughts on Servant. Weekly reviews will follow.
Nannies typically fit into diametrically opposing boxes in horror: villain or prey. Sitting somewhere between babysitter, step-mother, and nurse archetypes they are either a threat or protector. In the first season of Apple TV+’s psychological thriller from twist maestro M. Night Shyamalan, 18-year-old Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free) is hired to look after a baby, however, this is far from a regular au pair gig. On the surface, the live-in position in the stunning Philadelphia brownstone should be a dream job, but the reason behind the disquieting atmosphere is revealed by the end of the pilot. Leanne has been employed by the Turners to care for a reborn doll, which is being used as a psychological aid after an unspeakable tragedy. Following Dickinson, Servant is the next Apple TV+ series to launch its second season, and there are still plenty of questions to be answered regarding the eerie events.
Shyamalan told The Hollywood Reporter in 2019 that an endpoint has been conceived (this isn’t a Lost scenario) and that “A dream version is we get 60 episodes, and I get to tell you the full story through 60.” Apple TV+ has already greenlit Season 3, so don’t expect a cavalcade of answers in the forthcoming 10 episodes (the first seven were made available to critics). More pieces fall into place regarding Leanne’s origin story, all while unleashing supernatural-leaning questions. Unspooling the urban nightmare at a slow pace might frustrate some viewers, but the 30-minute episode length works in its favor to combat the feeling that the writers are withholding information to stretch the story out. And even when narrative elements become exasperating, the small ensemble cast makes this an intriguing watch.
On the surface, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) have it all. She is a reporter on the local Channel 8 news and her husband is a stay-at-home consulting chef who specializes in molecular gastronomy. Peeling back the layers, it is apparent that all is not well in this opulent home, and baby Jericho is at the heart of the mystery. Dorothy didn’t know she was cradling a doll, instead, believing it to be her son. Suspense is dialed up when a real infant lies in the cradle in which the inanimate object “slept” and Leanne's role is not as passive as it initially seemed.
Season 2 picks up where we left Dorothy, frantically searching for Leanne and realizing a doll now sleeps in Jericho’s crib. In those closing moments of the finale, it is clear that Dorothy understands this is not her baby — this was not the case when we first met her. Dropping the lifeless object into the crib with a look of abject horror suggests she now thinks the living and breathing child is her kidnapped son. It is a full-circle moment that leaves the Turners as we found them but with one less charade between them.
Parental anxiety is at the heart of this series, exploring various nightmare scenarios that depict external and internal threats. In Servant, the danger is both coming from inside and outside the house. Creator Tony Basgallop didn’t reveal how Jericho had died until the penultimate episode of the first season — portraying the tragic events via flashbacks intercutting with present-day scenes. While Sean is away in Los Angeles working as a judge on a culinary competition TV show, a mentally and physically exhausted Dorothy accidentally left the baby in the car during a heatwave. It isn’t until the middle of the night that she registers that Jericho is still in the car, but instead of calling anyone, she goes through the motions with the lifeless child that her mind is telling her is alive. When Leanne discovered the truth about the woman she idolizes, her adulation turned to scorn. Tension in the finale is increased by the presence of Leanne’s religious aunt and uncle when Dorothy remembered where she recognized Aunt May (Alison Elliott). The religious zealot was the head of a Waco-style cult that Dorothy had previously reported on after an incident with the authorities, and this connection only added to the list of unanswered questions.
Leanne’s presence has never felt like a coincidence and Season 2 digs into the Church of the Lesser Saints — again, the answers are slowly dished out — and the nanny’s background. There is also the matter of Sean’s inability to taste (this isn’t Covid-19 related) or feel physical pain and this appears to be something that has been done to him rather than an unconnected ailment. Holding his own hand over the cooker flame in the finale, Sean’s extreme response signals how desperate this situation has become. His lack of touch and taste — the latter is a particular nightmare considering his profession — is not the only “power” Leanne seemingly possesses as a dead (or at least severely injured) rabid dog sprung to life last season.
Considering the subject matter there is a risk of getting mired in the weight of this tragedy. Dorothy’s obliviousness isn’t treated as a joke, but dark comedy does stem from her brother Julian Pearce’s (Rupert Grint) reactions to the absurdity of this situation. He will do anything to protect his sister but he is very vocal in his growing exasperation at the unfolding twists and turns. Without this thread of gallows humor, Servant’s eked out mystery would suffer as even the darkest moments require levity and a sibling is the perfect figure for this jester role. Julian isn’t just the light-hearted relief because his air of indifference is itself a form of protection and there is a lot more to tell about the Pearce family — particularly their mother. If you thought the reborn doll was unnerving, just wait until you see what is lurking in the attic.
At times the brownstone is an oppressive fortress and one of the most impressive aspects of this series is how this space is used by the directors and cinematographer to emphasize the inescapable surroundings. Shots that center the multi-level staircase are dizzying and accentuate the disorientating atmosphere. Production designer Naaman Marshall’s use of patterned wallpaper and murals adds to the claustrophobic vibe while dueling with an aesthetic that is Architectural Digest-ready. What should be a dream home has turned into a nightmare that is quite literally coming apart at the seams. Dorothy is still in the dark about the initial circumstances and as the cracks in her repressed subconscious begin to form, the house also starts to shudder under the weight of these events.
The outside world was kept at bay in the first season and the only time we ventured beyond their perfectly manicured street was via the news reports on Channel 8 — the events on TV often seeped into the narrative — or on the various Apple devices. This set-up continues and using products from the streamer could be in danger of looking like a cutesy product placement gimmick, but the lack of on-location scenes beyond screens further adds to the isolation and heightens the horror. The helplessness of watching a potentially dangerous situation on the other end of a video call increases the foreboding tension in the new season.
Looking for clues is part of the Shyamalan plotting, which means anything and everything could be important down the long and winding road. Food preparation is still a component, as is the local news stories that could factor in later on. Because some of the reveals arrive at a glacial pace, it can be frustrating to linger on creepy establishing shots. Nevertheless, Servant’s sumptuous aesthetic is an important aspect but it is the cast that really makes this story sing. From Lauren Ambrose’s nuanced portrayal of a mother who doesn’t realize what she did (and who will stop at nothing to get her 'son' back) to Nell Tiger Free’s ability to flip between scared and determined as nanny Leanne, this is a captivating ensemble that ensures the suspense does not fizzle.
Servant Season 2 will premiere on Apple TV+ on Friday, January 15.
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Emma Fraser spends most of her time writing about TV, fashion, and costume design; Dana Scully is the reason she loves a pantsuit. Words can also be found at Vulture, Elle, Primetimer, Collider, Little White Lies, Observer, and Girls on Tops. Emma has a Master’s in Film and Television, started a (defunct) blog that mainly focused on Mad Men in 2010, and has been getting paid to write about TV since 2015. It goes back way further as she got her big start making observations in her diary about My So-Called Life’s Angela Chase (and her style) at 14.