Horror begins at home in Season 2 of 'Servant'
How the Apple TV+ series utilizes the brownstone location to maximum effect.
This post contains spoilers for Servant.
From the outside, the Turner brownstone at the heart of Apple TV+’s Servant is a dream home on a fancy Philadelphia street. Inside, the story that is unfolding reveals appearances can be deceptive and the nightmare events within these walls tell a far more disturbing story. In reality, the four-story townhouse is a purpose-built set by production designer Naaman Marshall that has been used to great effect to create an eerie and unsettled atmosphere. The single location provides the backdrop for most of the action and it is only through screens that we see the outside world — whether on the news, iPhone, or iPad via FaceTime. Season 2 maintains this storytelling choice, causing the walls of the opulent home to feel like they are folding in on the small ensemble. While the mystery is still unspooling at a glacial pace, the shifting use of space continues to make this one of the most compelling hidden gems on a streaming service.
New nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) arrived on a stormy night in the pilot, subsequently, she made her escape with the baby Jericho replacement in the finale (the real Jericho died in a tragic accident). Unfortunately for Leanne, the Turners tracked down their former au pair, drugged her, and brought her back to their home in a bid to get "their" baby back. Instead of her former bedroom, she is locked in the previously unseen attic surrounded by remnants of Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Julian’s (Rupert Grint) mother. A mannequin dressed in their mom’s clothes is her only companion, an eerie token that reminds Leanne of her abusive (and dead-eyed) parent. As the weeks have progressed, the Turner captive has been given more freedom to move about the house and this complex dynamic is much more than a case of Stockholm Syndrome.
In this week’s episode “Love Shack,” more details about Leanne’s past come to light, including how the fire started that killed her parents. Rather than divine intervention, Leanne accidentally started the blaze in an act of revenge against her disinterested mother. The pageants that introduced Leanne to Dorothy (via her local news reporter gig) are also the source of deep-rooted pain that led to this act of arson. Unable to please her mom, Leanne took one of her favorite green dresses and burned it on the stove in an attempt to “try and maybe make some room for her to love me.” Fueled by anger, this act ended up setting the entire house ablaze. One explanation offered to the teen is that God was working through her but she rejects a God who would do this.
Precisely what Leanne can do (or who is pulling the strings) is still unclear, but all signs point to the supernatural whether God, the devil, or something else entirely. In the bedroom with a Biblical-leaning accent wall, Leanne prayed, whipped her own back, and caused Sean (Toby Kebbell) to no longer taste or feel pain — a harsh punishment for anyone but particularly a chef. Other hints during the first season of her abilities include everything to do with the living and breathing baby, as well as a wild dog that made a full miraculous recovery after it had been stabbed to death. Down in the cellar, a giant crack formed in “Haggis” (the same episode with the dog attack) when Leanne was sent to get wine. This crack expanded into a sinkhole in Season 2 that Sean and Julian blame on the old pipes, but religious Uncle George (Boris McGiver) has other theories regarding the festering and rotten foundation — “She caused this.” Cellars and attics are prominent in horror movies but it isn’t always a case of the subterranean level standing in for hell and the attic as terror from above. Both have the capacity to hide secrets and keep entities in (or out) and the unseen nature of these rooms adds to the creepy familiarity. The Turner attic is full of family trinkets that act as a reminder of their past — “These clothes are not for dress-up” Dorothy snaps at Leanne. Of all the many mysteries yet to unravel, childhood trauma potentially holds the key to why Julian is so protective of his sister. What else is locked away in Dorothy’s mind along with the death of her infant son?
The mannequin haunts the frame whenever this enclave is entered, which only adds to the disquieting tone established during Season 1. Sean remarks they used to call it Angela and she resided in the bedroom of their old apartment (“She wore scarves mostly”). Leanne refers to the inanimate companion as Mrs. Barrington and when she dresses her in Dorothy’s green frock, there is an element of conflating her former idol (and now captor) with her abusive mother. Dorothy takes on the role of oppressor, waking Leanne in the middle of the night to demand where Jericho is. When Leanne refuses, Dorothy buries her alive in the cellar sinkhole; heaven and hell in one home. Literal cracks have formed and it isn’t just the basement showing signs of collapse.
In a home this size and with this many secrets, there are plenty of places to hide. Swedish director Isabella Eklöf effectively uses this space in “Love Shack” (as well as Episode 6 “Espresso”) to heighten the danger, while offering comfort in the shadows. Chic patterned wallpaper has the habit of making a room look smaller and while Sean only wears neutrals, Dorothy’s penchant for bold patterns means she is often at visual war with her setting. Costume designer Caroline Duncan works in tandem with Marshall's impressive set. Flashbacks reveal she was put on bed rest for the last month of her pregnancy and this turned her bedroom into an inescapable fortress. No doubt, Dorothy is from extreme privilege and her palatial residence is fit for lifestyle magazines, but this story turns a dream home into a nightmare that is crumbling from within. Locks and doors can keep most dangers at bay, but Uncle George was right that there something rotten in this brownstone. But the likely cause is just as likely to be the aura of guilt emanating from every occupant rather than a demonic entity.
“Love Shack” reveals just how easy it is to get lost (a floorplan would be welcome) and this isn’t even taking into account slipping into the wall space (as Sean did in Season 1 to place a camera to spy on Leanne). All it takes is for Julian to reject a phone call from his sister to make it seem like he has left. In reality, he is in an upstairs room gathering intel — before he ventures up to the attic to see Leanne. Uncle George is going from room to room prepping some sort of terrifying ritual that requires a burning blade. He believes Leanne is being punished for breaking “His rules” and while this has not been confirmed as an act of God or not, she has some control over her surroundings. A dab hand at Pinterest-ready decor, she has spruced up her new confinement using Christmas lights she found — Dorothy tells her to be careful with them while also showing surprise they are working. Well, this set-up doesn’t last too long as an anger-fueled moment causes the bulbs to flicker and break before the skylight above her shattered. Elements of modern Gothic horror are reflected in his crumbling facade, mirroring the unraveling family who resides within.
The broken skylight is an interesting visual, in part because it feels like God was smiting Leanne (though without the lightning bolt accuracy). This is a home that is often shrouded in shadow and a lot of time is spent in rooms without much natural light. Shadows and lamplight add to the claustrophobic wallpaper aesthetic coupled with the geometric lines of doorframes, kitchen counters, banisters — this show loves a staircase overhead shot — and perfectly placed furniture. Some of this is a modern decor dream, but nothing can dispel the unsettling atmosphere. The series might be slow to roll out the mystery but as with other M. Night Shyamalan produced (and directed) projects, there is an innate creepiness to this setup. Snow falls gently through the hole in the roof, briefly turning Leanne’s attic confinement into a snow globe. Even though it is rooted in the real world, moments like this lean into the surreal. Parts of the house might be decaying because of natural phenomena, but it is hard to ignore the Leanne factor. From the roof to the basement floor, the townhouse and the Turners are coming apart.
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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.