Each week Terry and Joe review the latest episode of Apple TV’s Servant S2, alternating between our respective sites.
Spoilers follow for Episode 2.10 “Josephine”
Episode 2.10 “Josephine”: : An unexpected arrival threatens to tear Dorothy and Sean apart, leaving Leanne defenseless.
It’s the end of another season of Servant, Terry, and I’ll confess that I didn’t expect this much action! Considering how much creeping tension and dread (and comedy!) we’ve seen this season, I didn’t expect a full-blown action sequence as Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) battles Aunt Josephine (Barbara Sukowa) in a life or death brawl across multiple floors of the Turner household.
“Josephine” interestingly sidelines both Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) behind locked doors for most of its runtime. Ditto Julian (Rupert Grint), who is referenced when Sean makes a desperate phone call, but never actually appears on screen.
No, this is the Leanne vs Josephine show…and it’s kind of glorious.
As I predicted last week, that damn Betamax tape finally comes into play. Once Josephine has used her silver tongue to worm her way past Sean and Dorothy, locking them in individual bedrooms so that she can score some alone time with Leanne, the contents of that much teased tape are revealed. Lo and behold, it’s an educational “how to” video on the Church of Lesser Saints’ “reunion ritual”, a low-fi, produced in the 80s masterpiece detailing a three step ritual for human sacrifice, but filmed in the most hilarious, innocuous way possible.
It’s clear that writer/director Ishana Night Shymalan, who returns after helming “‘Pizza” earlier this season, is as adept handling horror and action as she is comedy. Servant has a smooth, often cool, visual aesthetic that favours slow pans and dolly work, overheard shots and intimate close-ups. This video, however, is something else completely: it’s like a deadpan parody played straight as Church members Uncle Frederick (Marcin F. Paluch) and Cousin Miriam (Kate Silk) role-play murderer and victim in a generic 80s office.
I have to give it to Ishana for hysterically juxtaposing Frederick’s can-do likeability and Miriam’s all-American willingness with the horrific content of the video, which details the “Invocation”, “Consecration” and “Emancipation” steps required to free a soul so that it can be released from a body and reunited with God.
Terry, I’m sure some of the choice phrases Frederick uses stuck out for you after the last several episodes, particularly when Frederick outlines the first step, which involves self-harming yourself to music that “makes you feel connected to your time on earth here”.
There’s a thin, liminal line between rebirth and something more angelic and this line treads it very carefully. The “how to” video suggests that its murderous instructions will liberate the strayed and misguided by delivering them back to God, but there’s also the warning that if the steps are not performed in the proper order or expediency that “the death may not take”. Combine this with Aunt Josephine’s, and by extension George, May and the rest of the cult’s seeming all-knowingness, and there’s an implication that Servant is actually telling a story far greater and grander than we ever anticipated.
This is omniscient entity territory, which has never been more clear than the final moments of the episode as Leanne speaks to Josephine’s charred corpse between the walls:
I don’t know why I keep doing bad things. I just can’t help it sometimes. I can feel the dark thing in me getting bigger.
I’m tired of everyone telling me what’s wrong with me. Maybe there’s nothing wrong with me. Maybe this is who I am.
I know how this works. I know they’re coming for me. But don’t worry. I’ll be ready.
I know killing you started a war.
Reading this in context with Uncle Frederick’s words from the Betamax tape “…when one of us turns bad, there’s no turning back” and Servant just became truly epic, Terry. Suddenly the true villain of the series has been revealed…and it’s that sweet, meek nanny whose maturation into adulthood we have been tracking these last two seasons.
Well shit, Servant. Well played.
Terry, what did you think of this revelation? I’m eager to read your thoughts on the all-out physical brawl between Leanne and Josephine in the attic. And what of Jericho who – as you predicted last week – does make a re-rebirth appearance.
It’s almost a cliche in our writing now, Joe, to say, “I don’t know where to start,” but it feels so incredibly apt for an episode that continues to grow the world, heighten the stakes, set up a central conflict for the following season and somehow juxtapose a terrifying ritual with an 80s Training Video. So I guess let’s start there, since Uncle Frederick and Cousin Miriam are integral to understanding the bizarre world we’re continually exposed to.
You mentioned “choice phrases” that probably struck me, and you’re absolutely right. In particular, and to piggy-back off of your comment on the misguided, Frederick instructs, “you must remind yourself why this is necessary. Because once one of us turns bad…there’s no going back.” But this is also followed up with, “Never forget who your adversary truly is”, which is followed by images of Hell. This segment reaffirms that the Church of Lesser Saints believes they are the forces of Capital G “Good” versus Capital E “Evil”, but also that the cult is – or was at some point in time – much larger than I anticipated.
Up to this point, we’ve only ever seen the incinerated church in Wisconsin that Dorothy Turner covered as a news reporter. Until now, it was suggested that this was a small congregation. The moment Frederick says, “See here our Cousins in Lancaster performing the Invocation” actually sent goosebumps down my arms.
But it also raises more tantalizing questions, since the technology and the content on screen suggest are hallmarks of, as you pointed out, the 80s. Are Uncle George and Aunt May part of a larger organization? Did The Church of Lesser Saints cease to exist at some point and Uncle George and Aunt May became the last refuge for keeping their ideology alive? Or…did the Church prosper, grow and become more insidiously entwined and enmeshed in the world?
You already mentioned Leanne’s chilling statement, “I know killing you started a war.” This statement seems to suggest that there is a big enough contingent of this cult that would be able to carry out an assault on Leanne and the Turners…but it’s such an ambiguous (not to mention ambitious) tease.
Back to your question about the revelation at the end of the episode: I’m more mixed in terms of what Leanne is actually saying. Servant has been very focused on what constitutes good and evil this season, contrasting the horrific things Dorothy did to Leanne in “2:00” with revelations of just how enmeshed in grief and pain the Turners (including Julian and, now, Leanne) are.
Servant has really delved deeply into Leanne’s journey of self-acceptance through her understanding of the cult’s maxims on mortal joys. Sex, music, physical closeness, joy of any kind…all of these emotions that make us human are shunned by Uncle George’s teachings and we’ve seen, time and again, Leanne push back against it.
I think as queer people, we can also see this ideology of the chosen family. Leanne’s biological family is dead and she was pretty much scooped up by Uncle George, Aunt May and their Church of Lesser Saints against her will. This season has allowed Leanne to understand that people exist out of the cult’s seemingly narrow view of the world. And by the end of the season, she has unabashedly chosen the Turners, no matter how much Aunt Josephine pushes her to come back to the fold.
All this to say, I’m not giving up on Leanne, Joe!
I can easily see her struggle with her internal “darkness” as a reference to the Capital E “Evil” and Uncle Frederick’s line “Never forget who your adversary truly is.” But “darkness” is also ambiguous enough that it could simply represent the desire to rebel that comes with adolescence, a theme season two has explored in great detail.
On top of all the theorizing, “Josephine” is a thrilling watch. Season two really established the Turner household and the season finale used practically every room in the house during the all-out brawl. What a phenomenal bit of action! I was genuinely frightened for Leanne and Ishana really didn’t let up with her focus on the violence. This is assured filmmaking and it makes me excited to see where her career will take her.
I will say, the only unsurprising moment of the episode was Jericho’s re-rebirth…it felt fated to me, based on how the season was structured, particularly with its laser-focus on Dorothy’s mental health and suicidal thoughts. What was frustrating about it, though, is that we’re entering a third season with Dorothy still unaware of Jericho’s death and resurrection (…and second resurrection).
“Why couldn’t you wait twenty more seconds, Leanne!” I wanted to yell.
Which brings us to the moments leading up to Jericho’s return. I have to ask, Joe: what did you think of Sean’s tearful and agonzing plea to his wife? And what about the climactic fight between Leanne and Josephine, Dorothy’s surprise appearance and Leanne’s witty retort as she finished the battle? And finally, I want to revisit your thoughts on Dorothy in “2:00” and see where you are with her character here, at the end of season two.
Oh I loved quippy Leanne, delivering a killing blow with the line “Vanity is a sin, Aunt Josephine.” Our baby is all grown up Terry! And while I don’t necessarily agree with Leanne’s interpretation that Dorothy saved her by smacking Josephine with that shovel because she considers the nanny “family” (it’s more likely that Dorothy feared she’d never see Jericho again otherwise), it’s a moment that clearly brought the young girl enough strength to finish off her abuser in style.
It’s interesting that you raised Dorothy and “2:00” because the attack by Josephine is similar to Dorothy’s attack in that key episode: they both begin in the attic and move into the basement. If we consider Aunt Josephine another variation of “the bad mother” that we discussed last week, then in some ways this finale sees Leanne role-play through her fantasy of killing off the mother that fails her in her quest to find safety and security with a “good mother.”
As a sidebar: as a regular viewer of Syfy’s four season adaptation of 12 Monkeys, it was a kick seeing Sukowa cut loose as Aunt Josephine here. The costuming did a solid job of keeping her mostly hidden throughout the episode, which required Sukowa to use her very distinctive voice to carry a lot of the performance. It’s an incredibly memorable contribution considering Josephine is the messenger for the entirety of the Church of Lesser Saints and also a representative of the threat the Church poses to this unconventional new family unit.
Like you, I was frustrated that Dorothy still doesn’t know that she’s been mentally repressing her role in Jericho’s death. Servant has skirted this line so many times, only to walk it back, that it’s starting to feel like comedy. This, as well as her lack of awareness about the events of “2:00”, remain the one element of Servant that I can’t quite get behind, though perhaps this won’t matter now that Jericho is (presumably) back for good next season?
As it stands, Servant S2 is a near perfect series for me, Terry. Not only is it sumptuously gorgeous with regards to the production-design, the costuming and the direction, Lauren Ambrose’s performance is top tier and eminently worthy of awards consideration. When I reflect on the kinds of speculative theories we’ve woven and the deep, rich discussions we’ve had around its themes and its (visual and narrative) puzzle-box structure, the show is delivering everything that I want in a horror show.
And it’s 30 minutes!
Servant truly is exceptional and I’m so sad that we have to wait a year for more.
My grade for S2: A.
Terry, do you have any lingering questions or observations about S2? Any theories about where we’ll go next? And what’s your final grade?
Like you, Joe, I have been absolutely enamored and thrilled with Servant’s second season. It’s taken the core mystery and themes introduced in the first season and spun out a measured, intriguing and assured second helping.
Not only is it still expertly weaving a mysterious story that has given us so much to unpack, but it’s opened the world ever so slightly. Unlike other shows that lose focus by adding additional characters, subplots and stories to thicken the intrigue, everything on Servant is done in service of the story and the central characters.
“Josephine” brought season two together by doing the same thing. It resolved some mysteries, moved the plot forward by introducing new twists and complications and opened the world up. When we finished season one, I wondered if we’d ever leave the house as the Turners tracked their missing son and in hindsight I’m so glad that didn’t happen. At this point, this house feels like Servant and Tony Basgallop and his writers and production designers have found intriguing ways to make the house feel both incredibly claustrophobic and huge…sometimes in the same scene.
You asked me if I had lingering observations about season two or theories about season three. Here’s my biggest note: there’s space between the walls. The final lingering shot of season two showcases Aunt Josephine’s burnt body hidden between the walls of the house and it gave me Housebound flashbacks. The show added new dimensions to the house by opening up the attic and the basement in season two, so I’m hoping there will be some inter-wall shenanigans in season three.
Additionally, season two ended with the power going out across the entire block…in a budding snowstorm…in the middle of winter. Servant has played with apocalyptic themes this season – the increased anger in the streets centered around food, Biblical plagues spreading through the house, angels (and demons?) and end-of-days cults – and the addition of no light or heat just ratchets this visual motif to eleven. I’m excited to see how the Turners deal with this new nuisance and I’m giddy at the idea of the cult “war” Leanne has prophesized.
As a whole Servant has upped its game by focusing deeper on the characters and really giving them the space to be more than simple caricatures. Everything has been improved this season, from the pacing to the characterizations to the cinematography and the score. I’m legitimately excited to see what bonkers journey it’s going to take us on next, Joe.
I give this season a solid A.
Servant is now available in its entirety on Apple TV