Each week Joe (@bstolemyremote) and Terry (@gaylydreadful) discuss the most recent episode of Apple TV’s Servant, alternating between our respective sites — queerhorrormovies.com and gaylydreadful.com.
Episodes 1.01 – 1.03 (“Reborn”, “Wood”, “Eel”): New parents Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) Turner, who have hired young nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to help care for their newborn child. As time goes on, it becomes clear that things are not quite as they seem.
Well Terry, after a few weeks to recover from the American Horror Story 1984 finale, we’re back to cover another series and I, for one, am excited that it is a non-Ryan Murphy joint. No shade to arguably the most powerful queer man in Hollywood not named Greg Berlanti, but after back-to-back Murphy series, I was more than ready for something else. Lo and behold, Servant is the anti-Murphy series: it’s subtle, it’s nuanced and it’s heavily introspective.
Oh my gosh Terry, I think we’ve found a winner! This could all fall apart in a few episodes (there IS an M.Night Shyamalan connection after all), but three episodes in and Servant is an absolute treat.
Part of the appeal is how confined the series is. Thus far, every episode of Servant is under house arrest: the action is entirely constricted within Dorothy and Sean’s beautiful Brownstone in Philadelphia, so there’s no reprieve from the oppressive doom and gloom. The series’ signature close-ups constantly make it feel like you’re stuck in the middle of the marital drama, and there’s a pervasive feeling that something terrible is lurking just around the corner.
The atmosphere is definitely a big selling feature for me, but so, too, is Servant’s methodical pacing. Over three episodes, there has been no shortage of narrative progressive, but – unlike American Horror Story, which frequently barrelled through an entire season’s worth of plot in a single episode – Servant is content to take its time doling out revelations and answers. This is arguably where the series is most at risk of dropping the ball as it keeps teasing answers that may or may not be satisfying, but for now, I am all in on this ride.
So what do we have here? Initially it appears as though the series is focused on the grief of losing a child and the suitably creepy compromise that Sean has adopted in order to keep his wife sane. The marketing for the series leans into this idea by focusing on the uber uncanny lifelike doll that the couple keep in place of their dead son, Jericho.
Almost immediately, however, another mystery is introduced: Leanne, the successful couple’s new nanny who not only isn’t thrown off by the doll, but even goes along with the ruse by acting as though it’s real. By the end of the pilot, of course, both of these oddities have collided when Sean sees that the doll is now a real, live baby, which introduces yet another mystery to unpack. In the space of just thirty minutes (bless!), Servant had built up three separate mysteries to help carry the narrative forward and it does so almost effortlessly!
Terry, before I turn it over to you for your initial impressions, I do want to touch on the performances by Ambrose and Kebbell. Tiger Free is solid, but the confines of her character requires her to remain an enigma, so for now she’s doing well at being a giant looming question mark.
It’s the heavy lifting by the other two that I find impressive; particularly the portrait of a rocky marriage that feels achingly, authentically lived in. So often on TV and film, marriage is one of two things: picture perfect or on the cusp of divorce. Here Dorothy and Sean’s marriage is a tricky dance of jaded barbs, deflected sarcasm and the occasional tender moment. It’s murky and difficult and even awful at alternating times, but the messiness of Dorothy and Sean’s daily life is incredibly compelling to me.
I’ve long been a fan of Ambrose since her Six Feet Under days, but this portrayal of a career woman who cuts down her husband at every opportunity may be her best role yet. I can easily imagine audiences hating Dorothy and labelling her a bitch, but to do so diminishes the layered performance that Ambrose is giving. Is she prickly and difficult? Absolutely. She’s also constantly on the precipice of remembering some kind of trauma that killed her newborn six weeks before (most evident in the second episode which, between the cab and the lighting of the fridge door, I believe codes the incident as a car accident).
And then there’s Kebbell, who has always come across as a one-note villain in other performances (Planet of the Apes, Fantastic Four). If anything, this is the best he’s been since he played a similarly antagonistic, entitled asshole in the Black Mirror episode of “The Entire History of You.” Sean is Servant’s protagonist – for better or worse – and while his search for answers about Leanne and Jericho implicitly mirror our own desire for closure, I really like the fact that he’s not a good guy. His relationship with Dorothy’s younger brother, Julian (Rupert Grint) in particular, is fascinating: their multifaceted, duplicitous, “kid glove” treatment of Dorothy says a lot about how men react to “sensitive, hysterical” women.
Oh Terry, there’s so much to unpack! How are you feeling about Servant? Do you like these characters? And can we have a conversation about how Dorothy and, more specifically, Sean’s jobs are contributing to and/or subverting issues of domesticity and gender?
Joe, what a breath of fresh air! Based on the mysterious trailers that Apple had released, I wasn’t quite sure what we’d be getting with this M. Night Shyamalan-produced series. When Apple said they were going for that Prestige Television angle, this is the kind of content I was expecting.
The talent in front and behind the camera is staggering. You mentioned Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell, who are giving us some very subtle and nuanced performances as at-odds husband and wife and it’s true. I wrote in my notes “Role reversal — she shows up late from her job after he slaved away over ‘Hare Three Ways.’”
I love the way the script subverts the typical gender roles. We’re first introduced to the couple through an almost Myers-Briggs personality explanation. Dorothy “Confident Responsible and Determined” Turner works in the high stakes news business as a reporter while Sean “Spoiled Selfish and Critical of Others” Turner is an at-home chef who would feel right at home with Bon Appétit’s Test Kitchen.
Neither of them are completely likeable, though. Dorothy comes across as almost completely self-absorbed in her feelings and doesn’t really seem to give a damn about Sean. She even taunts him and flaunts the fact they haven’t had sex in a year, sneering that there’s “super young pussy in the house and you don’t want to fuck it.” But, Sean doesn’t exactly likeable, either. He continually denigrates newcomer Leanne, saying things like, “She’s staff, darling. Try to remember that.” They’re both fairly unlikeable and…I’m here for it? As you mentioned, their relationship feels achingly lived in and compelling and it helps ground the weirdness.
What I wasn’t expecting, though, is the odd sexuality that permeates the first three episodes. It begins with Dorothy’s Mastitis as Leanne discovers her, moaning in pain in the bathtub. And after an awkward moment, Leanne kneels next to the tub, reaches over and begins massaging Dorothy’s breast. As she grinds on it, Dorothy moans and figuratively climaxes with an orgasmic moan and a squirt of milk that looks vaguely seminal. The sexuality continues in the second episode as Dorothy has to pull literal splinters out of Sean’s ass while teasing him that there are men who like to be spanked and caned. And then, in the third episode, Leanne gets touchy with Julian.
The atmosphere is completely claustrophobic and I didn’t even know why until you mentioned that the entirety of the first three episodes are contained to the house. The only solace we get from the oppressively opulent home is through M. Night’s staple: reflective surfaces. We see Dorothy on the job through an anachronistic-looking television and we see Julian’s investigative exploration (more on this later, I’m sure) through FaceTime. Gotta get that Apple branding in!
The talent behind the camera matches the actors, too. Series creator and writer Tony Basgallop has worked on a number of television series (including EastEnders, What Remains and Inside Men) and, of course, there’s M. Night Shyamalan. But the interesting additions are cinematographers Mike Gioulakis and, for at least one upcoming episode, Jarin Blaschke. Gioulakis’ resume is horror movie heaven: Us, It Follows, Under the Silver Lake as well as working with M. Night on Split and Glass. Meanwhile, Blaschke, who is credited with one episode so far, worked with Robert Eggers as the cinematographer on The Witch and The Lighthouse.
Servant’s first three episodes are so tantalizingly intriguing that I honestly do not know where this show is going…and coming from AHS, that’s exciting. I wasn’t expecting the ending of episode one and what it does to the plot. Sean, our seemingly coherent “protagonist,” goes from being the skeptical entry point to being the character who seems to be losing his grip on reality. His discovery that the baby doll has become/been replaced by a real baby upends his world and his shock mirrors our own. But neither Dorothy nor Leanne seem to notice!
“Of course he’s real, silly! He’s always been real,” their looks imply.
The only wildcard is Dorothy’s foppish brother, Julian. It’d be easy to write off Sean’s predicament as delusional if not for Julian’s presence. You mention he treats his sister with kids’ gloves and it’s true. Neither of the men seem capable of truly helping Dorothy (if she even needs help), with Sean indulging in her “transitory object therapy” and Julian just completely dismissing everything. Both seem to think that she needs professional help, but neither seem all that frantic about finding a solution to her situation.
Whew. There’s a lot to unpack, Joe.
But back to you. What do you make of the wood motif of the second episode and the splinters that Sean literally chokes on? Did the way Sean and his assistant Tobe (Tony Revolori) prepare the eel make you as faint as it did Leanne? Is there something more to the way Leanne mimics the sexuality between Sean and Dorothy by caressing Julian’s crotch? And what about the vaguely ominous discussions Sean and Julian have about “what if she remembers” and “is this blackmail”?
No lie, that eel preparation reminded me of the de-gloving sequence in Gerald’s Game <vomit> Man, was that scene ever great!
I’m glad you brought up Leanne’s potential motivation, though, because as much as we’re fascinated by all of the technical elements, I imagine casual viewers will be most intrigued by the swirling questions that these first three episodes raise. Is Leanne merely a conwoman/grifter who has assumed the identity of a dead Wisconsin minor? Does she truly just want money (as her constant coveting of Dorothy’s jewelry could suggest)? Or does her cautious seduction of Julian and voyeurism of Dorothy and Sean’s intimate encounters suggest a more nefarious, mid-90s era Fatal Attraction style insertion into their lives. After all, Dorothy makes a big deal in ‘Wood’ about her concerns regarding a younger co-worker who fellated her way up the corporate ladder and she’s clearly threatened by Leanne’s youth and sexual innocence.
I’ll confess that I’m the least interested in that idea – if only because we’ve seen countless stories about a young woman sexually exploding a bad marriage to dangerous results. I’m hopeful that Jericho’s switch from doll to human, the mysterious fire and the Blair Witch-like nefarious religious effigy that Sean discovers in episode two hanging above the crib (which reappears in episode three) hint that the truth is more supernatural. After all, there’s so much that’s odd in the way that Sean coughed up splinters during dinner, or who changed the alarm code, or how Leanne’s application disappeared from the pile, or what really happened that claimed the life of the child.
My two surefire bets? 1) Dorothy will 100% remember at some point and 2) someone is apt to lose something precious down that damn garburator. Oh, and if we’re playing the long speculation game, I think that the house is some kind of purgatory – either allegorical or literal – and our protagonist Sean is actually dead. After all, those eels “don’t realize when they’re dead”, Terry.
What do you think Leanne’s end game is, Terry? What’s your most pressing mystery? And where do you think we’re headed next?
Nice catch with the dead eel analogy, Joe. I hadn’t thought of that. I have a feeling we’re going to be analyzing dialogue and framing choices a lot this season because it’s a M. Night-produced story and we all know he likes his twists and foreshadowing.
I have to believe Leanne’s end game is something on the supernatural side or, at the very least, there’s something more nefarious going on than a grifter storyline. Considering the genre tropes Servant is playing with and the fact that Apple has already renewed it for a second season, there has to be something more than the confined story that we’re currently seeing.
I can’t wait to see how the new information about Leanne’s past will play out. To answer your questions, though…I have absolutely no idea. And that thrills me.
Joe, I think we got a good one here. Right now, I’m just genuinely excited to see where it goes next.
Next week: We jump over to gaylydreadful.com for episode 4, “Bear.”