Each week, Joe and Terry discuss Apple TV+’s new series The Changeling, based on the novel by Victor LaValle.
Spoilers follow for Episode 4
Missed a Review: Episodes 1-3
Ohhh Terry, this is messy, messy stuff. I appreciate that The Changeling is telling a cyclical, adult fable/fairytale, but Episode 4 is struggling pretty mightily with its tone. We’re talking about conspiracy theorists, social media stalking and trolling, Rapunzel, and an island of renegade women in the East River.
It’s…a lot. And I’m honestly not sure how well it comes together.
Full confession: this is the middle of the series, so it could very easily be a transition episode. Those first three episodes were setting up the foundation of the story, introducing Apollo (LaKeith Stanfield) and Emma (Clark Backo)’s fairytale romance, their miracle A-Train baby Brian and then the horrible events that befell them.
At one point in Episode 4, Apollo meets with Emma’s older sister Kim (Amirah Vann) at their familiar Chinese food place and she explains that it “wasn’t supposed to happen like this.” That’s one of the themes of the show that I’m vibing with the best; this idea that there’s some kind of preordained path that our lives are meant to take and what happens to the people who stray off that. This show is filled with characters like that, and – specifically in this episode – that’s Apollo and William (Samuel T. Herring).
William is a perplexing character. Introduced in episode three as the unusual man filming the grief support group, it’s pretty clear early on that he’s more than a bit shifty. Then he turns out to be the buyer of Apollo’s $70,000 To Kill A Mockingbird. Then his own family dynamic is on the rocks, then he’s a conspiracy theorist, then he’s a boat nut.
It’s all just a little “off.”
Unfortunately The Changeling doesn’t seem to know when there’s weird and when there’s simply too much (spoilers: William and the whole Isle of Battered Women is the latter at least in a single episode). The character feels less authentically real because he’s too many unusual characteristics at once, even if his motivations feel eminently relatable.
In a lot of ways, William and Apollo are mirrors of each other: dads who struggled to do their best (as though there was a metric or an instructional manual) and who have seemingly paid the price. They both display self-destructive tendencies in how they run (or rather: boat) into danger and there’s an obsessive quality to their pursuit of their wives and lost lives.
It *should* be compelling, but somehow William feels too much like a television construction; he’s more of a plot mechanism than a proper character in how he hides the truth from Apollo or makes vague declarations (such as the final line about everyone on the island dying).
But Terry, I wonder how you felt about Episode 4? Did you like the cyclical way that Apollo wound up revisiting important locations in his and Emma’s relationship (the diner, the bridge)? Did the emotional beat when he threw the wedding ring and replaced it with a variation of the red string bracelet deliver for you? And what are your first impressions of Cal (Jane Kaczmarek), the mysterious – and violent – leader of the Wise Ones?
I had issues with the way the horror was treated back in Episode 3 and this episode kind of cinched the deal for me, Joe. I don’t think the straight-up genre side of things work as well here as the more emotional and grounded story. Sure, the way Episode 2 spooled out its increasing paranoia and vanishing texts was genre, as well, but it was much more subtle; genre was used as a way to explore Emma’s crumbling psyche and the paranoia of parenting a constantly crying baby.
When it leaned heavily into the horror, Episode 3 fell apart for me.
It’s the same thing here. Halfway through the episode, I literally took the note “transition episode,” so I was amused to see you had the same thought. These types of episodes are hard to pull off, particularly when a show is precariously balancing heavy themes while also attempting to move into the supernatural side of things. I think you hit the nail on the head when you said it was too much, too soon.
So much of this episode was…well, messy as you stated. The first eleven minutes was devoted to selling the book and learning the (somewhat fake) history of William, Gretta and his two daughters. I immediately thought he had to have more importance to the story, simply because of how long the narrative stayed with him.
Some visual storytelling unfolds here, too, because the boat William ordered through his BoatBnB app was named Child’s Play – a film about a creepy, possessed doll and a kid who is thought to be something he’s not (mainly a murderer). And William’s wife name…Gretta. Well that brings to mind Hansel and Gretel and the witch who wanted to eat them.
We’re still obviously digging deep into fairy tales here.
Even William makes mention of his Norwegian heritage, bringing to mind more fairy tales, as well as having a connective tissue with The Changeling’s use of Norway in the opening episode.
But we’re still reeling from William’s weird revelations when we meet what seems like a post apocalyptic society run by Malcom in the Middle’s mom. I laughed going back over my notes because the Narrator (author Victor LaValle) asks if we’d know if we passed over into fairy tales from the real world. Episode 4 resoundingly says, “yes. Yes we would.”
Regardless of whether this island lives in a fairy tale world or our real world, we’ve certainly left the metaphorical real world for one that feels very disconnected from the rest of the story. I think the character beat of Apollo throwing his wedding ring into the bay and replacing it with the red twine also signifies the character–and the narrative–pushing deeper into the fantasy.
About the cyclical nature of the story…this is something I should be vibing with. I usually love it when narratives continue to hone in on events in the present and the past to play with concepts of free will and predestination. Like you, I really enjoyed Apollo’s comment that it wasn’t supposed to happen like it did. But I think there’s just way too much in this episode, particularly coming from the previous three in which the narrative was so focused on a handful of characters.
The one thing I could definitely do without a repeat is Apollo continuing to proclaim he’s a god.
Back to you, though, Joe. I just couldn’t get over the fact that Malcom’s Lois was leading a band of apocalyptic women, but I’m curious if her character and her use of Rapunzel worked better for you? And while the episode was devoted to William and Apollo, we did get some intriguing shots of Lillian (Alexis Louder/Adina Porter) with a red suitcase…any thoughts of what she was doing there or what was in the suitcase? Also we see more of Lina, the “new member” of the Survivors Club…what is her story?
I did kind of like that we saw Lina there – if only because it reinforced that William isn’t the only duplicitous person leading Apollo astray. Lina’s repeated proclamations that her baby isn’t a baby was obviously meant to reinforce Emma’s similar declaration and suggest that there was something supernatural at work; here it seems like there’s an entire secret society actively trying to deceive and disarm folks.
If we leave behind our challenges with the transition from the grounded reality of the series for this more heightened, fairytale reality, there is something Alice in Wonderland to all of this. The boat passage to the mysterious island is definitely delivering the God Apollo (ugh) through the looking glass, and while these supporting characters aren’t exactly characters, they’re definitely active agents in Apollo’s to find his wife (and, perhaps by extension, the truth).
Kaczmarek is definitely an unexpected choice to play a women’s survivor group, though I think she makes a striking and imposing impression. It was pretty surprising how violent her beating of William was, even if it stretched the boundaries of credibility that he managed to survive, never mind broker bargains with Apollo for his life.
As for the marionette stuff? Umm…yeah it was fine. It definitely serves to reinforce the “fable” aspect of both Apollo’s journey as well as the series’ broader themes, but by this point in the episode, I’ll admit that my patience and attention were wavering. It all just seemed too unfocused.
But that’s also why I’m interested to see the next episode. If 4 is the big swing transitional episode, then perhaps we’re over the hump OR, as an audience, we’ll already firmly be in the headspace to focus on this otherworldly narrative because we’ve already been introduced to Cal and the prison island?
But Terry I’ll kick it back to you to take us home: I don’t have a ton of insight into Lillian’s suitcase, though the vibrancy of the colour made it seem deeply symbolic. Do you think there’s a bomb in there (metaphorical and/or literal) that will tear the island apart? Will Apollo work with William or Cal or no one at all? And, if you had to guess, what was Emma’s final wish?
Man, Joe. Just toss over those grenades, why don’t you? I can’t even hazard a guess on any of them, honestly. The third wish, for instance. The only thing I can think of is that maybe it was about Apollo. So far, this entire show has been about Apollo and his lineage and how his parents kind of messed him up. I could see Emma’s wish being something selfless, like maybe to bring Apollo peace. That’d have significant thematic weight, given everything he’s been through in the last four episodes.
The thing that jumps out at me about Lillian and that suitcase is that maybe she was heading to the island to buy back Apollo. We’ve seen glimpses of Apollo’s dad Brian swooping in with the implication being he stole the kid. With The Changeling’s focus on mirrored/circular storytelling it would stand to reason that Apollo was once kidnapped by the fairies, as well. And maybe that suitcase was the bribe to get him back. It’s interesting that it sits at the bottom of the bay, though. Did she decide not to go through with it? Is the Apollo we know actually a fairy that had replaced the human baby?
Lots of questions, very little answers. But it’s also these questions/answers that keeps me going, even when the plotting feels a little circumspect or the horror/genre pieces don’t quite gel perfectly for me. I think The Changeling was smart to focus so hard on Apollo, Emma and their lineage in the first few episodes because that emotional core is going to pull me through these mishaps.
I hope, as you mentioned, that this is just the tipping point and what follows makes me forget about the problems I had with this weirdly paced episode.
We’ll see next week when we’re back at Gayly Dreadful.
The Changeling airs Fridays on Apple TV