Spoilers follow for Episode 6
These last few episodes feel like the narrative is playing catchup, Joe. It started with parts of Episode 4 and then continued into Episode 5, where we see Apollo (LaKeith Stanfield) finally get to the island and spend time with the small village of women and children. He learns that Emma (Clark Backo) stole books from the library she previously worked at and to help build up the village’s meager library. We see where she was kept in the same cell as Apollo because he finds the poem scratched into one of the pillars. We hear that Apollo is “the god Apollo.” We learn everything about the town, the stakes, the witches and everything that’s been happening behind the scenes of Apollo and Emma’s tragedy.
And then we do it all again…this time from Emma’s perspective.
To say that these last few episodes have been frustrating might be an understatement. Not to beat a dead horse, but The Changeling seems stuck in the mud and I’m not sure why. Maybe it’s because the show is trying to condense what feels like a sprawling book narrative into a television series and it’s afraid of being obtuse?
Instead, it feels as if the narrative doesn’t think its audience can completely follow along with the story. So we get to see bits and pieces of Emma’s journey starting almost immediately from when she disappeared.
This structure gives us a few interesting nuggets, such as the reveal that Emma was there at the library when Apollo arrived with a shotgun in Episode 3. But more often than not, it’s re-revealing information we’ve already gleaned, such as seeing Emma rob her library to help Cal (Jane Kaczmarek)’s library. And we get Cal telling Emma that “no one short of a god could find this place” – a line we’ve already explored.
So much of this episode felt like catchup and aside from Emma’s obsession with a branch that was left in Brian’s crib and the revelation that at least one other mother on the island found soil and leaves and branches in her baby’s crib, Episode 6 doesn’t really move the story forward that much.
I kind of wish that the narrative stayed with one character, instead of splitting it like it does in these last few episodes. I’m torn, because on one hand it’s nice to see Emma have agency, but it certainly strips the narrative of any sense of mystery and it gives the series a rather patchy sense of pacing.
For all of our complaints about Episode 5, I did like the way it ended and I wanted to see the fallout of Apollo’s discussion with William (Samuel T. Herring). It felt like the narrative was moving into the endgame, only for it to pause and bring us back nearly to the beginning in order to catch us up with Emma’s journey. Not having read the book, I don’t know how closely the series follows Victor LaValle’s novel and structure but I do think something has been lost in the adaptation.
We do get some new characters and see different parts of New York City, so I’m curious, Joe. Did this episode work for you, or are you in the same, er, canoe as I am? What did you think of the Grand Central Community housed underneath Grand Central Station or the campy Wheels (Steve Zissis)? And why was Emma glowing at the end of the episode as she rowed off to find baby Brian?
So this is interesting, Terry, because I don’t disagree with you on any of the flaws you raise about this episode.
And yet, I think this is perhaps my favourite since the first few?
It definitely has something to do with the focus (almost exclusively) on Emma. She’s been presented as a mystery figure for most of the series because Apollo doesn’t understand her motivations, and, up until this episode, The Changeling has been presented almost exclusively from his point of view.
It’s true, however, that there’s virtually no forward advancement in the narrative. In fact, showrunner and writer Kelly Marcel seems to acknowledge as much when Wheels observes that there’s not much for Emma to go on when she declares her leads are a branch from a Norway Maple tree and a line from a children’s book.
It’s hard not to feel that we’re focusing too much on plot, which is part of why we’ve been so disappointed by the series for most of its run. There’s no easy way to divorce yourself from the expectations that the story should be moving forward, however; usually plot-lite series will offer something else, such as deep characterizations or a memorable visual aesthetic. The Changeling is well-shot, but isn’t exactly visually distinct, so that’s something of an issue.
I do, however, want to commend director Jonathan Van Tulleken for providing some visual flair in this episode. From the opening moments as Emma flees the apartment using the fire escape (shot from below as the ladder plummets down) to the fun 360 rotation of the camera as she moves through the drainage pipe into the “underground” world – there’s a little more showy camerawork than we’ve seen in other episodes.
The Grand Central station and Wheels is apt to be polarizing, I think. The fact that Cal is reading the island’s children Alice in Wonderland stood out to me, because so much of Emma’s journey, including the blue glow at episode’s end as she moves between liminal spaces/worlds, feels indebted to this kind of fairytale journey. Emma truly is an Alice proxy as she explores this new world: Wheels is something of a Cheshire Cat and Cal is something of a Red Queen (although it’s not a one-to-one correlation and the comparison falls apart the closer you look).
I…didn’t care for the Grand Central stuff. Wheels is a <big> character and Zissis imbues him with a larger than life personality that makes him stand out, but it feels tonally off from what the show is doing. Compare this vibe to the thriller/escape tone of the opening as Kim (Amirah Vann) helps Emma get to the island by literally throwing her off the ferry, and these are big tonal mood swings. I imagine this character will leap off the screen for other folks who are hungry for some levity and whimsy, but the Wonka-esque whimsy of the part of the episode stood out for the wrong reasons to me.
Still, at least I wasn’t bored with episode six, which is something that I was struggling with in the last few. Filling in Emma’s side of Apollo’s story isn’t revelatory by any stretch, but it finally allows Clark Blacko more to do than growl and look spooked.
With only two episodes remaining, one has to imagine that we’ll balance Apollo’s interrogation of William with Emma’s exploration of the trees of Little Norway. Even just typing that out makes me realize how slight this show is. As we make our way to the finale, Terry, perhaps we aim to put away our focus on narrative and see if that makes The Changeling go down a little more smoothly?
We’ll find out when we hop back over to Gayly Dreadful for episode seven.
The Changeling airs Fridays on Apple TV