M. Night Shyamalan produces an idiosyncratic ghost story whose reality is far from settled.
Haunted house stories have always been my favorite. There’s something so thrilling and unsettling about a place that feels and reacts to the people that occupy it. As I got older, I learned that haunting could mean many things. It could mean memory. It could mean joy, despair, humor, or fear soaking into the brick and mortar or reflecting our experiences back at us. If you look at it that way, isn’t every house haunted?
Servant is a haunted house story. The Dwell-worthy brownstone newscaster Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) shares with her celebrity chef husband Sean (Toby Kebbell) serves as the setting for four seasons of the show, only rarely venturing past the front door. M. Night Shyamalan and creator Tony Basgallop launched the AppleTV+ series months before the world locked down due to the Covid-19 pandemic. While the Turner home is beautiful, there is a claustrophobic air to its tightly-wound staircase and crawlspaces. It exudes a restlessness that comes from the feeling that you’re always being watched.
And the Turner home is haunted, not by spirits or ghosts but by a grief so vast and terrible the only way to live through it is to pretend it doesn’t exist. Even in flashbacks to a time before, it remains haunted by the many positive pregnancy tests in Dorothy’s nightstand, a reminder of failed pregnancies she couldn’t carry to term. Each stick is carefully labeled with a child’s name in black marker, making that drawer her little cemetery. It seems utterly morbid, but as someone who has lived through two miscarriages, Dorothy’s drawer of despair resonates deeply. It isn’t the end of the pregnancy that’s so gutting; it’s the death of hope that kills you.
And that’s the cheerful note that Servant kicks off with, a house haunted by the death of a child and the precarious sanity of its occupants. Dorothy, for her part, has completely blocked the memory of Jericho’s death following her shock-induced catatonia. But echoes of the event constantly threaten to pull her back under. When a friend gives the Turners a lifelike infant doll to help cope with the loss, Dorothy emerges from her catatonia. She firmly cements herself in delusion, believing the doll to be the real Jericho. Unwilling to let her slip away again, Sean plays along, assisted by Dorothy’s alcoholic brother Julian (an excellent Rupert Grint).
Enter Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free), a strange young woman hired as “Jericho’s” nanny. Leanne seems to float sylphlike through the Turner home, fully aware but unbothered by the ghosts that linger. Leanne knows what has happened—is still happening—to Dorothy and Sean but seems all too happy to play along. Until the end of the pilot, that is, when Sean discovers that doll Jericho has somehow been replaced with a real, living infant. Leanne’s devotion to Dorothy, Jericho, and her odd, definitely-not-a-cult (it’s totally a cult) religion gives her a whiff of Saint Maude, complete with flagellating.
What follows is deliberate and methodical and, above all else, tense tightrope-walking. In play are Dorothy’s fragile sanity, the house’s slowly eating itself, Julian’s warring mistrust and attraction towards Leanne, and the strange sect determined to bring her back into the fold as brutally as possible. Shyamalan’s signature style translates well to the longer form of television, each half-hour episode doling out more questions for every answer it gives. The Hitchcock references shine through in Servant’s look: innate paranoia and voyeurism (even a twisted bit of humor) set against the elegant trappings of WASPy opulence.
While Leanne’s arrival serves as Servant’s catalyst, the show’s heart is Dorothy—her denial, guilt, and grief. Ambrose won critics’ hearts with her portrayal of Claire Fisher in Six Feet Under, and her work here is no less laudable. Dorothy (appropriately nicknamed Dottie by her husband and brother) is desperately frail yet oddly repellant, spouting rich, white ignorance with little to no self-awareness. Servant revolves around Sean and Julian’s desperation to keep Dorothy from going catatonic, even if that means keeping her rooted in delusion. Over time, the lies, evasions, and omissions pile up, and Dorothy grows frayed and paranoid. She knows her house is haunted but can’t quite see what is doing the haunting.
Servant carefully unwraps new pieces of the Turner home and newer, more outlandish conflicts throughout its seasons. The strange religious sect that seems to dabble with death and resurrection, Dorothy’s increasingly erratic behavior, and Sean and Julian’s guilt over leaving a postpartum Dorothy alone with an infant all collapse into one tight space. By the end of season three, Servant feels more like an attempt to put the toothpaste back into the tube. There’s too much and not enough space to hold it.
As Dorothy’s mind slowly begins to repair itself, her distrust of Leanne grows until she is trapped in her own home by her own family. “This house is filled with parasites,” Leanne’s Uncle George says at one point, and it’s unclear if he’s referring to the Turners, Leanne, or the actual parasites chipping away at their elegant facade.