The M. Night Shyamalan supernatural horror series Servant is better if you stop trying to figure out what’s going on.
Say what you will about Apple TV’s Servant, but give it credit for its audacity. We’re three seasons in, and the series, executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, remains as clear as mud as to both what’s happening, and to where it’s all going to lead. Not since Twin Peaks has a TV show been so dedicated to being completely incomprehensible. Watching it is like being led down one path, only to be violently jerked toward another. “No, it’s not about that, you silly goose,” it says. “It’s about this.” Until it becomes about something else. Season 3 throws less things at the wall to see what sticks, but things remain frustratingly opaque.
Providing a rundown of everything that happens in the first and second seasons would require a PowerPoint presentation, so let’s just touch on the most important parts: wealthy new parents Sean and Dorothy Turner (Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose) hire the sinister Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) to be the nanny for their infant son, Jericho. Jericho, however, is actually a doll, because the real baby died accidentally, but the deeply disturbed Dorothy does not acknowledge this. Shortly after Leanne’s arrival, Jericho the doll is replaced by an actual baby, whose origins are never explained. Then, at the end of season one, Leanne leaves the Turners, taking Jericho with her and once again replacing him with a doll. Season two involves the Turners looking for Jericho and Leanne, who are now living in a cult. Leanne eventually returns with the baby, only now he’s the real real Jericho, apparently brought back from the dead.
Got all that? Anyway, it’s now three months later, and the Turner household is trying to return to some sense of “normalcy.” Though you’d think after everything they’ve gone through since hiring her Sean and Dorothy would issue Leanne a polite termination letter and send her on her way, bafflingly she’s still in their employ, taking care of baby Jericho when she isn’t wandering around the house in a daze or collecting dead bugs in a medicine cabinet. After escaping the cult, she’s become both agoraphobic and paranoid, as well as angry at what she perceives as Sean and Dorothy’s inability to protect her. Jericho might be the baby in the household, but it’s Leanne who now requires the most coddling and fussing over.
Dorothy, as she’s been from the get-go, is too focused on her career to acknowledge that by allowing Leanne to stay in her home she’s putting her child in grave danger. Sean, whose entire character thrust is behaving and reacting to things in perplexing ways, also seems content to let Leanne continue to be Jericho’s primary caregiver, even though in earlier seasons he seemed more than anyone else to be aware of the strange things happening since her arrival. For reasons which (you guessed it) are never explained, he takes an interest in a group of homeless teenagers camped out across the street from his house, even allowing them to come in, in spite of Leanne’s increasing paranoia, let alone everything his family has already experienced.
Dorothy’s brother, Julian (Rupert Grint), is the only person who openly acknowledges that the situation can’t continue. His primary goal is to prove that Jericho isn’t Dorothy’s biological child, but Leanne is always one step ahead of him. Whereas initially she seemed to be a meek survivor of a traumatic past, now Leanne seems to be both a mind-reader and a sly manipulator, always knowing exactly what to say to people to get what she wants. She also seems to now have the ability (whether directly or indirectly) to cause things to happen (a gruesome kitchen accident, a rogue beehive splitting open) that ultimately isolate Sean and Dorothy and force them to become more dependent on her. Is Leanne a witch? Are these events coincidences? Do they not have anything to do with Leanne at all? It’s not clear yet, and if previous seasons of Servant are any indicator, it might not ever be.
Servant is not a great show. It is, however, an interesting one, with pacing that relies on the audience hoping that eventually everything will be explained. This seems unlikely, considering just the sheer number of plot threads that have been presented and then almost immediately dropped (four episodes in and there’s been no mention of the woman Leanne murdered and hid at the end of season 2), but it’s fascinating to watch a show in which even the writers don’t seem to know what’s going to happen from one episode to the next.
That is, of course, impossible, but it does create a distinct sense of who even knows what the hell is going to happen next that makes the viewer keep coming back, perhaps against their own best judgment. Leanne and Dorothy playing a game of “Who’s the More Dangerous One?” keeps things crackling, even when the show resorts to one too many moody shots of the Turners’ massive, winding staircase. How many more times will baby Jericho be swapped out like a lawn chair, and where are all these spare infants coming from? Will we even ever know who the titular servant is, and who (or what) they serve? It remains to be seen.
As has been the case from the beginning, Lauren Ambrose dominates the rest of the cast as Dorothy, terrifying in both her pathological denial, and her Joan Crawford-like devotion to keeping up appearances. Though she’s taken a slight step back from the abyss this season, her maniacal, glassy-eyed grins still reveal the insanity just bubbling below the surface. Dorothy’s brain, aided in no small part by her idiot husband and brother, has played a breathtakingly cruel trick in convincing her that her son never died in the first place. Eventually the truth will out itself, and when that happens it’s likely to be more horrifying than any sort of cult or witchcraft nonsense. Or it may not be. Servant may decide to suddenly start being about something else instead.
Season 3 of Servant premieres on Apple TV+ Friday, January 21st.