When Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell)'s son dies at thirteen weeks old, they adopt the transitive object therapy of caring for a baby doll in its place. The Servant, written and directed by M. Night Shyamalan, tells the creepy story of Dorothy going back to work after maternity leave, and hiring Leanne (Nell Tiger Lee), a religious girl of mysterious origin, to care for their surrogate son...
...Based on the trailer alone for this new Apple TV+ series, I pegged M. Night Shyamalan’s new series as a classic uncanny valley doll horror movie like Annabelle or Child’s Play. So far, it is not that.
Or rather, it’s not only that: there is a doll, and it lives(ish) in the uncanny valley for sure. It’s not a person, but it is so close to being alive that it makes anyone who looks on it very uncomfortable.
Essentially, the doll stands in for the child that the couple lost, and while the doll itself is creepy, the way the characters act around it is what really seals the audience’s discomfort. It’s marked by nearly-claustrophobic shots at the dinner table, in deep focus, where Dorothy tries desperately to seem normal as her foodie “bon vivant” husband downs his glass of wine from their cellar in successive gulps.
Sean divulges to their new nanny that his wife’s “unlicensed quack doctor” labels the “reborn doll” as “transitory object therapy.” Though he’s dismissive of the therapy, he obviously hurts over the sudden death of their child (at thirteen weeks old. Are we supposed to think that’s a coincidence?). He’s upset at having to rationalize his wife’s weird grieving process while simultaneously grieving, himself. Grief is hard to depict accurately because everyone experiences it so differently, but portraying this character as unlikeable was a very wise move. In a weird twist of intuition and reaction, the audience realizes that Sean acts like such a jerk because he’s devastated. Mr. Turner is cruel to the doll in an effort to seemingly remind himself that the doll is, actually, not his son, Jericho. He lets its head hit the edge of the crib, holds it as he weeps in the night, drops the doll in the kitchen as soon as his wife hands it to him. Which is when the camera pans ominously to the nanny who watches in her nightgown from the top of the stairs.
I should note that the audience does not even see the doll, Jericho, until a third of the way through the episode. The premiere begins with Leanne Grayson arriving at the Turners’ home in New York City from Wisconsin to care for their newborn… the newborn that has died, and who has been replaced (in physicality) by the reborn doll. She is, as Mr. Turner notices, young and weird. In this viewer’s opinion, she’s what would happen if Carrie and Merricat Blackwood had a daughter.
It’s not only her pallid complexion, conservative dress, and long dark hair parted down the middle that makes her strange, but Sean peeps on her while she prays at her bed in a transparent nightgown. I thought this was the point at which I would check out. For sure, throughout history, Christians have been responsible for as innumerable tragedies as any other fundamentalist religious group, but as a practicing Christian and believer, I hate it when horror films—or any film—portrays religion negatively. Any religion. That rising protest was squashed in me, though, when Leanne’s prayer becomes audible. Though it sounds like she recites the Lord’s Prayer, we hear her say only “hallowed be thy name,” and more than once. That’s not how that prayer goes. My interest was piqued, as was my suspicion.
What’s more is—and I’m getting into the meat of the episode here—Sean pricks his finger when he pokes through Leanne’s stuff. Although we appreciate this poetic justice at his snooping, the cross he extracts from her drawer is not the aesthetic you see on most walls. It looks like one of those must-be-possessed cornhusk dolls at a craft fair, but also like something out of True Detective season 1. It looks sinister… and it’s not mounted on the wall over the bed, where it should be.
Another trope of the horror film that presents itself in this first episode is, of course, the young hot nanny and the older hot dad. Dorothy calls this into question at the very top of the episode, which I appreciated, and Sean does snoop on Leanne, but it does not seem much like he’s physically attracted to her so much as resentful of her presence and also distrustful of her innocuous appearance. He doesn’t trust her from the jump, when she won’t celebrate with a glass of champagne. Dorothy, on the other hand… well, there’s an uncomfortable scene between them that, while not overtly sexual, is intentionally shot to make the viewer believe that it is sexual. I’m sure that it serves a purpose in the plot or character development of the season, but that scene was the only one that seemed gratuitous to me. But, like I said, maybe it was supposed to be. I’ll give it the benefit of the doubt!
An additional element that this episode does well is incorporate the score with the movement between sets, blocking, and scene breaks. In combination with the lighting, it grabs the viewer’s attention, makes us dim the lights in the living room and pay attention because we know it’s about to be thrilling.
Though I have my ideas about the trajectory of the plot, Shyamalan is the king of the deus ex machina, so I can’t wait to see what web he weaves from this twisted premise.
Servant premieres through Apple TV on November 28th.
By Mary Kay McBrayer