Julian says goodbye to one of the creepiest slow-burning TV series in recent memory.
No matter the medium, there’s a particular trope I love most when it comes to mysteries or horror. It’s a recurring element in everything from It Follows to Twin Peaks to The Leftovers; until Tony Basgallop and M. Night Shyamalan’s diabolical TV series Servant, my favorite usage of it was in Liam Gavin’s spectral summoning thriller A Dark Song.
The film follows a woman grieving the loss of her child and the occultist she’s hired to help contact him in the afterlife. Their conjuring relies upon mysterious, unexplained rituals whose “rules” are never fully explained. We trust that these opaque tenets are second nature to our characters, and the tension builds as something new is tantalizingly revealed through their reactions to success or failure. The revelation of what is happening, often by gradually confirming what isn’t happening, subsequently allows insidious new possibilities and directions to take root.
As a creator, to successfully pull off this trope is to demand of your audience a staggering degree of trust and faith in the world you’ve created. By simultaneously confirming and denying where a mystery is headed, the audience’s imagination is both subjugated and allowed to run wild. It’s a herculean task of tonal mastery, yet also one fraught with peril; one false move could betray hard-earned trust in an instant—moments that, despite their compelling highs, admittedly occur in the lowest nadirs of shows like Twin Peaks or Lost.
Like its central character, Basgallop and Shyamalan’s Servant has inexplicably lurked in the shadows of Apple TV+ for the better part of four years. The show’s relative anonymity deepens the impact of its myriad and shocking twists. The riveting, insidiously slow burn of Servant’s central mystery makes it a worthy contender for television’s most horrifying and emotionally rewarding series.
Servant’s premise is deceptively simple, revealing the dark secrets of elite media power couple Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell) after they take in the mysterious young Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) as a nanny for their newborn son Jericho. However, “Jericho” is actually a doll, a surrogate for their recently deceased baby. While Sean admits to Leanne that this charade is absurd, the doll is the only thing that’s brought Dorothy out of her previously catatonic state.
Leanne takes the doll immediately to heart, much to Sean’s surprise—as well as that of Dorothy’s philandering brother, Julian (Rupert Grint), who also holds secrets of his own. Leanne quickly reveals she is much more than she seems, able to control everything from the weather to bugs to human actions, apparently by chance. Her biggest act upends Sean, Dorothy, and Julian’s lives for better and for worse, as she uses the doll to resurrect a living Jericho.
Despite the joy of having his family back, Sean struggles to keep the truth about Jericho’s resurrection from Dorothy—and must conspire with Julian and Leanne to keep the reunited family on track as much as possible.
Across its four seasons, Servant effectively delivers its central mystery through half-hour episodes that deftly balance traumatizing tension and delightful absurdity. Basgallop, Shyamalan, and a roster of horror creatives craftily pick at viewers’s nerves, drawing out skin-crawling moments in surprising ways without leaving the confines of the Turner family’s Philadelphia brownstone. The series simultaneously creates a vast, shadowy world just beyond the Turners’s walls, where the ghosts of Leanne’s past manifest in the Church of Lesser Saints. Its members are drawn to Leanne like moths to a flame, with its most obsessive patrons placing their faith on full display (most notably the demonically bug-eyed Boris McIver as “Uncle George.”). Still many hide in plain sight, disguised as new neighbors, party clowns, or rival nannies, making any new character immediately suspect.
Meanwhile, Dorothy’s drive to live her life and raise Jericho continuously endangers Sean, Julian, and eventually Leanne’s facade from within. By turning any outsider into a potential threat, a paranoid tension is woven through every moment of Servant.
In an unparalleled coup for the show, the directors who brought these moments to life rank among the best horror filmmakers. Among Servant’s ranks aren’t just Shyamalan and his daughter Ishana, but Raw and Titane’s Julia Ducournau; Goodnight Mommy and The Lodge’s Veronika Franz and Severin Fiala; Kitty Green of The Assistant; and Carlo Mirabella-Davis of Swallow, among many others. Each of these directors masterfully navigates the delicate tonal tightrope required of Servant’s four consistently claustrophobic seasons, eliciting gasps of humor and horror in equal measure. It’s a feat that few shows have been able to accomplish in even one season of hour-long episodes, let alone over 30 short minutes per episode across four years.
What truly sets Servant apart is that despite being billed as a horror-mystery series, the revelations within the show itself come at an excruciatingly slow drip over 40 episodes, and usually without climactic scenes of expository dialogue. Rather, the show’s biggest clues come in the form of contradictory actions or inexplicable moments of the fantastic. Can Leanne’s actions be tied to Sean’s inexplicable loss of taste or feeling, the appearance of a sinkhole in the Turners’s basement, or the death of a family several towns away? By beginning with its biggest magic trick of infant resurrection, Servant invites viewers to find tentative metaphysical links between actions and contradictory reactions. By doing so, cryptic characters like Leanne and members of the cult pursuing her are able to commit whatever impossible feats we can imagine.
However, Basgallop and Shyamalan are careful to ground whatever chaos they wreak within the realm of the real. Whether it’s the accidental lopping-off of a finger or the revolt of farm animals at a backyard birthday party, Servant’s strangest moments are infinitely more so because they may not be seen as strange at all. All the while, the characters who seem to know most in any given situation wholly trust the unseen machinations at work. With them as our metaphorical life raft amidst such unnatural goings-on, we have no choice but to surrender ourselves to their faith.
Moment by moment, the creators plunge viewers into the depths of a family’s warped reality, one where their normal actions are forever tainted by the possibility of paranormal forces working both for and against them. While we remain hopeful that Leanne’s true nature will eventually come to light, Servant earns enough of our trust over time that such answers feel increasingly superfluous within the larger emotional stakes of the show. That said, Servant’s creators don’t pull punches when it comes the show’s scant yet effective revelatory moments, which force us to re-contextualize the show in disturbing new ways.
In that same vein, though, Servant recognizes just how vital lighthearted absurdity can be when it comes to sustaining its narrative tension. I’m among the camp that loves the weird specificity of some of the character beats in Shyamalan films, including Rufus Sewell’s obsession with remembering the title of a Jack Nicholson/Marlon Brando collab in Old, the stilted yet sincere provincial dialect of The Village, and Knock at the Cabin’s usage of KC and the Sunshine Band’s “Boogie Shoes” as a bombastic yet subtle affirmation of faith. While those moments may polarize viewers, Basgallop and his collaborators turn those absurd anecdotes into one of Servant’s lifeblood elements. In a world full of paranoia-fueled performance, these dips into the uncanny land with even more sincere and unorthodox hilarity.
As the show progressed, my wife and I were bowled over by the strange human interest stories Dorothy covered as an intrepid investigative reporter, each one coupled with a strange signature sign-off and grimace to the camera. Sean can always be counted on to drop everything and experiment with some strange cooking method or ingredient (those eels!). No matter how tense things may become in the Turner home, Julian will always view such boggling events from his ivory tower (“Those midwest dead eyes. It’s not my fault all cults look the same. Put on a pair of sunglasses or something. Spice it up.”) Bev and Bobbie (Denny Dillon and Barbara Kingsley) become rival nannies to Leanne, introduced at the fever pitch of Dorothy’s late battle of wills with her captor; both women’s grandmotherly doting feels both homely and alien, as if Ruth Gordon from Rosemary’s Baby went through a mitotic split while preserving her caked-on makeup.
Servant’s best moments, however, are borne of Sean, Julian, and their co-conspirators’ efforts to maintain the illusion of a carefree, happy family while keeping grief and dread barely under the surface. It’s a rich and relatable paradox of human behavior mined for all its worth throughout Servant’s runtime, one that exposes the sincere pain and perseverance at the heart of the series.
That push and pull between denial and acceptance—of the mysteries of faith, of the dark acts we’re capable of committing in the name of love and family, of belief and its corruption—is ultimately what makes Servant such a provocative and irresistible watch. The threat of the unknown, of what dark forces may underpin each character’s actions, is only compounded by their unpredictability in how they will fight back to retain their status quo. Servant is a show that, for all its horrors, recognizes that the embrace of the truth in all its forms is something both terrifying and necessary. Even scarier than confronting the truth is thinking about who we’ll become once we do—but there is still the hope that what lies ahead will be for the better.
Servant aired its series finale on March 17. All four seasons remain available for streaming on Apple TV+.