This is a spoiler-free review of The Changeling, which debuts September 8 on Apple TV+ with three episodes. New episodes will premiere weekly through October 13.
The log line for The Changeling is almost laughably vague. “Apollo and Emma’s love story is a fairy tale – until Emma mysteriously vanishes. Bereft, Apollo finds himself on a death-defying odyssey through a New York City he didn’t know existed.” This, to put it mildly, does not begin to do justice to Apple TV+’s new LaKeith Stanfield vehicle, but there’s a very good reason for that. The Changeling is a lot of things – love story, fable, macabre horror – but at its heart it’s the kind of mystery box show that depends on a certain amount of information being withheld from its audience (information this review won’t divulge). This can be at turns thrilling, frustrating, and confounding, but undeniably comes to define the show.
At the beginning, things appear relatively straightforward, the opening episode concerned mostly with bringing together our two leads – Stanfield as Apollo Kagwa and Clark Backo as Emma “Emmy” Valentine – in what is, in a lot of ways, the kind of charming romance you might expect of an A24 movie. When things turn, however, they turn hard. This all starts after the birth of the couple’s son Brian – named after Apollo’s suspiciously absent father – and the subsequent depression and paranoia that grips Emmy. Things continue to unravel from there, as Apollo and Emmy sleep less and less and grow ever more suspicious of each other’s actions. This is all leading, ultimately, to the third and final episode available at the show’s premiere. It’s by far the best hour of the three (and perhaps the show as a whole), but it’s an absolutely gut-wrenching watch. The first two episodes might hint at horror imagery and themes, but this is full-fledged psychic dread in the purest sense. To say more would do a disservice, but this is undoubtedly the hinge point of the series, lending weight to everything that follows.
The Changeling Gallery
In many ways, The Changeling is in conversation with other Apple TV+ shows of its kind, most notably Severance and Servant. These shows, like The Changeling, consistently hide the ball from viewers, questions outpacing answers at a considerable clip. Mood becomes essential in these cases. We have to want to spend time in the unknown, to embrace the fact that we won’t fully know what’s going on now or maybe ever. There’s perhaps no better example of this than Severance, a confounding show where almost nothing is known concretely and yet humor, pathos, and secrecy are balanced shocking skill. The Changeling is trying a similar trick, to less successful results.
The overarching genre showrunner Kelly Marcel (Terra Nova, Fifty Shades of Grey) seems to be aiming for is a kind of magical realism. Much of this can be likely attributed to the source material, the novel of the same name by Victor LaValle (serving here as narrator), which aims to blend humanistic terror with modern-day folklore. It’s a tough tightrope to walk within the context of a series where flights of fancy and otherworldly asides are harder to render than on the page. One of the more frustrating aspects of the series lies in its inability to find, and stick with, a single mood, making it hard for the viewer to fully grasp not only what is going on, but how we’re meant to feel about it. Is the trauma presented during the many character backstories meant to be taken at face value? Should we give the same weight to the pulpier bits of horror as, say, the very real issue of postpartum depression explored in Emmy’s story? The Changeling largely leaves these questions unanswered, failing to settle into itself ever as it concludes its eight-episode run. The voiceovers, similarly, don’t do the series any favors, either further muddying the waters or plainly speaking themes the creators ought to trust the viewer to identify.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to like here. Both the score and direction, which embrace the more surreal aspects of the story, are a delight – especially in episodes helmed by veteran TV and film director Melina Matsoukas (Insecure, Master of None, Queen & Slim). Stanfield is excellent as Apollo, especially in the show’s quieter moments, which pull in tight on his face and rely on a performer of his caliber to ground the whole thing in something approaching relatability. The supporting cast is less reliable, the most notable being, perhaps, Samuel T. Herring as the increasingly inscrutable William Wheeler. Better known for his work as the frontman of synth-pop band Future Islands, Herring is giving one of the bigger performances in The Changeling, swinging wildly between stuttering loner and arch plot driver, sometimes losing the grip on his character.
Again, though, it’s hard to blame him for not quite knowing what kind of series he’s in, given the constant shifts happening around him and every other character. What’s most maddening is not any sort of ineptitude among anyone involved, but just how close The Changeling can come to genuine greatness before once again pulling the rug on everything it’s earned. It’s a show that, even five episodes in, has its protagonist asking several variations of, “What the hell is going on?”. The Changeling’s greatest weakness is that the viewer might ultimately lose the will to answer that question for themselves.