Few shows strike such a cohesive balance of solid storytelling entertainment and wild shitty moments as the Apple TV+ comedy thriller. Servant. After an initial set of episodes that found the show struggling to deliver an “all mystery and macabre, all the time” mood, the show found a more solid framework for its story in season two by leaning into the absurdity of it all, and locating a constant dark humor in the characters and predicaments of this strange little family. Rarely does an episode end without delivering at least one delightful moment of “The hell Just arrived?!”
And while he still brings the humor into season three, the final set of episodes landed somewhere between the tones of the first and second seasons, splitting the difference between the original weirdness and the later laughs. One could say that this is the most “normal” season of Servant again. But on a show where, when a character actually smiles, it’s so rare for another to say, “What’s wrong with your face?”
The biggest change this season is how restrained everything is at the start. Here’s a show that had begun to feel practically Bates Motel-esque in its commitment to going beyond in as many different ways as possible, with no weird new narrative flourishes that are too bizarre, no emotional responses that are too out of proportion. But while the show periodically pauses for a larger-than-life setting, it adapts to a version of reality that’s much more, well, real. Everyone acts like a person with understandable and transparent thoughts and feelings.
For those who need a quick refresher (which is understandable): The first season involved the strange future nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) first arriving on her new employer’s doorstep to find that Dorothy and Sean Turner’s (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell) new baby Jericho had died in a tragic accident, but Dorothy was so in denial that she was treating a therapy doll as if it were her living, breathing child. Cue the big twist: The doll is inexplicably replaced with a real baby, and while Dorothy doesn’t even notice the change, Sean, along with Dorothy’s wasteful wealthy brother Julian (Rupert Grint), tried to get to the bottom of it. the seemingly impossible situation.
But after that inaugural year ended with Jericho once again replaced by a doll, Dorothy and Sean spent the entire second season frantically searching for their baby, believing him to have been taken by the same sinister cult that had once raised Leanne. There were mysterious implications of supernatural events and the hint of a power to raise the dead, but in reality Lost fashion, most of these bizarre elements were simply introduced, seemingly never explained. Jericho was fired in the finale, but no real answer came with him.
But while no big reveal about what it all means seems like it’s coming, the creative team has responded by crafting a much more tightly plotted story. In the first half of the season, it’s been three months since Jericho returned, and Leanne killed the woman who appeared to be his cult’s spiritual leader, hiding the body in the crawl space next to his bedroom. Things have settled into an almost prosaic normality, except for Leanne: she waits for her former secret society-turned-tormentors to impose their punishment on the family. So while Sean and Julian try to get her out of the apartment with trips to the park, doing everything to try to prove the nightmare is over and they’re all safe, she – and us, by extension – let’s wait for the other shoe to drop.
And what a painful wait it is. Each episode features a chilling turn of events that may or may not have something to do with Leanne’s justifiable paranoia about her sinister (and magical?) cult getting revenge, occasionally punctuated by a terrific laugh line. (Dorothy, after an unpleasant surprise, sees a group of guests flee their apartment in the night: “Come back, we have tres leches!”) And when the inevitable finally begins to happen, it is executed with dark efficiency. and disturbing.
While the first and second seasons were very much from a family perspective, season three really puts Leanne’s perspective front and center, which explains the less humorous and darker tone. Likewise, the family approaching normalcy means Ambrose can lean into Dorothy’s more subtle beats for a change, replacing his previous over-the-top outbursts with more traditional (and sneaky) privileged white woman behavior. And Sean and Julian’s weird bickering has softened in the face of Sean’s newfound happiness, resulting in unexpected witty changes, like Julian trying to procure a DNA swab from Jericho without alerting the parents. (“You just put that up the baby’s nose!”)
And, in a shift that should surprise anyone familiar with the claustrophobic insularity that defined those first two seasons, we’re actually stepping out this year. The camera passes through the once impenetrable front and back doors, following everyone to work, the park and, in a setting inspired by episode five, a neighborhood street festival. M. Night Shyamalan sets up the new aesthetic and its more moody tone in the first episode, before handing it over to his daughter Ishana Night Shyamalan to (capably, it must be said) write and direct the second installment.
It’s a clever contrast: fusing the brighter, more expansive color palette and shifts in location with a more restrained, narrow tracing, as if to balance the scales of the show’s multiple stylistic impulses. As the tension slowly builds from episode to episode, the pacing improves along with it, making for a pleasingly slow affair. Servant may have recalled the inspired madness of its second season, but by removing the campy bells and bizarro whistles, it found a nice mix of silly and sinister – a show that walks in, gooses the audience over and over with an acid smile , and gets outside.