‘The Changeling’ Has a Fresh, Nightmare-Inducing Premise
Based on the novel of the same name by Victor LaValle, and written and adapted for the screen by Kelly Marcel, The Changeling is described as a “fairy tale for grown-ups,” and for good reason. The eight-episode series is a dark, fantastical, and at times horrifying exploration of parenting, love, and the unexpected obstacles that come with it. Obviously, given the fantasy horror elements, this show takes the idea of “everyday obstacles” to the extreme. But at its core, this show is actually very grounded and deals with difficult-to-discuss themes in a palatable and nuanced way.
Taking place in New York City (well, a version of New York City), the series follows Apollo (played expertly by LaKeith Stanfield), a rare book dealer who spends any free moment he has pining after librarian Emma (Clark Backo), who is numb to the oddball characters that walk in and out of her place of employment on a daily basis. In a rom-com style montage of sorts, The Changeling takes the time to show Apollo’s doe-eyed, harmless (though at times, a bit incessant) attempts at getting the calm, cool, and collected Emma to go out with him. It’s a bit of a Peter Parker/Mary Jane situation, with Stanfield effectively selling the insecurity of his Apollo as he fumbles over words and takes the repeated rejection like a champ. When Emma inevitably agrees to go to dinner with him, he almost can’t process it, setting the stage for what is an incredibly charming date.
Okay, so what is so nightmarish about any of this? Absolutely nothing…yet. The slow burn of it all in the first couple of episodes is a smart move, as we’re able to soak up the chemistry between Stanfield and Backo. Their first date is one of the best scenes of the series, as it is so well-crafted and strategically written to both tease what’s to come and give us more insight into how they see the world around them. It’s clear by their effortless rapport (and the trailer) that these two will end up together and start a family, which is actually where the horror of it all comes in.
Apollo has always wanted to be a father, especially because he wanted to give someone the childhood he never had. Not only did his father leave him, but he was mostly alone, as his mother was working tirelessly to make ends meet. One day, his father leaves him a box filled with various items, among them a book of enigmatic fairy tales involving babies and witches, that, little did Apollo know, would be haunting him into adulthood. We don’t get too much time to see the happy couple be…happy during this time. That’s because, soon after the baby is born, Emma and Apollo argue and are on emotionally different planes. Emma’s exhibiting what is initially believed to be postpartum depression, and while Apollo wants to be there for his wife, it’s hard to connect with her when she’s also saying she’s getting text messages from a stranger that conveniently disappear when she goes to show Apollo. At the end of her rope and overcome by a mysterious force, Emma makes a horrific decision and then disappears, thrusting Apollo on a maddening journey for answers.
LaKeith Stanfield Carries the Complicated Plot With Ease
The show feels a lot like the HBO series Watchmen in that it comments on heavy topics (in this case, depression, parenting, and technology, among others) in exceptionally unique ways, remaining grounded and realistic despite the obvious indicators that we’re dealing with non-human entities. The otherworldly elements permeate the plot (we get peeks at Emma’s solo trip to Brazil, and how the people she meets play a part in her story) without overpowering the story, and cleverly has the novel’s author, LaValle, serve as the narrator, adding an eerie, yet oddly comforting literary feel.
While The Changeling never ceases to be wholly captivating, there are a lot of loose threads to keep track of. For most of the season, Stanfield is pretty much on his own, desperate for clues and answers as to what came over his wife, and where she could possibly be. It’s very tricky to dive into real specifics, as each episode and flashback chips away at what is actually going on, incorporating a new character or setting that answers our questions ever so slightly. Backo and Stanfield anchor their own separate storylines, with the times they are together reminding us of how nicely they play off each other. Stanfield’s proven his excellence in projects such as Atlanta, Sorry to Bother You, and Judas and the Black Messiah, but The Changeling allows him to show off his immense range even more. Over the course of the eight episodes, he’s everything from charming and loving to traumatized and furious. He’s someone you know will protect you, and yet, wouldn’t want to cross.
The set design and performances by the supporting cast are also important to note. Allison Price plays the Guard, a leader of a secret island in New York City that plays a pivotal role in Apollo’s quest for answers. She exudes confidence and is equipped with charisma, making her deep discussions on life and meaning with Apollo a joy to watch. Samuel T. Herring’s loner character enters Apollo’s life—and refuses to leave it—for a variety of unexpected reasons, serving as the glue in a lot of ways to Apollo’s regular life and its fairy tale elements. His performance is downright freaky and unpredictable, very much giving off a Jack Torrance in The Shining energy at times. Jared Abrahamson’s Brian, Apollo’s father, is shown in flashbacks that almost feel like they deserve their own story, which is a testament to his earnest performance. Steve Zissis gives us the most whimsical performance of the show as Wheels, the de facto leader of a community that gives Emma much-needed direction. His living arrangements (for lack of a better word) are breathtaking, and everything about him gives the show the playfulness it needs.
As hinted earlier, The Changeling starts to feel slightly directionless, or rather, it’s being pulled in too many directions. But interestingly enough, it’s self-aware in that it knows a lot is going on, and that a lot of it won’t pay off until the end. In Episode 5, Stanfield’s Apollo literally says, “What in the actual fuck is going on?” when the Guard explains Emma’s potential whereabouts: “She is out there, Apollo, and there are things that must be understood before you go out there, too.” The pace accelerates in the final two episodes, which borders on feeling rushed, though the series is doing its best to both satisfy certain storylines and tee up an even more fantastical Season 2. Though not every plot point gets the payoff (or answers) it deserves, The Changeling is an engrossing and unnerving adaptation, as well as a welcome addition to the genre.
The Big Picture
- The Changeling is the most daring and unconventional show yet for Apple TV+.
- LaKeith Stanfield’s performance as Apollo is captivating and showcases his immense range as an actor.
- While The Changeling may feel slightly directionless at times and not all plot points receive the payoff they deserve, it remains an engrossing, unnerving, and welcome addition to the streamer.
The Changeling debuts its first three episodes on Apple TV+ on September 8, with one episode each week thereafter.