The stars of “Servant” have admitted to not knowing what exactly it’s about, so why should the viewer? Billed as a psychological thriller, created and written by Tony Basgallop, and executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan, it’s more of a series of riddles wrapped in mysteries, inside enigmas. Those who’ve been just as mystified, expecting a third season to answer the many questions it’s raised, or at least a deeper dive following the supernatural events of the Season 1 cliffhanger, will be terribly disappointed.
“Servant” follows Philadelphia couple Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell) Turner (both great in their mystifying performances) who are living in a seemingly eternal nightmare after the death of their newborn son, Jericho. Dorothy refuses to believe her child is dead (however the viewer chooses to define “dead”) and uses a so-called “reborn doll” to cope with the loss. Chaos and seemingly otherwordly occurrences ensue when the couple invites mysterious nanny Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) into their home to care for the “child.”
Like the first two seasons, the third season confines the action to the house of this upper-middle-class couple. The tension is built in a claustrophobic environment where viewers are unsure of what the threat actually is. But that’s both the series’ strength and frustration. It derives most of its suspense in its ambiguity by never giving straightforward answers, which is anathema to the average viewer who prefers closure of some kind; questions answered, not more questions prompted.
At least adjacent to the horror genre, “Servant’s” premise is simple but potentially terrifying and draws from the worst nightmares of parenthood, and the predictable unpredictability of city life, offering a sense of leisurely domesticity, but also detachment.
Fascinated by biblical stories as likely to be created by atheists as by believers, faith has always been instrumental in “Shyamaland.” From “The Sixth Sense” and on, religious symbolism has been worked into every narrative. A Google search of the Apple TV+ title, “Servant” (a catholic term used to indicate someone on track toward possible canonization), and the name of the baby “Jericho” (well, Google it), he may as well have called the couple “Mary and Joseph.” But there’s a non-specificity and lack of finality in “Servant” that, as someone raised as a Catholic myself, offers little in terms of “Servant’s” dark tales, examinations of isolation, and the need for meaning.
Suffering has long been associated with sainthood, and Leanne, her faith both intriguing and naïve, may just be on track to sainthood with her preternatural spiritual experiences, including her partaking in self-flagellation, prompting the polemics of victimhood and power.
And seemingly themselves broken, the couple shows an empathetic interest in Leanne’s religious beliefs, and soon she is convinced she’s found her godly mission — to protect the family from those she believes will bring them harm, or something. With each failed attempt, her loss of control leads to her own crippling inner turmoil — and the viewer is meant to learn more about who this young woman really is and what she’s capable of. Is she the caregiver from heaven, hell, or elsewhere?
There’s tension, mystery, jumpscares, questions upon questions posed with really no answers. Is it an act of destruction in order to create? Metaphoric ideas of violence? The hedonistic lives of a wealthy family and how they mask their realities with a facade that their wealth allows them to create?
The viewer is forced to imagine what world this house and these people exist in. The dark shadows, color intonations, and melodramatic framing give the sense of being trapped in an effed-up miniature.
Who knows? It keeps viewers guessing about whether its cast is psychologically maladjusted or actually in communication with the divine. And at some point, viewers will start to wonder whether they care, because there’s no closure. It’s a series created so that it can go on forever for that very reason.
The slow burn serves as its own payoff, and nothing more. Toss in a dash of food porn that isn’t handled as effectively as in a superior series like “Hannibal,” it’s intriguing, but its non-specificity opens it up to various interpretations, and YouTube “explainers” about what it may or may not mean. And that steady accumulation of crises ultimately amounts to little.
To its credit, “Servant” is a series that belongs to Nell Tiger Free and Lauren Ambrose. Both give wonderful performances as women who are easy to overlook and underestimate. The interplay between them is layered, and viewers will wish there’d been more.
Its basic premise is enticing enough to resist. But it just doesn’t advance it, as successive episodes — each 30 to 40 minutes long — add more suspenseful elements to the story. At first, it may appear that the couple has become so overwhelmed by their grief that they are sharing an illusion. But the picture is totally disrupted by the shenanigans that follow the introduction of characters like Julian, Dorothy’s younger brother, played by Rupert Grint. From there, it becomes a narrative house of mirrors, as the viewer is prompted to question the effectiveness of each character’s motives and secrets before yet another potential season-ending twist, the kind of which Shyamalan has become infamous.
“Servant” Season 3 premieres Friday, January 21 on Apple TV+. Episodes will be released weekly.