Apple TV+ is back with a highly anticipated new series this September. The Changeling is a horror fantasy that might fill that Servant-shaped hole in your viewing schedule, but having watched all eight episodes of this thing, I reckon you’ll want to go into it with a little warning: it’s really, really good, until it isn’t.
The Changeling features acclaimed Judas and the Black Messiah star Lakeith Stanfield as Apollo Kagwa, who is a god. At least, that’s what he keeps telling us. It gets pretty annoying well before you start losing count of the times he’s said it, and it’s downright infuriating during one particular scene. The used book dealer had a pretty messed up childhood, though, which grants him a decent flow of empathy from us, even when he’s making our blood boil.
As the only child of a single working mom and a father who was mysteriously cut out of the picture, he’s living in a bit of a naive fantasy bubble as an adult, where the future is wide open and he can still become the hero protagonist of somebody’s story. When he meets librarian Emma (Clark Backo) and falls madly in love with her, he can’t wait to be the father he never really had by immediately starting a family.
Emma is equally smitten with Apollo, but tells him she’s off on a trip and won’t be back for a while. When he finally sees her again, Emma has a red string around her wrist, and tells Apollo she made a deal with an old witch at a waterfall. Three wishes will come true as long as no overconfident man who regularly refers to himself as a god decides to suddenly cut the string off her wrist and announce that he’ll be the one to make all her dreams a reality, thankyouverymuch. Wait, Apollo, no! Goddammit, Apollo.
The fallout from this simple act is pretty bonkers. The first three episodes of The Changeling, now streaming on Apple TV+, are honestly really damn intriguing, well made, and full of ambition. But that ends up being the problem. From episode four onwards, The Changeling takes a sharp left turn into silliness and never gets close to hitting the high of those first three installments. In many ways, that’s thanks to its admirable dedication to the source material. Victor LaVelle’s patchy 2017 novel of the same name also starts out strong but leaves you with the acute sensation that you almost read something truly great.
Like the book, the show also seeks to take you into a weird fairy-tale world via a busy New York City, whether that’s underground, out on the water, or within the grimy confines of the internet. Creator Kelly Marcel (Fifty Shades of Grey) and the whole team do an admirable job of it. The Changeling looks and feels expensive, with some really incredible production design and stellar performances by Stanfield and Backo that manage to sell an increasingly daft plot before it completely overwhelms them, especially in certain scenes that focus on the couple’s sleep deprivation and fear.
But after such a compelling and brutal start, none of the schlocky stuff that follows feels particularly perilous or fascinating. It’s a glossy stroll into B-movie folk horror territory that unfortunately doesn’t offer a satisfyingly engaging journey for either Apollo or Emma, and The Changeling is so determined to see the book play out on screen that it doesn’t take enough liberties with LaVelle’s story in its quest to build a dark fantasy around the realities of motherhood or postpartum depression, both of which the show dabbles with but doesn’t seem particularly interested in addressing beyond a certain point.
The Changeling is worth a look because Stanfield and Backo are as terrific as you’d expect, and spending eight episodes watching the pair of them play with this weird, messy material may well be enough to keep you onboard. There’s just a very real chance you’ll be deeply, deeply annoyed by the time you get to the end of it.