The final chapter in the story of the Turners has begun with the fourth and final season of Apple TV+’s twisted series, Servant. When the psychological thriller from co-creators M. Night Shyamalan and co-creator Tony Basgallop launched in 2019, it was initially known for being the “creepy baby doll series,” then quickly evolved into much more. Over three seasons Servant has proved to be a masterclass in chaos, consisting of visceral thrills, human drama, intrigue and humor, all from inside the confines of a seemingly All-American family home.
In the series premiere we met the Turners, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean (Toby Kebbell), a couple who has recently suffered the most traumatic experiences imaginable, the loss of their infant child, Jericho. The inexplicable heartbreak leaves Dorothy unable to cope, filling the void of the lost child with a realistic baby doll. For Dorothy this is more therapy, she has no recollection of Jericho’s death and believes the doll is her infant son. Sean and his brother-in-law Julian (Rupert Grint) do what they must to keep this illusion going out of fear popping the emotional bubble of denial would shatter Dorothy. The family even hires a live-in nanny, the mysterious Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to help her tend to the child. Imagine, all that just covers some of the series’ first episode.
Three seasons later, the Turners have gone through a hell of a lot; the suspicious substitution of of doll Jericho with a human baby (a swap that poor Dorothy is oblivious to), feuding cults, otherworldly occurrences, murder, infestations, dismemberments, an overdose, an unexpected romance, and much more. It would be an understatement to say the series raises the bar on the number of twists and turns you can anticipate from an M. Night Shyamalan project.
At the center of the series is the often tumultuous relationship between Dorothy and Leanne – an odd couple with potentially deadly implications. It has transformed from an almost mother/daughter bond to an All About Eve-like struggle for power with a supernatural twist. Where it is all leading remains unclear, but the journey there has been deliciously dark. During season three’s cliffhanger finale, the tension between Leanne and Dorothy reached new highs (and an all-time low, literally) leaving Dorothy broken on the floor after a several story plunge down a stairwell.
As season four starts, many of the burning questions viewers have had from the beginning remain intact. What’s the deal with Leanne and is she there for good or for evil? Will Dorothy ever realize her infant Jericho has died and if she does how will she handle it? Whose human baby are they caring for? What is the ultimate mission of the cult and what does that mean for the future of Leanne, the Tuners and the world? Why is the house deteriorating and are the damages covered under their homeowner’s insurance? While it could be frustrating, the unanswered questions often take a back seat to the manic moments that fill every day over on Spruce Street.
That is perhaps the series’ biggest strength, how it strings viewers along, wanting to learn the answers to the bigger questions at the same time keeping us invested in the smaller day to day of each character. Episode one of the new season titled “Pigeon” directed by Dylan Holmes Williams starts with the mundane; Leanne baking a cake to celebrate Dorothy’s return from her three month hospital stay. What could go wrong? That question is quickly answered in the most Servant way possible with the reveal of an intruder in the house. As she runs outside to escape him the situation escalates into a heart-racing extended set piece sequence exploding with paranoid dread where every passerby is sus.
Do they want to cause Leanne harm or is it all in her head? The anxiety-inducing tension works thanks to Free who has really come into her own as an actress over the last two seasons. While the scene does connect to one of the series’ bigger mysteries, all that is temporarily forgotten as the isolated terror of the situation grabs you by the throat and has you gasping for breath – something the series has really mastered.
By using a director of the week approach for the series Shyamalan constantly keeps things fresh. Ranging from the established to up and coming new talent, directors like Kitty Green (The Assistant), Carlo Mirabella-Davis (Swallow), Ishana Night Shyamalan (Night’s daughter who has directed and co-written a handful of episodes) and Shyamalan himself have all taken the helm bringing their own bag of tricks with impressive results. Adding to the mix this season, each episode pays homage to the films that influenced Shyamalan. Hitchcock’s The Birds, Stephen King’s Misery, and Capra’s Arsenic and Lace kick off the season in clever fashion. You cannot but wonder what nods await me throughout the remainder of the season.
From day one Servant has taken full advantage of its largely singular claustrophobic setting, a beautiful Philadelphia townhouse. Composer Trevor Gureckis’ unsettling score accompanies the top-notch voyeuristic cinematography, which compounds the eerie mood adding to the sense of unease. The camera often provides a spectral perspective, pushing through closed windows, creeping around corners, passing through wall cavities where all sorts of unsightly things can be found from termites to decaying bodies. A low angle shot chasing cracks across the foundation of the Turner home is reminiscent of something found in Sam Raimi’s Evil Dead series. The home itself now serves as a metaphor as behind its luxurious facade it begins to deteriorate before our eyes.
As the Turner home gets more and more unhinged, a pressure release is needed otherwise the series may implode under its own weight. This is where Servant sets itself apart from others puzzle box mysteries series, through its ability to not take itself too seriously. Injected touches of ridiculousness and humor help to temporarily take the edge off, making it easier to swallow and letting viewers know as dark and tense as the series can be, this is about being entertained – all while playing its drama straight.
Many of those moments of release come through Grint whose comic delivery seems to improve with each season. Whether it is bouncing the perfect deadpan one-liner off his scene partner or his panicked reaction to uncovering a box of unstoppable vibrating adult toys (don’t ask) he has been up to the challenge. He may be the series’ secret weapon, adding some levity while also being able to nail much more emotional moments as seen in season two where details surrounding his guilt over Jericho’s death are revealed.
Season four looks like it will lean heavily on the completely unpredictable moments that fans will eat up. A prime example is in episode two when Dorothy wakes only to find Leanne, the person she blames for crippling her, shaving her legs. In any other context of any other series it would be just too plain bizarre, but on Servant it somehow works by finding the right blend of about 80% disturbing to 20% farcical. By finding that balance it keeps viewers off balance, opening the door for just about anything without making it feel out of place. You don’t know if you should laugh or be terrified. In doing so Servant has carved out a niche all its own. There’s nothing else quite like it on television.
The season four surprises do not end with unrequested leg hair maintenance. Only three episodes there have been massive bird attacks, stomach turning bed bug infestations, and just until you meet Bev (Denny Dillon) and Bobby (Barbara Kingsley), the new live-in nurses there to help Dorothy get back on her feet. They come across as comic relief, but with Servant you always need to keep your suspicion radar on full power, because even the most innocuous of house guests may be harboring secrets of their own. The fact that they conduct a seance may just be a tip off… or a misdirection. You never know what to expect.
One thing Servant fans have come to expect, and with good reason, is the exemplary performance of Lauren Ambrose, who has been absolutely brilliant as Dorothy from season one and continuing right into season four. The actress knows her assignment and continually delivers striking just the right tone at all times. As often seen in the twist-filled series, what you see on the outside is not always what lies beneath the surface – this goes for Dorothy as well. Ambrose has mastered the art of delivering a faux smile while behind her character’s eyes you can see there is much more going on.
This season a bedridden Dorothy is much more vulnerable than ever before as she recovers from her horrific fall. It is hard to take your eyes off Ambrose as she projects both Dorothy’s strength and her underlying fragility all at once. At the same time she is not afraid to go big, making a grand season four entrance, wheeled in behind large dark sunglasses as if possessed by the spirit of a 1940’s Hollywood film star – the only thing missing is a long cigarette. She completely pulls it off.
Let’s not forget Ambrose’s incredibly expressive facial acting. This is something I have been wanting to mention since season one. I first noticed it during a scene where Dorothy goes to get something from the fridge only to freeze in a trancelike state in the glowing light for an uncomfortable amount of time. It may sound simple, but I found it absolutely mesmerizing, took note and watched for more examples of such. Ambrose delivered again, episode after episode, across an array of emotions and situations.
I cannot recall another actor can consistently convey so much through her eyes and nuanced expressions, often with so little as a word. Luckily for her (and viewers), Servant showcases the talent by providing her character with plenty of drama and through the stylistic cinematographic choices. Use of close camera shots give us a front row seat to the subtleties of her acting artistry. The greatest Shyamalan twist to come out of Servant would be Ambrose receiving a much-deserved Emmy nod.
Season four of Servant is off to a strong start, embracing its strengths and giving viewers more of what we want. It never overstays its welcome with easy to consume 30 minute episodes that thrill, scare, mystify and will make you laugh, but mainly always keep you wanting more of the darkly twisted family saga. My captive interest will alway be the struggle between Leanne and Dorothy. At some point this season Dorothy will finally have the inevitable heart-wrenching revelation that her real child has died. I am not sure I am ready for that, but it is the emotional climax we deserve.
As we head toward the show’s final turn things look to be spiraling into potentially biblical levels of madness. The best part is we still have no idea how it will all conclude, because we have been conditioned to expect literally anything. This accomplishment is something that could only be pulled off under the conduction of a maestro of mayhem like Shyamalan. Could we possibly even get a happy ending? Will we get the answers to all or any of the questions? Three episodes in I have my doubts they will be able to, or even try to, tie up all the loose ends.
Servant has been a hell of a ride and season four promises there’s more where that came from. I am sad to see it coming to an end, but I look forward to spending the remaining anxiety-enducing days with the Turners.
The first three seasons are now streaming on Apple TV+. The fourth and final season just debuted globally on Friday, January 13, 2023 with episode one. The remaining episodes of the 10-episode season will drop every Friday, concluding (on my birthday) March 17th. Happy Birthday to me.