Servant, the bleakest and most thrillingly deranged show on Apple TV+, returns for a third season Friday. The Turner family and their mystic nightmare nanny have finally turned some corners from which they cannot return. Now it’s time to see what the writers have planned for this gang of thieves, liars and sinners.
Director/producer M. Night Shyamalan and writer Tomy Basgallop’s brainchild turns three today — and I couldn’t be happier to attend the party.
Servant recap: ‘Donkey’
In season 3’s opener, titled “Donkey,” weird nanny Leanne (played by Nell Tiger Free) has conclusively split from the religious sect she grew up in. She did so against the express wishes of her Uncle George (Boris McGiver) and Aunt Josephine (Barbara Sukowa), the most virulent of the group’s emissaries.
While Leanne’s still on edge, the Turners are loving life, finally. Sean (Toby Kebbell), Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and her brother Julian (Rupert Grint) are just enjoying finally having baby Jericho in their care and not feeling guilty about everything they went through to get here, to be a happy family.
Previously on Servant
If you’re new to Servant, here’s some brief background: Leanne appeared to the Turners because they were in need of assistance, something the members of her religious order do. Dorothy lost Jericho shortly after his birth and mentally replaced him with a realistic-looking reborn doll. Sean and Julian didn’t have the heart to tell her she was doting over a fake baby.
And then one day Leanne somehow replaced Jericho the doll with an actual live baby. Dorothy didn’t act like anything had changed. Then Leanne disappeared with Jericho, and the Turners had to kidnap her to get them both back, which brought members of the cult out to get them. After a short battle, the Turners and Leanne emerged apparently victorious.
Of course happiness remains far, far away. Leanne can’t set foot outside for fear that retaliation for her dishonor awaits her. She’s also lost the ability to heal animals since her defection from the group. Julian keeps trying to break up with her (he’s technically dating another girl he met in rehab) but she won’t let him, also fearing that if he’s far from her sight, he’ll be hurt. (His almost being killed by a falling ceiling sconce seems to confirm spiritual harm lurks right around every corner.)
Dorothy, as always, is the only one who appears to be free of the grip of trauma and tragedy, even though this is mostly a finely honed act of willfully ignoring everything going on around her at all times.
It seems at first that Leanne’s being overly cautious … but then someone breaks into the house.
That old Shyamalan magic
M. Night Shyamalan returns to the director’s chair for this season-opening outing, and his touch is felt. There are stupendous camera movements throughout, from a couple of eerie, old-school zooms to forceful dollies and great use of negative and malevolently suggestive space.
Take, for instance, the episode’s last shot, in which a mannequin hangs just over Leanne’s shoulder while she stares intently at a moth. Or when she scans every FaceTime call that the Turners make on their vacation. Always in the far distance is some figure that looks like it could be spying on the family.
Between this season and the previous one, Shyamalan and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis released their movie, Old, which raised the bar for genre camera work, and it’s good to be back in their hands once more.
Weirdos for the win
The episode’s business this week is agreeably low stakes, focusing not on too much incident (though the burglary is a big deal). Instead, it shows what a day in the life of Leanne looks like. She journals, she double-checks the locks on the doors and windows, cleans them, and eats tomato soup in the basement (just over where she buried Aunt Josephine). And, at Sean’s beckoning, she drinks a whole bottle of wine.
This stuff showcases great work from Nell Tiger Free, who usually doesn’t get to have much “fun” as the dogged and easily spooked Leanne. Her drunken phone call to Sean’s assistant Tobe (Tony Revolori), with the bathing suit Dorothy bought her draped over her but notably not actually on her body out of fear of impropriety, is a highlight.
“Tobe … you wanna come over?” she asks. “Nobody’s here. I’m wearing a swim suit. It’s two pieces.” Magnificent.
The whole cast is great in unconventional ways. Indeed Ambrose, Grint and Kebbell seem out to see who can do the least-convincing impression of a human being — and that’s not an insult. It makes for great TV.
All in all, season 3’s opening episode gets us right back into the discomfiting world of Servant without throwing us in the deep end. I’m dreadfully excited to get back on this show’s wavelength. There’s nothing else like it on TV.
Watch Servant on Apple TV+
Season 3 of Servant premieres on Jan. 21, 2022. New episodes will follow each Friday.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.