Servant heads off to the carnival this week as Apple TV+’s show about the madness lurking near a Philadelphia brownstone nudges crisis ever nearer to nanny Leanne and the Turners.
Writer/creator Tony Basgallop and director/producer M. Night Shyamalan prove once again they have a real eye for talent as this week’s hired guns do incredible work building an unyielding atmosphere of discomfort and discovery.
Leanne is finally ready to let her guard down, and the people watching her seem to know it, but who’s watching who, exactly? There’s still an open question about allegiances — and it’s about to get more complicated. There will be blood … and funnel cake.
Servant recap: ‘Tiger’
In this week’s episode, titled “Tiger,” Dorothy (played by Lauren Ambrose) helps throw a block party just in time for a new crop of homeless watchers to appear in the park across the street. They keep track of Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) for her cult, or so it seems.
Certainly that’s what Leanne thinks is happening. She steals furtive, terrified glances at them through every window. She is scared to leave the house, and she’s scared for any of the Turners to leave the house without her supervision. She’s afraid of someone.
Sean (Toby Kebbell), Julian (Rupert Grint) and Dorothy are, of course, blissfully unaware of the eerie goings-on. Sean is excited that he can make ice cream with his own tank of liquid nitrogen for the neighborhood kids and the homeless youths that spook Leanne.
Dorothy — upset that the network sent a rival anchor, Isabelle (Molly Griggs), to cover the block party — tries to co-opt the broadcast. She cloyingly swoops in and insists on giving the camera a tour of everything so Isabelle can’t get a word in edgewise.
Julian tries to warn Dorothy off of appearing on camera with Jericho, what with their kid very obviously the center of a conspiracy. But when push comes to shove with Dorothy, her image comes first.
Still, Julian is adamant: What if someone sees? Of course they don’t need to see her on TV. They’ve been watching them the whole time.
Sean’s secret spills
Meanwhile, Sean has a secret of his own, which Julian uncovers by accident. He’s been going to a Unitarian support group run by a priest (Carmen M. Herlihy). Nancy is her name, and she introduces herself to Dorothy without Sean’s permission before he can control the situation.
Dorothy invites her to dinner, then marches over to Sean and makes him explain himself. There’s some question about whether the church is the right thing for young Jericho, especially considering the pagan cloud hanging over them. Sean wants to raise Jericho with religion, which Dorothy hates. Dorothy wants to put Jericho in her arms on TV, which Julian hates. Lot of mixed signals for Jericho this week.
Leanne gets her face painted after seeing other young girls doing it and is overcome with jealousy at their normalcy and joy. While she has her eyes closed, she’s visited by … something. Whatever it is that touches her face frightens her and sends her running into the crowd looking for the culprit. But she just sees the circus-tent atmospherics of the block party.
Leanne’s in a foul enough mood to yell at Isabelle when she overhears her gossiping with a neighbor about Dorothy. Isabelle then googles Leanne and discovers that she’s officially missing, which gets the wheels in her head turning. Maybe there’s a story there … and maybe Isabelle could bolster her career and destroy her biggest rival at once? That would be pretty sweet.
Leanne tries to have a nice day anyway, meeting up with Tobe (Tony Revolori) and dancing and playing carnival games. However, she stumbles into the back of a food tent and sees some people from her cult warming up a knife over an open flame. They run her down and seem like they’ll catch her but then … something happens.
You’re half a tiger
Antlers writer C. Henry Chaisson handles script duties on Servant this week. Relative newcomers Celine Held and Logan George (who directed Ambrose in The Vanishings at Caddo Lake, releasing soon) direct.
Together they make a little folk-horror-inflected funhouse ride for Leanne. While everything else appears normal, and everyone gets on with their petty business (best shot on that score is a cutaway of Julian pouting while shoving funnel cake in his mouth after Sean yells at him to let Dorothy live), Leanne’s having a nightmare of a day.
It’s Midsommar in 25 minutes, without the irritating ponderousness and self-importance.
The tiger face paint motif meets a satisfying endnote after a chase scene indebted to Apocalypse Now, complete with expertly deployed spinning camera. This is probably the strongest episode of Servant yet, but again it’s almost ridiculous to quantify something like that because the episodes work so well to build a coherent whole.
The date day with Tobe is also handled with a kind of knotted-stomach sensitivity, so it’s not all doom for Leanne this week. I’ve greatly enjoyed the handling of the thread of Leanne’s womanhood this season. It’s great fun watching her ricochet between her old, close-minded ways and finding something like a cover song of Dorothy’s femininity to practice in her spare time.
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New episodes of Servant arrive on Fridays.
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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.