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Apple TV+'s The Changeling Lets Down Its Flawless, Profound Performances

When it comes to pop culture criticism, few things are more frustrating than a TV series with an intriguing premise and great performances that lacks the cohesion and structural discipline to be great. Created by Kelly Marcel (whose track record of scripting “Fifty Shades of Grey” and “Saving Mr. Banks” does not exactly inspire confidence), “The Changeling” is based on Victor LaValle’s novel of the same name; the author narrates each episode of the series, though his monotonous voice doesn’t help the storytelling. The book is very much worth reading, but throughout this eight-episode TV adaptation, it becomes increasingly clear that certain themes and ideas are too figurative to be translated effectively on-screen. Add to this a clear disregard for pacing, and you wind up with a series that's both too drawn out to be properly scary and too short to resolve plot points with the care they deserve.

“The Changeling” favors a non-linear structure, so the courtship and married life of Apollo Kagwa (LaKeith Stanfield), a book appraiser, and his librarian wife Emma Valentine (Clark Backo) are depicted in parallel to both characters’ traumatic childhoods. Apollo’s father, Brian West (an excellent Jared Abrahamson), was an abusive police officer whose instability made life hell for his wife, Lillian Kagwa (the always wonderful Adina Porter); a house fire rendered Emma and her sister Kim (Amirah Vann) orphans when they were children. Compelling visuals abound in both stories, but aesthetically, there’s not much difference between how the series films New York City in the 1970s and the present day; not until smartphones are introduced into the story do we realize we’re moving between two separate eras. Still, riveting performances and gorgeous cinematography go a long way to establish the continual impact of generational trauma, and much of the credit for this belongs to executive producer and pilot director Melina Matsoukas (“Queen & Slim”), whose influence on “Insecure” made the show a joyful weekly treat for the senses.  

Various events, including their inherited childhood trauma, foretell doom for Emma and Apollo’s married life, but none as hauntingly as the former’s journey into a Brazilian jungle. At a secluded lagoon, which she was warned not to visit, Emma meets a woman with all the hallmarks of being a witch: a telltale cackle and different-colored eyes. As the great Stevie Wonder once sang, “When you believe in things you don’t understand, you suffer.” Emma and the woman’s conversation forever alters the course of her and Apollo’s life; upon her return to New York, the couple marry, and Emma gives birth to a boy. But Baby Brian doesn't latch, sleep, or do anything except wail. Emma starts to disintegrate and questions whether this is even her son or whether the entity cradled in her arms is human. She’s bombarded by texts featuring photos of Apollo and Brian that Apollo didn’t take; these disappear when she tries to show them to Apollo, who is bewildered by her behavior. 

What initially seems like postpartum depression becomes more and more sinister until the fine line between fact and dark, decidedly non-Disney fairy tale is erased. I applaud the series for asking gnarly, timeless questions: Can the overpowering anxiety and fear of parenthood override all our instincts, or is our gut still trustworthy? How do the decisions of others impact our free will? And, of course, the all-time classic Philosophy 101 chestnut: Is free will an illusion?

Eventually, Emma’s devastating descent into madness triggers both her and Apollo’s quest for answers about their son. The actors give the roles their all: Backo goes from weepy sleeplessness--the dark circles under her eyes practically dragging her down into the ground--to demented determination with alarming precision. She holds her spine and shoulders in ways no one should; even the arrangement of her lank hair is a horror story. 

In my notes regarding Stanfield’s performance, I wrote “EYES.” Most of his directors—Jordan Peele and Boots Riley in particular—know the immense power of Stanfield’s big brown eyes. Whether trembling with suppressed fear in “Get Out” or gleaming greedily during telemarketing calls in “Sorry to Bother You,” Stanfield’s eyes communicate entire universes without a word. The roster of directors on “The Changeling” use this to the series’ advantage, zooming in on Apollo’s shocked joyous eyes upon learning Emma is pregnant, only to dovetail it with the terrifying desperation of a father confronting his worst fear. Alas, the profundity of Stanfield’s performance is let down at nearly every turn by the writing and direction. 

Though this is mostly Emma and Apollo’s story, Adina Porter, as Lillian, just about walks away with the entire show. Episode six explores the motivations and interiority of Lillian’s heartbreaking life—survivor’s guilt, leaving behind Uganda for America under tragic circumstances, and the stressors of being a working black woman in a white-collar setting with no one to care for her child are each explored with love and agonizing detail. Porter sings, she weeps, and she communicates Lillian’s humanity with a presence that can only be described as flawless. Monsters may loom in the forest and abandoned subway tunnels and online that are excited to victimize your child, but low wages, domestic violence, the lack of subsidized childcare, and mental illness are just as insidious and much harder to avoid than the creepy forest or the far end of the subway platform. Lillian’s storyline is interesting enough to deserve its own show, a phenomenal examination of the immigrant experience in America, the deleterious effects of capitalism, and the alienation of single parenthood. You could just watch the sixth episode of “The Changeling” and get more out of the experience than sitting through the entire series. 

To give credit where it is due, each episode takes risks, whether with camera framing, narrative devices, or acting choices, but the editing does not create a tight, finished product. Most baffling of all is the episode run-time. Episodes 1-7 range from 45-50 minutes, but the season finale clocks in at just 29 minutes. This is likely the production’s way of angling for Season Two since the eighth episode does not cover the entirety of LaValle’s novel. But given how rushed everything feels by episode eight, “The Changeling” misses out on the chance to be a tightly constructed series. Instead, it's yet another mediocre offering from Apple TV+. 

All of Season One was screened for review. The first three episodes of "The Changeling" are now playing on Apple TV+, with a new episode premiering each week. 

Nandini Balial

Nandini Balial is a film and TV critic, essayist, and interviewer.

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