“Servant”: An Editor’s Review
Updated: Mar 2, 2020
Even though I’m not generally a fan of horror, I subscribed to Apple TV+ specifically to watch “Servant.” Its high-concept premise was irresistible: a mother and father who tragically lost their infant son replace him with a lifelike doll, then hire a nanny to watch the doll—but once the nanny shows up, the doll seems to become a live baby again. Yikes!
Nell Tiger Free does a great job as the creepy nanny, and the parents (played by Toby Kebbell and Lauren Ambrose) are satisfying emotional basket cases. I’m completely hooked on the show, but the compelling plot, solid acting, and delightfully eerie cinematography can’t quite conceal one of the fundamental problems with the storytelling: the all-important aspect of characterization.
In the writing business, parents Sean and Dorothy are what’s known as “TSTL”: too stupid to live. As horror-genre characters, they’re hardly alone in their affliction; the genre is infamous for hosting characters who ignore ominous scraping against the car roof, trip over prominent tree roots while running from werewolves, or fail to observe that a surprise visitor is showing obvious symptoms of being undead. Sean and Dorothy’s stupidity comes with a unique twist: they behave like contemporary adults who have somehow never seen a horror movie and are utterly unable to observe that things are getting freakin’ spooky.
(Warning: spoilers ahead. Lots of spoilers.)
Let’s start with the moment when Sean realizes the doll likeness of his late infant son, Jericho, has been replaced by a living human baby. Fairly quickly, Sean surmises that the child must have been kidnapped by the nanny, Leanne. This is reasonable; the typical adult would not leap to the conclusion that a baby that appears in their home must be a demon, perhaps not even when the nanny is decorating the nursery in crosses from Target’s Blair Witch Project collection and giant splinters appear to be attempting to kill him. For her part, Dorothy doesn’t notice a difference between the doll and the live baby, which is consistent with her characterization as a mother unhinged by grief.
Soon, though, Dorothy’s brother Julian (portrayed by a fantastically grubby-chic Rupert Grint), at the encouragement of Sean, makes a trip to Wisconsin to dig up dirt on the strange nanny. Which he does almost literally, since he discovers a headstone with Leanne’s name on it, as well as those of her parents, not far from Leanne’s burned-out home.
This is where it starts getting weird. Sean is already alarmed by the appearance of a mystery baby in his home (yet calling the cops is, somewhat disingenuously, out of the question). He’s suspicious enough of Leanne that he sent his brother-in-law on an errand to uncover her backstory. Now here’s her name on a tombstone. Sean, apparently not one to indulge thoughts such as “our teenage nanny may be one of the undead,” determines that the nanny has instead stolen the identity of the deceased girl, and that the baby is most likely her own child, possibly from some sort of rape/incest situation—which she is now passing off as Jericho to Sean’s vulnerable and grief-stricken wife.
This does not add up very well, since Leanne evidently was not told before her arrival that she would be offering childcare to a doll, so she would have had no reason to believe that she could sneak in her own baby in place of her employers’. And also, the entire point in sending Julian to Wisconsin was to figure out what’s up with Leanne, and that effort has now revealed—as far as Sean understands it—that the girl living in his home is actually a scam artist—perhaps one with sad and sympathetic motives, but a scam artist nonetheless. They don’t know her real name, her age, the baby’s origins, or her motives for gaining entry to their lives—and there are lots and lots of possibilities there that would result in lots and lots of criminal liabilities. Even accounting for Sean’s fears about Dorothy’s fragility, the situation is clearly untenable, and I feel like the average person, concerned with self-preservation, would do two things at this point: (1) say, “Wow, that’s creepy! This is turning into something out of a horror movie,” and (2) fire the nanny. Possibly with a police officer at hand to escort her out.
But that’s not what Sean does. He just keeps her around. Leanne, meanwhile—not content to play the role of Wednesday Addams-as-babysitter in every episode—at first aims for some character development by drinking wine, trying on Dorothy’s makeup, and playing the seductive siren, but then quickly snaps back to the prayerful innocent when the plot requires it. If the goal is to keep the viewer asking, “who is Leanne Grayson, really?” then that’s all well and good, but her sneaky assertiveness feels conveniently deployed.
While Sean ignores all the signs and portents that the nanny needs to go, ranging from a splinter in his meal to a live infant in his nursery, Dorothy can largely be given a pass because she isn’t rational to begin with. But then comes the moment when Leanne’s uncle (not Fester, but an excellent body double for him) shows up, and Dorothy blithely offers to let him spend the night. Arriving in Episode 6, this is the upmarket TV version of the heroine tripping over that prominent tree root. Is Dorothy really so oblivious to the danger before her that she would make such a stupid error? We can understand her having a blind spot when it comes to Jericho or even Leanne, but would this savvy urban career woman really invite this dark, ominous creep to spend the night—especially when her husband isn’t home, her baby is sleeping under this same roof, and her goal is to ensure the uncle doesn’t drag Leanne home by her ear?
Yet she does invite him, and in a moment of spectacularly baffling character judgment, enters the nursery to find Jericho tossed onto the floor and the uncle asleep in Jericho’s crib—and then whisper-argues with Julian that they can’t wake him and tell him to leave because then he will take Leanne with him. It’s almost inconceivable that the sight of Jericho discarded on the floor would not inflame Dorothy’s mama-lion instincts and set off a chain of fairly logical protective steps: get Leanne out of the house first (or hide her within it), then wake the uncle and order him to leave; threaten to call the police, or else leave the house and call them from the corner. A justification can be made here for the writers’ choices if we believe that Dorothy fears, deep down, that any risk of Leanne leaving is the risk that she’ll take the baby with her—but it’s even harder to imagine a mother like Dorothy not reacting with instinctive fury against someone who put her baby in danger.
Of course, the most recent episodes of the show have intimated that Sean, Julian, and Dorothy may have been involved somehow in Jericho’s (original) death, so future episodes may reveal that her motivation here makes more sense than it appears. However, from a writing standpoint, I would still argue that the motivation for every one of the characters’ odd or inexplicable actions needs to be better supported before any later “big reveals.” We don’t need to know what happened to Jericho to go along with Dorothy letting the uncle remain in the crib, but we do need to see an earlier moment of clarity on her part that lets us know there’s more in her head than she’s letting on—guilt, understanding, paralyzing fear. Not just the fog of grief and attachment to her delusion, but a painful little shard of understanding that she knows she’s deluded, or perhaps guilty, and she must avoid being thrust into the full light of this knowledge at all costs.
A character’s motivations cannot simply serve the plot imposed on them by the author. To feel fully human, characters must act and react as humans do—with instincts for self-preservation, some level of self-awareness, and a consciousness of the cultural context in which they live, which includes that culture’s storytelling. We wouldn’t likely find it credible that two upper-class Philadelphians like Sean and Dorothy openly believe in ghosts and demons. But even if you don’t know you’re a character in an M. Night Shyamalan production, you’re pretty darn likely to know when your life looks like a horror movie.