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Review of The Changeling: A disappointing rendition of Victor LaValle’s gloomy fairy tale

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It is annoying, the Changeling. The show is a puzzle box that defies explanation; it experiences streamer bloat, like many other series do; and, after eight episodes, it ends on a cliffhanger, leaving us to hope for an as-yet-unannounced renewal as our sole chance for answers. I wanted to turn it off several times, but I never did. I’m still thinking about The Changeling weeks later, despite all of the aforementioned complaints. It’s a new drama for Apple TV+ that’s based on Victor LaValle’s dark fantasy novel about memory, motherhood, and the amazing (and often dangerous) power of narrative.

2010 saw the meeting of librarian Emma Valentine (Clark Backo) and rare book dealer Apollo Kagwa (LaKeith Stanfield) in Queens, New York. Even though she declines his advances seven times, he doesn’t let it get to him because in the 1970s, his father Brian (Jared Abrahamson) had to wait years for his mother Lilian (Alexis Louder) to invite her out to dinner. After saying yes to Apollo, Emma eventually confesses their love for one another, only to later announce her move to Brazil. Emma returns to New York and marries Apollo after spending months in the jungle, where she experiences an extremely frightening encounter with a lady the natives claim is a witch.

From there, the story shifts into full maternal horror mode. Emma connects with an online moms group called The Wise Ones; soon after, she makes a horrifying decision about Brian and disappears. The world dismisses Emma’s terrible act as a tragic burst of post-partum psychosis, but Apollo — who feels as unmoored without a child to parent as his wife felt alienated as a mother — is determined to track her down. This hero’s journey forces Apollo to confront the mystery of his own father’s disappearance, a sinister community of online trolls, and the true meaning of To the Waters and the Wild, a haunting book about fairies from his childhood.

Some of the most confusing parts of the series are carried through by The Changeling’s excellent ensemble. Emma, played by Backo, depicts the profound loneliness and hopelessness that are all too common for many new mothers, and Samuel T. Herring, the lead singer of Future Islands, is appropriately scary as William Wheeler, a bespectacled eccentric who intrudes into Apollo’s life. Stanfield’s melancholic demeanour imbues every performance with a hint of yearning, and he gels well with Apollo, a melancholic and introspective guy who merely wants to give his child the love he was never given.

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