“The Changeling,” a riveting horror series adapted from Victor LaValle’s acclaimed novel, weaves an unsettling tale of a parent’s deepest fears brought chillingly to life. It’s a beautiful, meandering tale filled with stunning performances and many books.
The series commences with a haunting narration by LaValle against the backdrop of an ancient boat navigating rough seas. This chilling tale of Norwegian witches journeying to North America evokes a sense of both magic and foreboding. Much like the boat, the series fluctuates between tranquil waters and tumultuous waves, thrusting the audience into a chaotic descent, mirroring the protagonist’s experiences.
Apollo Kagwa (played by LaKeith Stanfield) and Emma Valentine (Clark Backo) are at the story’s heart. Their paths cross in a New York Public Library: he is a passionate rare bookseller and she is an astute librarian. Their romance kindles slowly — Apollo is immediately smitten, while Emma remains reticent, only yielding to his advances shortly before a long sabbatical in South America.
Emma’s journey to Brazil becomes pivotal. An older woman, rumored to be a witch, ties a bracelet with three knots to Emma’s wrist, each knot symbolizing a wish. She warns Emma never to remove it because it will fall off when all three of her wishes are fulfilled. Emma returns home a year later, the spark between her and Apollo ignites to a flame and they wed. But not before he cuts the little red string from her wrist.
Baby Brian is born prematurely on a New York City subway train months later.
Apollo is a doting father, and Emma is a loving mother at first. Of course, neither is getting much sleep because of the newborn, but also because Apollo has recurring nightmares about his father.
Emma worries like any new mother, and is stressed over having to return to work so they can keep their health insurance. But Emma’s exhaustion morphs into hypervigilance after receiving strange text messages with images of Apollo, the baby, and even her that they did not take. Things get more chilling when the texts disappear before she can show them to Apollo, who fears she’s suffering from postpartum depression.
As her mental health deteriorates, Apollo’s plea for medical intervention, juxtaposed with Emma’s eerie experiences, leaves the audience to question the blurred lines between reality and delusion. Ultimately, Emma is left in the tragic position of everyone (including herself at times) thinking she is crazy until she meets other women who have gone through the same situation. Apollo and Emma’s relationship rapidly unravels as she appears to detach from reality, until one horrific night, the unthinkable happens: the baby is gone and Emma disappears.
And that’s just the first three episodes.
“The Changeling” does more than merely unsettle, it masterfully distorts the perception of safety. There’s an ever-present unease even in seemingly tranquil moments between Apollo and Emma. In collaboration with writer and showrunner Kelly Marcel, LaValle meticulously unwraps the narrative, leaving viewers on edge, wondering about the true nature of the beast lurking in the shadows.
Most of the series follows Apollo as he fights past his grief to make sense of what has happened to his wife and child. However, his search for a logical explanation runs headfirst into mystical territory when clues lead him to North Brother Island and a secret society led by the cryptic Cal (Jane Kaczmarek).
Beautifully shot with warm tones and deep contrasts, the narrative unfolds with New York City as a backdrop and as a living character, echoing the mystical ambiance seen in the 1990s film “Jacob’s Ladder.” This urban tapestry seamlessly weaves European fairy tales, African and African-American history, and the intricate chronicles of New York itself. The storytelling artfully blends themes, epochs and personas, creating a melting pot of haunting tales and profound histories.
Lavalle has described the book “The Changeling” as a story about “what kind of parent we become, considering the parents that we had,” and the series adaptation executes this viscerally. There’s trauma in each of their childhoods. Emma lost her parents when she was so young that she has rewritten their story with a new narrative edited by her older sister, who raised her. Apollo’s need to be the perfect father he never had is revealed in the pictures he constantly posts of him and the baby on social media, which only fuel Emma’s paranoia. Apollo’s mother, Lilian (Adina Porter), a Ugandan refugee who raised Apollo as a single mom in the 1980s, clearly has trauma of her own. Through time jumps we are given glimpses into all three characters’ pasts, explaining their actions in the present.
LaValle’s signature style, evident in his prose works like “The Ballad of Black Tom” and “Lone Women,” seamlessly blends horror and mysticism to address misogyny, race and class themes. Marcel captures this essence in the screenplay through subtle cues and foreshadowing. Young Lilian must navigate the minefield of sexual advances of her boss while trying to care for her son. Apollo finds a rare postcard from occultist Aleister Crowley, and there’s a frequent reference to an old book from Apollo’s father concerning changelings — fairies reputed to swap their young with human lookalikes.
Apollo, with the help of his friend and business partner in the rare book trade, Patrice (Malcolm Barrett), discovers a rare 1st edition of “To Kill a Mockingbird” at an estate sale garage. The iconic novel is told from a child’s perspective and highlights 1960s-era racial prejudice in the South. The irony here is that when Patrice arrived first at the estate, he was not allowed in the house and relegated to the garage.
Yet, for all its strengths, “The Changeling” occasionally falters. The non-linear narrative can be disorienting at times, especially when the supernatural elements intensify. Nonetheless, the cast is the series’ crown jewels. Stanfield and Backo captivate, while the supporting cast, including Barrett and Vann, deliver heartfelt portrayals. Jane Kaczmarek and Porter especially, who play pivotal roles in unraveling the mystery of Apollo’s past and Emma’s future, deserve notable accolades.
Episode 7 — a standalone hour from the main storyline — feels akin to a theatrical performance rather than a regular episode. While several actors from the series take on new roles, the episode prominently spotlights Lilian, giving us clues to Apollo’s background. Porter’s compelling portrayal of Lilian stands out, captivating viewers throughout the installment.
Rather than offering neat conclusions, “The Changeling” boldly embraces ambiguity, culminating in a tantalizing cliffhanger. New characters emerge in the closing moments, boldly stoking anticipation for a potential follow-up season.
The first three episodes of “The Changeling” premiere Friday, Sept. 8, on Apple TV+.
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