The Changeling review: Victor LaValle's dark fairy tale gets a frustrating adaptation

The Changeling is frustrating. It's a puzzle-box show that stubbornly refuses to open; it suffers from streamer bloat (as so many series do); and after eight episodes, it ends on a cliffhanger, meaning our only hope for answers lies in an as-yet-announced renewal. More than once I wanted to turn it off ­— but I never did. Despite all of the aforementioned frustrations, The Changeling — the new Apple TV+ drama based on Victor LaValle's dark fantasy novel about motherhood, memory, and the awesome (sometimes dangerous) power of storytelling — took root in me, and I'm still thinking about it weeks later.

Apollo Kagwa (LaKeith Stanfield), a rare book dealer, meets librarian Emma Valentine (Clark Backo) in 2010 in Queens, New York. He's not fazed when she turns him down for a date seven times — after all, back in the '70s, his mother, Lilian (Alexis Louder), made his dad, Brian (Jared Abrahamson), wait years before she let him take her to dinner. Eventually, Emma says yes to Apollo, and they fall in love — only to have Emma announce she's moving to Brazil. After months in the jungle, where she has a very unsettling encounter with a woman the locals say is a witch, Emma returns to New York, and she and Apollo get married. Baby Brian soon follows, and for Apollo — whose goal in life is to be a good father, unlike his own absentee dad — their modern fairy tale begins. But new parenthood is hard on Emma: Brian isn't sleeping; someone keeps sending her creepy, disappearing text messages; and the more exhausted she gets, the more convinced Emma becomes that Brian is not, in fact, her baby.

the changeling on apple tv+
the changeling on apple tv+

Apple TV+ LaKeith Stanfield and Clark Backo in 'The Changeling'

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.

Showrunner Kelly Marcel (Saving Mr. Banks), who writes every episode, drops several hints that Emma's fears about Brian aren't all in her head. The title To the Waters and the Wild is taken from a poem by W.B. Yeats called "The Stolen Child," for example — but that's about the only foothold viewers get in this slippery tale. (It's never a good sign when one character says to another, "Has anyone ever told you that you speak in riddles?") An ongoing storyline with Lilian (played in present day by Adina Porter), who hasn't told Apollo everything about why his dad left, floats along on its own for most of the season. It finally connects to the rest of the mystery in the penultimate episode, a stand-alone showcase for Porter that nonetheless comes at the expense of The Changeling's stop-and-go momentum.

Even with its flaws, The Changeling resonates, in part because its central theme hits a primal nerve. "How do we protect our children?" muses Cal, the leader of a women's compound Apollo discovers in his search for Emma. "The new fears are the old fears, and the old fears are ancient." Cal is played with wry resolve by the peerless (and woefully underutilized of late) Jane Kaczmarek, whose performance — and the sound of her unmistakable, clarion voice as Cal dresses Apollo down — offers an instant hit of narrative dopamine. As for those fears Cal speaks of, they stem from an unholy union of the fantastic (uh, is there something lurking in the murky waters of the Hudson?) and the mundane. "We spy on children all the time now. Nobody calls the police," sighs Cal, citing the "poisonous trap" of social media. "People hand over their babies, their private, most precious moments every day for the world to see."

the changeling apple tv+
the changeling apple tv+

Apple TV+ Jane Kaczmarek in 'The Changeling'

The Changeling's strong ensemble pulls the series through some of its muddiest stretches. As Emma, Backo illustrates the deep isolation and despair that can be all too real for many new mothers, while Future Islands' frontman Samuel T. Herring is suitably unnerving as William Wheeler, a bespectacled eccentric who insinuates himself into Apollo's life. Stanfield, whose wistful mien infuses all his performances with an undercurrent of longing, melds easily with the sad and searching Apollo, a gentle soul who just wants to shower his baby with the love he never received.

"When you believe in things you don't understand, then you suffer." More than once, characters in The Changeling are confronted with this tiresomely cryptic aphorism, which also manages to describe the challenges of watching The Changeling. I believe this show has something to say about the perils of modern parenthood and the impossible power of motherhood, but for now, it's a belief with no real basis in understanding. Of course, raising a child is nothing if not an exercise in patience. Grade: B-

The first three episodes of The Changeling premiere Friday, September 8 on Apple TV+.

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