It’s almost hard to believe that Apple TV+ is old enough already to have a show about to reach its conclusion after four seasons, but that’s where we are with the underrated “Servant,” a twisted little gem that was created by Tony Basgallop and executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan (who has also directed a few episodes). One of the streaming giant’s first series way back in November 2019, “Servant” initially felt like something of a psychological mystery about a grieving mother given an impossible second chance, but it has descended into deeper levels of surreal chaos with each season. The first three episodes of the final season show no signs of turning back in that department. A show with some of the strongest visual language of any streaming series, “Servant” has admittedly lost its narrative threads more than once, but that sense of unpredictability should make the final stretch of this marathon wicked fun. Given the crazy places that “Servant” has gone over three seasons, it could land anywhere in its final chapter, and fans would probably find a way to believe it.
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After all, this has always been a show about believing even when that belief defies logic. How else to -explain the initial set-up of the first season, wherein a grieving mother named Dorothy Turner (the increasingly phenomenal Lauren Ambrose) sees her dead child returned to her after the arrival of a mysterious new nanny named Leanne (Nell Tiger Free)? Over the course of three seasons, Leanne’s powers have grown even as they remain undefined even to her. Did she bring Jericho back to life? Why does the cult from which she escaped seem so intent on reclaiming her? Why are strangers and even animals drawn to protect her? Each season has played a clever game as it asks a new question about Leanne’s past and future every time it answers an old one, and yet somehow only rarely feels like it’s treading water.
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By the time the fourth season starts, the Turners have become something of a twisted family through its unusual situation. One of the strengths of the show has been how rarely it leaves their perfectly kept home, making the setting into a character of its own. The Turner home may look gorgeous, but it traps these people, forcing them into constant conflict with one another even as the basement and walls of the house are eroding from within. The third season was largely a battle of wills between Dorothy and Leanne for control of Jericho, one that ended with the unhinged Dorothy falling through a staircase railing and crashing to the floor below. The new season, after an amazing prologue episode, reveals that Dorothy survived that fall, but will now be stuck in a bed, giving the opening arc of the year a notable “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” vibe as Leanne controls almost everything about the bedridden Dorothy’s reality including when she eats and when she gets to see her son.
Where’s Sean (Toby Kebbell) in all this mess? Not at home. He seems to be drawn into his career more each season, and he’s off working on his show as his wife struggles at home. If Leanne has taken Dorothy’s place as the head of the Turner home, Sean has been replaced by Julian (Rupert Grint), who reluctantly does basically everything she asks him to do. There’s a definite sense that Leanne likes this new reality, playing mother to Jericho as Julian tries to fill a father role. Of course, it doesn’t last long. “Servant” is all about fleeting moments of happiness for one character upended by another, and Leanne’s world shifts again when Dorothy hires a pair of quirky caretakers to do her job.
Before then, the fourth season of “Servant” opens with a stunner, one of the best half-hours (and bless this show for delivering tense horror/drama in 25-minute chunks instead of the bloated runtimes that increasingly drain momentum from some shows) in its history. The cult from which Leanne fled assaults her in the street in front of the Turner home, trapping her in a parked car. Brilliantly constructed, the sequence reveals how Leanne’s powers may have grown in a manner that feels like it’s paying a brief nod to Shyamalan’s most obvious inspiration, Alfred Hitchcock, while also being distinctly in the unique visual language of this show with its sharp lines and imposing normalcy—the cinematographers behind “Servant,” including Shyamalan regular Mike Gioulakis, love to shoot mundane things like staircases and building facades in a way that makes them threatening. The street sequence is one of the best in the history of the show, built in a manner that captures the program’s tense atmosphere and increasingly sharp sense of humor.
It would be impossible to say where “Servant” ends after only three episodes of the final season, especially for a show that often stays unpredictable from chapter to chapter. Each season of “Servant” has taken bigger swings and felt more ambitiously strange. It’s a show that traffics in impossible questions, and its greatest asset may be how it defies the typically frustrating nature of programs that refuse to define their rules in such a confident way that viewers just go along for the ride. It’s a show about damaged people who unload their trauma on one another, and the supernatural forces that will either tear them apart or hold them together. Somehow, either possibility feels equally likely, and potentially equally satisfying. That’s a hard trick to pull off, and it feels like “Servant” is a show that will
be easier to appreciate once it can be viewed in its entirety. Until then, expect the unexpected. [B+]
“Servant” Season 4 debuts on Apple TV+ on January 13.