Do you remember the story of Joshua from the Bible? The one where the Israelites, led by Joshua en route to Canaan, march around the city of Jericho for seven days until its grand walls collapse? It’s a story of perseverance, certainly, but also, for the folks in Jericho, one of caution. No matter how well you fortify the world around you, strong walls don’t really mean much if they’re flimsy and sieged by forces greater than you. The best defense is a good offense, after all.
“Servant,” Apple TV+’s M. Night Shyamalan-produced thriller series, gives one of its central characters that name: Jericho. Part of you wonders if there’s a coincidence there, with the show’s religious roots burrowing deep. Ironically, if you followed the first season, you’ll know what it’s like to persevere with a show to ultimately have the walls fall in around you. The story of the Turner family, their unnatural happening, and their relationship with a very strange nanny, “Servant” did plenty in its first year to keep you walking around its walls for six days. On the seventh, though, it burst forth with a Shyamalan-ready abruption that nearly sank your investment in the entire series. Mystery is one thing, but without any sort of warning for an unexplained curtain pull, the first season’s conclusion felt like you were being engulfed in rubble. Shyamalan’s notorious for his projects pulling out the rug from under you, but this felt disorienting and unsatisfying, which was a shame for what came before.
Let’s go back to Jericho. That’s the central baby in the story, one thought dead at season’s start. The show’s drama comes from Jericho’s most surreal, suspect resurrection by forces unknown coinciding with Leanne’s (Nell Tiger Free) arrival. She’s, after all, the Turners’ pious au pair who has some sort of link to something beyond the realm of our understanding. Father and star chef Sean (Toby Kebbell) was the skeptic who doubted the baby’s arrival as nothing more than cruel circumstance or sick joke; mother and Philadelphia journalist Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) the true believer mentally shielded from the true fate of her child due to the trauma of what actually happened. Before new Jericho arrives, she’s using a therapy doll to mask the inability to recognize her son’s death. When that son shows back up somehow, you can imagine the corrosive confusion that sets in for all involved when things go very strangely back to business.
The last time we spent time with the Turners and Leanne, it was hard to be much of a convert for “Servant’s” ultimate plan. Series creator Tony Basgallop and producer Shyamalan nailed the casting, atmosphere, and breadcrumbs plotting but failed the basic requirement for any first season of television: give us something to work with for next year. That ending kind of stunk.
Though, if the first season is a mystifying walk around a broody maze with no exit, the second season sets the maze on fire while giving us a jetpack to escape. “Servant’s” new set of episodes honor the addictive nature of its story while also embracing some of its guiltier pleasures and inherent silliness. In doing so, the show finds a fascinating trade-off by discovering newfound darkness and standing on more foundational themes. Blessedly, “Servant” isn’t taking itself so seriously anymore, and is finding a new level of seriousness in the process.
Season 2 takes a little time to get going, as we jump in medias res to what happened at the end of Season 1. Essentially, baby Jericho 2.0 has been taken, with Leanne and her home cult going bye-bye in the vast of night. That event sparks an immediate change in the Turners as we check on what’s next. Sean, agnostic at best throughout our first go-around, is starting to believe in things beyond him, and Dorothy is losing faith as her disconnect with reality sharpens and Jericho’s loss drives her to the brink.
The show posits an intriguing question in its return: how dangerous is a well-meaning lie? Sean spends most of the seven episodes (the full season clocks in at ten episodes) given for review pondering the ramifications of his charitable subversion. When should he finally break the spell his wife is under and share with her the true fate of their son, one that the show strongly hints she might be partially responsible for? “Servant” needed to make a pivot to continue on properly, and Dorothy’s heel turn was it.
Ambrose settles so nicely into her character’s descent; she goes from a pompous, well-meaning broadcast journalist into a borderline-conspiratorial avenger. She’s desperate to get her “son” back, and she’s willing to do what it takes this time around to set her faux reality in place. Ambrose astutely channels what can only be described as a blend of Jennifer Lawrence‘s maternal paranoia in “mother!” and Sandra Bernhard‘s comically dangerous obsessiveness in “The King of Comedy.” The further she slips into her dangerous cocoon, the more the show’s newfound sense of urgency about the importance of truth shows through. Considering the widespread terror lies and conspiracy theories can wreak, particularly of late with the election fraud lies and U.S. Capitol insurrection, “Servant” plays as surprisingly relevant.
Rupert Grint (Ron Weasley in the “Harry Potter” films) returns as Dorothy’s gruff wiseass of a brother Julian, one of the definite highlights of the first season. Julian gets hints of a backstory early on, but he’s mainly just a delightful reactionary figure here as he becomes more and more engrossed in the Turners’ family dilemmas. Grint is a hoot. The show makes a great decision to soften Kebbell’s visage a bit from “spooked Gordon Ramsay on ‘Hell’s Kitchen‘” to “spooked Gordon Ramsay on ‘MasterChef Junior‘,” which makes him a much more empathetic center. Free gets to break out a bit of the shell the story put her in with our first season, too, and explore Leanne’s backstory, personality, and motivations. She’s a firestarter once the show takes the cuffs off, and deepens the character for the better. Character actor Boris McGiver is back, too, as Uncle George in his scene-stealing turn.
A new slew of directors, including “Raw‘s” Julia Ducournau, “Killing Eve” vet Lisa Brühlmann, “Holiday‘s” Isabella Eklöf add a fresh perspective. The show’s dreary exteriors at the Turner home haven’t changed much, but ace horror cinematographer Michael Gioulakis (“Us“) has upped the way we engage with the set-piece and found new, disturbing ways to show how the home here is just as claustrophobic, nervy and austere as its ensemble.
Seven episodes in, “Servant” has found a way to not only up its game on its second outing, but also reward investment into the show’s middling first year. That season one finale actually works a lot better now that we know what’s on the other side of the fence. As much as Shyamalan-approved entertainment loves twist endings and shocking fates, sometimes all you need are sensical answers. “Servant” finally repents some of the early sins and more than pleases with the way it evolves its tone, story, and characters.
Consider the tried-and-true axiom from the New Testament spoken by Jesus: the truth shall set you free. Indeed, it’s the cold, hard truth that separates Sean and Julian from stopping Dorothy on her downward spiral, and it’s this show finally embracing the truth of its identity as a dimestore pageturner with unexpected potency and a wicked sense of fun. If the first season left you cold, its second will make you a believer. [B+]
“Servant” Season 2 debuts on Apple TV+ on January 15.