By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 17, 2023 |
By Dustin Rowles | TV | March 17, 2023 |
I’ve been watching Servant since it launched along with its streamer, Apple TV+. It’s been an interesting four seasons — some better than others, and some more frustrating than others — but it was only in the last couple of weeks that I finally figured out what it’s actually about.
But first, here in broad strokes, is four seasons of Servant: A delirious, sleep-deprived Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose) forgets her baby in a hot car while her husband, Sean (Toby Kebbell), is out of town for work. After the trauma of losing her baby in such an unimaginable way, Dorothy has a psychotic break. Because she’s catatonic, a therapist recommends that Sean let Dorothy care for a real-looking baby doll to help her deal with the trauma. Dorothy is so beyond that she hires a nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to help her care for the fake baby. Soon thereafter, Leanne replaces the fake baby with a real baby, and Dorothy is none the wiser. She treats the new baby as though he were Jericho, her baby who died in the car.
The next four seasons are largely about Sean and Dorothy’s brother, Julian (Rupert Grint), trying to prevent Dorothy from realizing the truth. They incorporate the baby and Leanne into the family, but the baby is abducted for a season, and a cult to which Leanne belongs gets involved — the cult, we later learn, is made up of people who have had near-death experiences. Nu-Jericho returns, the cult begins to see Leanne as their true leader, and Leanne grows increasingly insane. Dorothy’s mind — to maintain the lie to herself — goes off the deep end with Leanne until Leanne is so dangerous that Sean and Julian realize that they have to come clean with Dorothy.
Near the end of the series, they finally tell Dorothy what really happened. They make her remember. Dorothy loses it. She’s so grief-stricken again that, when Leanne promises Dorothy that she can bring Jericho back from the dead and give her the family that she wants, Dorothy is tempted to believe her. She wants to believe her. But Dorothy realizes that the only way she can move on is if she lets Jericho go, processes his death, and grieves the loss. “This pain that I am feeling now, that’s part of my love for him. I need to feel it.”
Leanne and Dorothy make amends, but the loss of this reality is too much for Leanne. Once Dorothy, Sean, and Julian are safely outside, Leanne torches the house and she is consumed by flames. Sean and Dorothy — the latter of whom is finally acting like a sane person for the first time in the series — decide to restart their lives together. In a twist, meanwhile, there is some suggestion that Julian — who had a near-death experience in the first season — may join the cult.
That’s what happened, but what is it about? That finally came to me in the penultimate episode, after Dorothy realizes the truth. She is pulled between Sean and the reality of her baby’s death, and Leanne and a distorted reality where she could continue to be a mom to Jericho. It made me realize not only how powerful grief is — it allowed Dorothy to believe for months that a stranger’s baby was her own — but the lengths to which people go to avoid their own realities.
Think about the people you might know who believe in QAnon. Or Pizzagate. Or even Fox News. Most of these people are fundamentally unhappy, but instead of confronting that reality, they distort it. Unhappy people are particularly susceptible to conspiracy theory because it helps them explain their own unhappiness or cope with it. Dorothy’s very broken brain allowed her to believe that someone else’s baby was her own. Sean and Julian were clearly experiencing some grief, as well, because not only do they refuse to confront or question where the nu-Jericho came from, they start to genuinely believe that Leanne has supernatural powers. That she is a witch.
People who have lost loved ones will believe anything if it helps them feel a little better. Grief hurts. It’s like withdrawal pains from an addiction to a human life that has been taken away. People will do anything to get that fix, to fill that hole, to make the ache go away. Grifters, politicians, social media users, or even well-intentioned stalkers, like Leanne, will come in with some methadone to take that edge off. That methadone comes in many forms: The promise of economic security, demagogues, conspiracy theories, or even replacement babies stolen from drug addicts.
That’s what Servant is about. That’s what Servant is exploring. It’s an extreme example of the lengths that we will go to treat our emotional, economic, and existential pain.