Photo: Apple TV/Copyrighted
One of the best “rules” of the horror genre is knowing that what you don’t see is often scarier than what you do. The third episode of The Changeling firmly dives into its horror roots by following this rule, and yet it was such a slow burn that the scariness eventually loses its edge. It speaks to one of the critiques of LaValle’s novel: The most disturbing and unfathomable act a parent could commit is treated as simply a plot point because, at this moment in the story, we don’t see Emma’s point of view.
Wouldn’t it be much more twisted to glimpse the inner workings of a mother’s brain right before she takes the life of her own child? However, Apollo is our protagonist, so it makes sense for it to only be from his perspective. And, for all intents and purposes, to Apollo, Emma is no longer acting like his wife but a monster capable of incomprehensible evil. She bursts into their apartment, possessed by the petrifying supernatural circumstance she’s found herself in, resembling a demonic version of herself. She moves unnaturally, jerking about as Apollo pleads, “Just let my son go.”
Emma has chained Apollo to a chair after a vicious fight between the two. We don’t see how she gets him there, but the apartment is trashed, his shirt is blood-soaked, and there’s a gash in his face. As if the scene wasn’t anxiety-provoking enough, a tea kettle whistles in the background and demon Emma grabs it with her bare hands, her skin sizzling. Apollo repeats his mantra, the phrase he returns to whenever he must summon strength and confidence: “I am the god Apollo! I bring the power of the sky!”
Apollo attempts to reason with her, trying to sympathize with her postpartum depression (which is laughable because, clearly, it’s much more than that), doing anything to fight for his child. He tries to remind her of the narrative of her identity, feeding her stories of who he knows her to be: She’s Brian’s mother, she’s his wife, she’s Michelle’s daughter, she’s Kim’s sister, she’s not a person who would hurt her own child. But that’s not at all who she is at this moment; right now, she’s a mother controlled by a power greater than herself with a specific job to do. So she takes a hammer and hits him square in the face.
With the burning kettle in her hand, Emma enters the nursery. Apollo, barely conscious, mutters, “Don’t hurt the baby,” to which Emma responds, “It’s not a baby.” The door shuts, and the unspeakable happens, forcing the audience to imagine the worst. And as the episode unfolds, the details affirm our imaginations. The building super, who discovers the scene, his eyes gleaming with fear when he describes what he walked in on, explicitly mentioning the odor. When Apollo finally enters the nursery again, fat black flies buzz about, death and decay in every corner. Whatever happened in that room was terrifying and unheard of, and both Emma and Brian are gone.
The rest of the episode chronicles Apollo’s life in the months following Brian’s brutal murder and Emma’s mysterious vanishment. The show jumps to Apollo returning home from jail due to losing his mind after the incident. He can’t accept that Emma simply disappeared, so armed with a gun, he goes to the library where she worked and demands her co-workers tell him where she went. He fires the gun through a window to show them how serious he is but breaks down, falling to the floor as a librarian comforts him. Though the librarians all testify on his behalf, he’s forced to serve time.
Since we don’t get Emma’s point of view, and the entire ordeal only takes up like six minutes, you’d think the most intriguing part of the episode would be Apollo’s reaction to the tragedy. LaKeith Stanfield’s acting masterfully conveys Apollo’s disbelief, depression, and fury, but the episode’s pacing leaves much to be desired. It’s a slow burn as we wait for the fantastical adventure we know is on the horizon for our traumatized father, with flashbacks that don’t add context until the last second. We see Lillian, back in the ’70s, get punished by her boss for declining to date him, which eventually sets up why Apollo was left at home alone on Saturdays. Still, it took too long to understand the importance of this moment in her life, wasting precious time (the series is only eight episodes) that could’ve elevated the terror Apollo feels and further leaned into the horror element.
Lillian’s boss is so upset that she doesn’t want to go to the movies with him that he forces her to work the one day she doesn’t have child care for Apollo. They eventually compromise, and Lillian only has to work a half-day, which leaves 4-year-old Apollo to fend for himself each Saturday. There’s a montage showing how hard it is for her to leave her baby, but it isn’t until the end of the episode that we see why this is so significant. One day, after his nightmares began, Apollo says his father visited him on “cartoon day” (Lillian would let Apollo watch TV all day to occupy his attention). His father visits him again, but Lillian gets home in time to “send him away.” Lillian confesses this truth to her son while she’s staying with him after he gets out of jail.
Apollo is shocked at this revelation; he always believed that his nightmares were merely nightmares, not a memory of a real-life event. He also finds out that Brian did not abandon him. Instead, Lillian filed for divorce because Brian was not a reliable husband or father. This activates the inner child in him, who believes that there is something inherently “wrong” with him, which is why his father stayed away. Somehow, he takes this information and irrationally blames Lillian for the series of events that left him with a wife who killed their child. He asks Lillian why his dad couldn’t have watched him regardless of the ending of their romantic relationship. Lillian is shocked by Apollo’s accusations and leaves, but not before leaving a card with the address for baby Brian’s grave so Apollo can visit when he’s ready.
Despite things being contentious with his mom, Apollo finds support in his friend Patrice. He gets dinner with Patrice and his partner Dana, but he’s so visibly miserable that Patrice goes to great lengths to prevent Apollo from taking his own life. Apollo gives Patrice the rare edition of To Kill a Mockingbird during dinner. This is a red flag for Patrice, who knows how much that book means to Apollo. Before Apollo leaves, Patrice tells Apollo that he’s going to sell the rare book online, and if Apollo’s not around, he’ll never know how much it went for. Patrice says he’ll call Apollo about the book soon, and he better be alive to pick up the phone.
As a condition of his parole, Apollo begins to attend a grief-support group at the church where Emma wanted to baptize Brian. He’s not all that receptive to the group’s activities, but at one meeting, a young woman tells her story, a story that’s identical to what happened with Emma. She looks similarly unhinged to Emma while she was sinking into insanity and says she’s been receiving strange vanishing pictures of her baby … except she doesn’t believe it’s her baby. Like Apollo, her husband advised her to get on medication, but the woman knew she needed more help. She recalls getting that help from “the Wise Women,” specifically Cal (the same woman who sent Emma to get the bag of chains), but she’s not sure she can do “it.”
This testimony triggers Apollo, who believes “it” means killing the baby. He has an outburst, screaming for someone to intervene and save the baby’s life. The woman leaps from her chair and manically yells, “It is not a baby!” repeatedly. Apollo storms out of the meeting, running away until another group member stops him. It’s a man who is basically wearing the “I’m a creepy predator” starter pack; he’s got the tan jacket (y’all know the one) on top of a button-up with wire-framed glasses, a greasy comb-over, and a clammy-looking face. His name is William, and he claims he was at the grief session because Patrice sent him to buy the copy of To Kill a Mockingbird. Why it would be appropriate to do business at a grief-support group is beyond me and Apollo, but the two end up chatting over a cup of coffee.
While drinking coffee and nibbling donuts, Apollo accidentally sees a recording on William’s phone of the woman from the support group telling her story. William says recording things is just a “silly little habit” (what a weirdo), and they get to talking about “the Wise Ones” the woman mentioned. William looks it up, finding an article saying they are witches from mythology. Apollo immediately thinks of the woman who tied the string around Emma’s wrist, remembering Emma repeating the old lady’s words: “Do not cut it,” LaValle narrates over the end of the episode. Careful what you wish for.
• I loved how when Apollo left with William to go to the diner, they passed graffiti that read “To the waters.” This is a direct reference to the book of fairy tales and indicates that the next natural progression is “To the wild,” which is the odyssey part of the story.
• The theme of differentiating what is the truth versus what is a story we tell ourselves would have hit harder in this episode if we had gotten a crumb of Emma’s thoughts when Apollo told her she was a wife/mother/sister. It could’ve spoken to how women’s identities are often obscured by who they are to other people, which is a hard pill to swallow during postpartum.
• This episode’s pacing was so slow that it made it hard to keep track of all the themes, clues, and foreshadowing. I hope it picks up because there are only five episodes left and so much of the novel to cover.