Reviews

Review: Servant Season 1 Premiere

November 28, 2019
9 min read

‘Servant’ presents a delicately carved psychological horror story that grows on you and then never let’s go. The pilot episode is a brilliant rendition of the kind of slowly manifesting eerie sensation that the Apple TV+ show is going to bring to the table: one that won’t jolt you to fear but one that will accompany you down a dark spiral and leave you hanging at the crossroads of sanity and reality. It possesses your mind and resides there giving you tons of nightmarish musings to eat up your night.

The pilot episode serves as an apt introduction to the series’ premise, major characters and overall tone. Apart from a few details and one final twist, one might say that nothing major happens in the episode that wasn’t revealed in the trailer. However, that is not true at all. The episode cannot be judged solely by reading a recap of the plot because that is not what its charm is about anyway. The episode, and perhaps the entire series will primarily portray a frighteningly creepy experience that is characteristic of slow-burn thrillers.

Servant Episode 1 Recap

The episode begins with a shot of a car driving closer to the camera in heavy rain, against an unearthly background score. A woman — later revealed to be Dorothy Turner — walks out of the car and enters her house where we are introduced to her husband, Sean Turner. Dorothy expresses her excitement of finally getting the opportunity to meet someone that she has been waiting for. Sean is a little less enthusiastic. The door bell rings, and a young girl walks in. She is an eighteen-year-old named Leanne who has been newly hired to look after the Turners’ infant.

Then, Dorothy proceeds to give Leanne a tour of the house. Followed by that, she takes her to her room, thereby revealing to the viewers that Leanne has been hired as a live-in nanny. In the room, Leanne finds a fat folder titled ‘Duties and Responsibilities.’ Then, Sean, Dorothy and she proceed to have a conversation. Dorothy tells Leanne that she has been reading a book about how one’s place in the family determines one’s personality. Sean reveals that he is a work-from-home “bon-vivant.” Leanne tells the Turners that her goal in life is to be happily married and raise her own children. Sean warns the nanny to not touch the vintage coffee machine. Dorothy offers to raise a toast but Leanne refuses, telling her that she is only eighteen years old and cannot drink.

Leanne goes to her room and arranges her toiletries perfectly on the platform, alluding that she might have low levels of OCD. Sean sees Leanne pray to God and checks out her body in the process. Then, he proceeds to lift his baby out of its cot, holding it by the feet. It is revealed that the baby is in fact just a doll and not real. However, the next morning, Leanne changes the baby’s diapers and even talks to it.

Dorothy goes to work for the first time after her baby’s birth and feels slightly emotional about it. She works as a television reporter. Then, once Dorothy is out of the house, Sean begins to explain the situation to Leanne. He tells her that the baby is in fact, a replacement doll. His actual son died when he was just 13 weeks old. This, Sean tells Leanne, had a traumatic impact on Dorothy who did not seem to be exiting her state of grief.

The doll is a part of Dorothy’s “transitory replacement therapy,” an alternative method suggested by an unlicensed therapist for Dorothy’s condition. However, it is something that is being kept a secret and the only people who are aware about it are Dorothy’s father and brother. Sean tells Leanne to act normal around Dorothy as she is being paid for a full month without having to do any real work anyway. However, Leanne keeps swinging the baby gently in her arms and announces that she is going to take it outside for a walk.

Due to this unsettling behavior, Sean decides to snoop through Leanne’s belongings. He ends up finding a cross wrapped in hay in Leanne’s room. Sean sees Leanne washing her dishes after cooking food and insists her not to wash them. Dorothy returns home and sings “Itsy Bitsy Spider” to the baby doll. Sean finds a bent spoon in the sink and goes to the baby’s room. There, he sees the cross that he found in Leanne’s room hanging near the window next to the baby’s cot.

Sean tells Dorothy that he saw Leanne praying. They are both in their bathroom: Sean is sipping wine while Jodie is in the bathtub, caressing her breasts to relieve herself of pain due to mastitis. Sean tells Dorothy that they should fire Leanne. However, Dorothy does not want to fire Leanne and accuses Sean of subconsciously not wanting his wife to be more successful than him.

In the next scene, Rupert Grint appears on screen. He plays the character of Dorothy’s brother, Julian Pearce. He tells Sean that he came to their house to check out the newly hired nanny. Sean and Julian drink together. Julian seems to have a peculiar way of slapping the glass on the table once it is filled: something that is shown repeatedly, each time Julian fills a new glass.

Then, one night, Leanne sees Dorothy struggling with pain in the bathtub. Seeing her moan, Leanne starts to caress her breast. That seems to bring Dorothy intense relief from her pain.

The next day, Leanne decides to go out of the house for some time and keeps the baby monitor in the kitchen where Sean is cooking. [MAJOR SPOILER] Suddenly, Sean hears a baby’s squeal through the baby monitor. Intrigued, he decides to inspect. From the bottom of the stairs, he hears sounds of the floor creaking. When he goes to the baby’s room, Sean is appalled to find a real baby: wailing and shuffling in its cot.

Servant Season 1 Review

The pilot episode of ‘Servant’ was a mind-bender, albeit not an epic conspiracy-laden, universe-threatening, reality-checking one. Instead, it simply focused on the lead characters and their peculiarities, slowly building their characteristics, daily habits and general attitude. The premise took precedence and it was built patiently, but stylishly. That was the biggest strength of the episode: the fact that it did not rely on major plot twists and turns to maintain the viewers’ attention. Instead, it portrayed the subtle mannerisms of the characters, revealing tidbits of information that seem to be more impactful than say…a death scene.

The filmmaking was top-notch and it had to be for such an intentionally unhurried story. The one thing that stood out the most was the camerawork and cinematography which was truly unique. For instance, there were several shots that did not feature the characters’ faces and instead portrayed their tenuous bodily movements.

For example, when Dorothy and Sean converse alone for the first time, on the dining table, after Leanne’s arrival, the camera is positioned in such a way that it shows everything below the couple’s neck (their faces are absent from the frame). The characters’ hand movements are the most attention-grabbing. This adds a sense of proximity towards the characters. The viewers feel like they are getting to know them more closely than through a screen.

The above technique contrasts with another inventive, cinematographic one. In several scenes, a character is shown to be extremely close to the camera. Almost too close. The most impactful example of this was when Dorothy’s face took up most of the frame while Sean and she talked to Leanne (during the time when Dorothy offered Leanne a drink). This seemed to make the character of Dorothy appear far more mysterious and in fact, even strange. It felt like she might even be breaking the fourth wall to speak directly to the audience. It made viewers feel disconnected from her, in a way that one feels towards unsympathetic villains.

The fact that the proximity of the character’s face and the viewers’ connectedness to them were inversely proportional felt like a ground-breaking filmmaking technique. This technique of the extreme close-up was repeated several times: when Julian’s face was focused on and when Sean’s was when he told Leanne the story behind the doll for the first time.

Other than that, there were also a couple of shots that showed a character’s feet while they were walking, most notably when Leanne walks inside the Turners’ house for the first time. This technique is a direct nod to the legendary filmmaker, Alfred Hitchcock who employed it often and most prominently in ‘Strangers on a Train.’ Hitchcock is known to focus on characters’ feet, hands and eyes.

Moreover, another facet that stood out was the episode’s seamless sound design. It almost always rained and the sound of rain was masterfully weaved in with perfect balance. Additionally, every little sound like a tap running was included in the soundscape making the setting of the show feel extremely claustrophobic. The background score was phenomenally effective too with the piano being tediously played one key at a time to provide a melancholic feel.

When it comes to the plot and characters, the first episode of ‘Servant’ could not have been better. It provided an intrigue-filled look into each of the three leading characters and it is hard to tell which one is less sane than the other. Although deliberately slow, the story never felt boring, not allowing even the sleepiest viewer to spare a yawn. Plus, it had some genuinely funny (not laugh-out-loud) moments that came as a surprise each time.

In a nutshell, the pilot episode of Shyamalan’s ‘Servant’ proves to be a fitting addition to his repertoire. There is something inherently sinister about the series which gives the feeling that a monster might be lurking under the bed and readying itself to lunge out at any given moment. There will probably never be monsters or demonic looking creatures on ‘Servant’ but rest assured that no supernatural being will give you as many goosebumps.

Read More: Where Was Servant Filmed?

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