How does one begin to talk about The Changeling? The Apple TV+ drama is an adaptation of the novel of the same name by Victor LaValle (whom the series employs as its omniscient narrator), a book that reviewers found equally difficult to write about when it was published in 2017. The Changeling is full of so many surprises, and crafts such a rich, magical world over eight episodes, that attempting to sum it all up in a few sentences would at best sound incoherent and at worst be a total disservice to everything this exhilaratingly original mystery does so well.
One of the best things about the construction of this series is the way it immerses you in that mystery before you even really understand that you're watching a mystery. The first episode introduces us to Apollo Kagwa (LaKeith Stanfield), an idealistic used book dealer who falls in love at first sight with Emma Valentine (Clark Backo), a librarian resistant to his many advances until his persistence chips away at her resolve. This approach to romance runs through Apollo's veins; it's how his father, Brian (Jared Abrahamson), eventually won over his mother, Lillian (played in flashbacks by Alexis Louder and as an older woman by Adina Porter). "Some may call that stalking," LaValle's narrator helpfully chimes in, but the series doesn't waste time wringing its hands over the morals of that — not when there's so much else to get to, and too fast and easy an attraction between Apollo and Emma, who make each other laugh and are able to connect over past traumas.
Odd, intense things have been happening to these two all their lives: Emma's parents died when she was 5 years old, and when prompted to reveal his own backstory, Apollo is plagued by sinister flashes of a masked, growling man kneeling in front of him. It comes out that Emma's reason for repeatedly turning him down was her impending move to Brazil, where she goes to live for a while in the first episode. In real life, that might be that. In The Changeling's reality-adjacent universe, it's only the beginning. (Seriously, all of this happens within the first 15 minutes of Episode 1.) Emma's travels lead her down a spooky and spiritual path, which subsequently leads her right back home to Apollo. By the end of the pilot, she's given birth to their son on a stalled subway car, in one of the series' most strikingly visceral scenes. By Episode 2, she begins suffering from what at first seems to be a particularly harrowing brush with postpartum depression. By Episode 3, she goes missing after committing a horrifying, confusing act of violence in front of Apollo, which he becomes determined to get to the bottom of. With her departure comes a wild turn for the series, veering off in a bold direction that it continues to head in for the remainder of its first season.
This is where things start getting difficult to discuss. Despite a quick beginning, The Changeling does require patience, and because of the nature of the show, which relies so heavily on world-building and slow explanations, you have to be willing to sign yourself up for the ride. The good news is that The Changeling makes the wait feel worth it. Created and written by Kelly Marcel, best known for her work on the Venom film series, the series unfolds like a dreamily atmospheric Brothers Grimm-esque fairy tale. The timeline frequently jumps around, using the parallel marriages between Apollo and Emma in the present and Lillian and Brian in the '70s as thoughtful explorations of complicated modern romance, then and now. The series also devotes time to the delirious paranoia of new parenthood, and cleverly weaves that universal experience in with the the supernatural occurrences Emma is witnessing and the ones Lillian witnessed before her: Is it real, or are these mothers, overworked and sleep deprived, just seeing things? What lengths will parents go to for their children? There's darkness running through Apollo's bloodline, leaving everyone haunted and dealing with it in the only way they know how. There's so much good stuff here that even when The Changeling begins to reveal the mystical truth of what really happened to Emma, it's still holding plenty back to keep things intriguing.
This all works because of a combination of gorgeous production design (that Apple money is being put to really good use), slick direction from a roster of creatives that includes Insecure's Melina Matsoukas, and wonderful performances. Stanfield anchors the series, bringing Apollo to life with an appealing everyman energy; for a character whom things are often simply happening to, Stanfield makes sure Apollo never gets lost in the narrative, with his devotion to his wife and son propelling him forward. As the older Lillian, Porter is luminous, especially in the standout seventh episode, and what a pleasure it is to watch Future Islands frontman Samuel T. Herring make his acting debut as the peculiar and eccentric rich guy Apollo teams up with. (Once the show lets Herring bust out his iconic croon, his casting makes perfect sense.) But it's Backo's performance that brings it all home. She and Stanfield have excellent chemistry, and she effortlessly grounds Emma in reality, even as things start to spiral out of her control, making her descent that much more heartbreaking. It's the kind of startling, affecting performance that can turn someone into a star.
The Changeling isn't without its flaws — the slow burn does drag a bit in the middle, and its under-explaining of some of the more supernatural elements might feel unsatisfactory. Certainly a portion of the audience will take issue with the finale, which doesn't provide all that many answers and concludes when things are really getting good, but I wasn't bothered by the show's lack of hand-holding. Anyone willing to go along for the ride is in for an enchanting storybook of a series, one of the year's most singular offerings.
Premieres: Friday, Sept. 8 on Apple TV+
Who's in it: LaKeith Stanfield, Clark Backo, Adina Porter, Samuel T. Herring, Malcolm Barrett, Jane Kaczmarek
Who's behind it: Kelly Marcel (creator and writer); Melina Matsoukas, Jonathan van Tulleken, Dana Gonzales, Michael Francis Williams, and Solvan 'Slick' Naim (directors)
For fans of: Brothers Grimm fairy tales, mysteries, New York City
How many episodes we watched: 8 of 8