Somewhere between its hot start and rushed finale, the first season of Apple’s The Changeling lives up to its name—it changes, alas for the worse, shifting from sure-handed intrigue to scattered narrative clumsiness. The show doesn’t so much squander its many assets as fails to identify the most important ones, jarringly shifting the focus with odd decisions.
Based on the award-winning novel by Victor LaValle, The Changeling follows the story of a young couple in New York City: used book dealer Apollo Kagwa (LaKeith Stanfield) and librarian Emma Valentine (Clark Backo). When Emma returns from a trip to Brazil, she relates an encounter she had with an alleged witch, who promised that her three wishes would come true—but only if she never cuts the string the witch tied around her wrist. Emma isn’t exactly taking the warning seriously, but Apollo throws it right out the window, promptly cutting the string and promising to make all Emma’s dreams come true himself. Initially there are no ramifications, as the two get married and have a healthy child together, and look to be moving on to a storybook life. But soon Emma’s post-partum depression morphs into a more serious mental disturbance, triggering an unspeakable act—and then her disappearance. Crestfallen, Apollo struggles to recover in the aftermath, and later investigates, hoping to track down his missing wife. It’s a journey that leads him to a fantastical, otherworldly place, and into a confrontation with untold evils.
The Changeling has unnerving atmosphere to burn, and gets off to a great start, thanks to Stanfield’s capable stardom and a nice turn from Backo, fresh from Letterkenny quirk, here in a considerably more impressive dramatic role. The show’s mystique, steered by LaValle’s narration, builds nicely for several episodes, as the story confronts the fleeting joys and deeper agonies of parenthood. It’s all steeped in enticing lore that stretches beyond its domestic setting and modern timeline. But something goes awry down the home stretch, most notably in the penultimate episode, which delves into the backstory of Apollo’s mother (Adina Porter)—a weird, impenetrable hour that kills all forward momentum. Its experimental staginess and glacial pace derails the show’s energy, keeping the crucial charisma of Stanfield and Backo offstage too long. Following that is a truncated finale that rushes its beats, scrimps on effects, and doesn’t satisfyingly bring the mystery to a resting point—presumably in the name of continuing the adventure. I’m hopeful the show will get that opportunity, because the players—including Samuel T. Herring, who sinks his teeth into a juicy supporting role—are great, and the story has loads of interesting elements worth further exploration. But as a season of TV, The Changeling is uneven, its early promise tripped up by awkward detours.