[Editor’s note: This review contains spoilers from the first three seasons of Servant.]
In season four of Apple TV+’s Servant, Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) declares that no one in his house knows how to cope. And no truer statement has ever been made. The assertion also perfectly encapsulates the idea behind this M. Night Shyamalan-produced horror series, a freaky analysis of the extreme lengths humans go to in order to avoid coping with grief. The show remains a titillating yet exasperating adventure as it enters its final season. And based on the initial three episodes of that season, it leans on dark humor and several horror tropes to provide fascinating character studies, especially pertaining to motherhood. That said, Servant continues to spin a familiar yarn without providing long overdue answers.
When the show began, Sean and his wife Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) had hired Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free) as a nanny for their 13-week-old son, Jericho. Except Jericho was dead. Sean had resorted to using an “unborn doll”—a realistic figure of their baby—to help his wife out of her catatonic state. Leanne’s arrival shattered their reality. An escaped member of the Church of Lesser Saints cult, she seemed to possess mystical abilities that transformed the doll into a living, breathing, whining baby again. (Although we still don’t know exactly how this happens.) It kicked off an utterly bewildering back-and-forth power trip between her and Dorothy over control of the family.
One has emerged victorious over the other at various times throughout the course of the show. In the sophomore run, Dorothy kept Leanne trapped in the attic and tortured her. The third season reversed it: A paranoid Dorothy attempted to escape the nanny she believes brought evil into their home, ending with her falling off the rickety stairs. So, yes, when season four begins, the pair is up to its old tricks again. Leanne tries everything in her power to take care of Dorothy, who reciprocates with nothing more than a cold shoulder and gruff remarks.
So far, Servant has reveled in gradually increasing the tension between them. It’s paid off because Ambrose and Free’s onscreen chemistry is a delightful treat. They switch from giddy smiles to tongue-in-cheek comments to outright screaming at each other without missing a beat. Ambrose, in particular, makes the most of Dorothy’s wild personality; the actor is casual and unnerving simultaneously. (It’s frustrating that she’s kept out of awards consideration, and that Servant has gone under-appreciated for this long.) But with a conclusion in sight, the show aimlessly relies on the duo’s fraught bond to carry all the weight even now. Sean and his brother-in-law, Julian (a terrific Rupert Grint), are left on the sidelines.
Season four—at least in the beginning—maneuvers away from explaining more about Leanne’s powers, backstory, or anything else to provide more insight into how she functions. It’s a gaping hole in the story because her abilities are far enhanced in these new installments. The first episode, titled “Pigeon,” is an excellent display of Leanne’s strength as members of her former cult accost her. Director Dylan Holmes Williams delivers a stunning opener, paying homage to movies like Birds and dropping in genre classics like creepy twins, fog sweeping out of nowhere, chases, and the like.
Leanne’s powers and heightened emotions aren’t impacting just the Turner home anymore; they’re crumbling their entire Philadelphia neighborhood. Not to mention: She’s still kept a dead body hidden within the walls, and her feelings directly correlate to a gross bug infestation. But there’s annoyingly little to glean about why yet. At least Free gets to portray a bolder version of Leanne as she becomes more sure of herself, as seen in her dressing style and general demeanor. It’s a much-needed form of character development, and she becomes funnier as Leanne grows suspicious of Dorothy’s older nurses’ intentions.
As always, Servant’s strongest asset is its unexpected use of comedy, which includes Sean’s weird, Gordon Ramsay-esque job as the host of a cooking show, the random use of Maroon 5’s “Memories,” and Dorothy’s caregivers gifting Julian a Marie Kondo book. These details add a nice acerbic undertone to Servant’s otherwise menacing vibe. (Remember the season-two episode where Dorothy, Sean, and Julian spend time creating a fake pizza parlor called Cheesus Crust to lure a religious Leanne?) The writing team’s flair for dry humor saves the show when it falls through the cracks or the plot feels scattered.
Yet despite the comedy, performances, and an exceptional behind-the-camera crew, Servant’s final season drags out the narrative for far too long. We’ve already spent three seasons with the Turner clan adjusting to Leanne, an undead baby, and all the other cult problems that follow. With an end in sight, there’s only so much patience we can have. So hopefully, by the time it wraps up, Servant give us a satisfying conclusion that cements it as an underrated Apple TV+ gem.
Servant season 4 premieres January 13 on Apple TV+.