“A baby is a dream made real / But dreams are faeries’ favorite meal.” This is a line we encounter numerous times throughout The Changeling, the television adaptation of Victor LaValle’s fairytale horror novel of the same name that premieres September 8 on Apple TV+. And it suitably sets the dark/light tone this show builds: There’s the dream, here’s the threat. It has a haunting beauty and is properly scary. It’s a bit like Lovecraft Country, something adjacent to Helen Oyeyemi’s fiction, and includes certain elements of gothic literature and Shirley Jackson’s style. (It’s no surprise LaValle has won the Shirley Jackson Award for his work.) The author describes having been inspired to write this story as he engaged in “pain in the ass” new dad behavior, including posting compulsively to social media after the birth of his first son. This led him to ponder how casually children can be put into dangerous situations, which brought him, of course, to fairy tales. (There are so many ogres eating babies in those things. Seriously, they have a problem.)
And man, is this ever a beautiful portrait of fatherhood, as only a deeply devoted parent can paint it. LaValle has clearly brought his authentic self to this. Show creator/writer Kelly Marcel granted him input on all scripts, he was invited to set daily (around his family’s schedule), and was given an executive producer credit. He also shows up to narrate the thing. And so, naturally, this feels like his voice, perhaps a semi autobiographical work, but definitely one that stemmed from his own parental existential dread. Lakeith Stanfield, a father himself and an actor whose body of work resonates with Lavalle’s style of storytelling, so beautifully portrays our hero (and seeming LaValle stand-in) Apollo Kagwa. It’s perfect casting. He’s understated, mostly, but can burst into gleeful moments of theatricality when moved by joy, doing voices and putting his whole body into his bits. He’s also genuinely funny for a lead in a scary show, a credit to the writing as well as his own comedic sensibility. And he can translate Apollo’s pain so palpably that we feel it in our viscera.
That could have something to do with the fact that what he experiences in this is truly gut-wrenching. It’s nightmarish, especially if you have kids, but there’s some body horror in there, too, to make us all wince. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say harm does come to the child, Apollo’s baby boy, Brian. And it does dance with postpartum psychosis. After their child is born, his wife Emma Valentine (Clark Backo) keeps receiving mysterious photos via text, photos that keep disappearing before Apollo can see them. Meanwhile, neither of them are sleeping, which drives both deeper into madness as the texts keep coming (and vanishing), deepening the growing rift between them. That is, until something unthinkable happens, leaving Apollo alone to make sense of it all and navigate a frightening, hidden world that unfolds for him.
There are so many interesting threads in this terrifying tale, including a literal one that Emma has tied around her wrist by a bruxa in the Brazilian woods that allows her to make three wishes that come true when it’s cut. (Two are normal and known to us; one is secret and creepy.) Some other narratives involve a Norse curse, an occult Facebook mommies group called “The Wise Ones,” weirdness with Apollo’s mom and estranged dad, as well as Emma’s childhood baggage (really serious baggage, actually). If that sounds like a lot, it kind of is. It’s not too tough to get lost in the proverbial woods here, but even when we do, this show has established enough trust through competent storycraft that we catch up—and know it’s worth it.
The Changeling’s secret weapon is its characterization, with each actor in this cast embodying their respective role so richly. We believe Emma and Apollo’s romance as we see them joke and play. In their early courtship, he tells her one of her eyes is bigger than the other and means it as a compliment. But we also see them support each other in small, familiar ways early on (when these two still have the capacity, before hell breaks loose). We believe in their broader family relationships: his with his mother, an impeccable Adina Porter (just wait ’till later in the season, good lord does she shine), and hers with sister Kim (Amirah Vahn). Somehow the most heartwarming of all, though, is Apollo’s bond with his friend and business partner Patrice (Malcom Barrett), a veteran of the war in Iraq who can jab him for looking like Master Blaster with his son strapped to his chest, but also threaten to destroy a rare book they’ve acquired before they can sell it if Apollo ends up hurting himself. They all feel real and warm so that the more fantastical elements of this story can land.
Even the mundane details feel special here. We see Apollo fuss over first foods, suggesting they feed Brian avocado, not sweet fruits, so that he won’t reject savory flavors down the line. They struggle to sleep. They argue with his mom about baptism and pass on their favorite songs and stories their own imperfect parents have imbued them with. There’s so much beauty here while still keeping the focus on the grim stuff.
There’s a relevant, important theme of believing women, too. (If seeing delusions common to postpartum psychosis being validated as real and worth following as fact will trigger you, you may struggle with this show.) When kids are involved (let’s face it, when mothers are involved) many people tend to squirm as they see certain choices play out. At the same time, classic fairy tales don’t hide from the hideous things. They embrace and expose them, with some rhyme, rhythm, and repetition thrown in there for a little structure and safety among the unimaginable. And that’s how The Changeling makes its magic, too.
The Changeling premieres September 8 on Apple TV+