Fairytales can easily bend and twist into nightmares, which is the core sentiment of Apple TV+’s adaptation of Victor LaValle’s award-winning novel, “The Changeling.” In the series, a young father, Apollo Kagwa (LaKeith Stanfield), embarks on a desperate search for his wife, Emma Valentine (Clark Backo), after she vanishes following a horrific incident shortly after the birth of their first child. Lavalle, who narrates this eight-episode series, set his book in New York City — across decades and realms, infusing Norwegian fairy tales with elements from the Black American experience, Ugandan traditions and magical folklore. Regrettably, pulling all that together in a television adaptation of the novel has proven impossible for writer Kelly Marcel.
“The Changeling” opens in Fort Washington, New York, in 2010. Apollo finds himself drawn to Emma, a librarian who has dreams of seeing the world before settling down. When the pair reunite many months later following Emma’s extended stay in Brazil, they dive headfirst into a romance, and Apollo naively promises to fulfill all of Emma’s dreams and wishes.
Apollo and Emma’s rekindled romance progresses quickly, with a wedding, a welcome pregnancy and the birth of their son, Brian. However, the couple’s happiness is soon tempered by Emma’s insomnia, paranoia and increasingly fragile postpartum state. Though riddles and fables ripple across “The Changeling,” the core of the series is about postpartum psychosis and the great weight of responsibility mothers take on when raising their children. As Apollo’s mother, Lillian (Adina Porter), says at one point, “A mother is something that I can never not be again.” Unfortunately, because the first five episodes are told from Apollo’s perspective and Emma’s point of view isn’t revealed until the final three, for the majority of the series “The Changeling” presents an unsympathetic protagonist with an increasingly dismissive view of his wife and mother’s experiences.
While overly detailed descriptions can work well in written forms, using this same format on screen can quickly suffocate viewers in extraneous exposition. In “The Changeling,” storylines and explanations become overwhelming as the narrative flits back and forth in time and space, shoving in elements that took place more than a century before the show begins. Since Apollo is the guide throughout the story, the audience only becomes privy to Emma’s experiences in Episode 6 (which is the most compelling segment). When “The Changeling” finally shows Emma’s point of view, backtracking to her initial meet-cute with Apollo and even pivoting toward a significant event from her childhood involving her sister Kim (Amirah Vann), some of the fog around the narrative clears. Moreover, while young Lillian’s (Alexis Louder) origin story is intriguing enough, her viewpoint, which unfolds in Episode 7, feels like a completely different show than previously presented.
While “The Changeling” wants to say things about memory, parenthood, childhood, and what is sacrificed and coveted in between, the series never grounds the narrative in those themes. By only presenting a shadow of Emma’s frame of mind, Apollo’s clunky understanding of what has truly transpired isn’t enough to sustain the clues and hints sprinkled throughout the show. Instead, viewers are left with more questions than answers.
Audiences rarely need to be coddled. But from the moment “The Changeling” begins until the final scene, it feels as if the creators have no interest in explaining any of the details needed to give this story meaning. What should have been an enchanting horror fantasy gives way to a baffling jigsaw, teetering on the absurd. Some stories, with all of their strangeness and symbolism, are better left on the page.
The first three episodes of “The Changeling” premiere Sept. 8 on Apple TV+, with new episodes dropping weekly on Fridays.
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