The M. Night Shyamalan television series Servant premiered along with Apple TV+ back in November 2019. I admit that I did not initially check in on the series because of a few middling reviews and the fact that there were other Apple TV+ series I prioritized upon its launch (like the heavily hyped The Morning Show and For All Mankind).
However, ahead of the second season of the series and with a sudden dearth of TV thanks to the pandemic, I finally caught up on Servant a few weeks ago, and I found that I really liked the series. I’m willing to give almost any show with half-hour episodes a shot, and I happened to also really like the cast of Servant, which features Lauren Ambrose, Toby Kebbell, Nell Tiger Free, and Rupert Grint as the irresponsible, cocaine-snorting brother. The tone, however, is a little funky. It’s horror, but the performances are sometimes so over the top that Servant can feel like a dark horror-comedy.
That is, until, “Jericho,” the ninth episode of the first season. Any suggestion that there might be an intentional layer of comedy beneath the premise of Servant is completely erased by that episode, which may be the most disturbing episode of horror I’ve seen on TV since “The Home” episode of The X-Files.
Spoilers for the first season of Servant
Without spoiling too much about how it unfolds, Servant is about a couple who lose their baby under mysterious circumstances. In order to deal with the debilitating grief, Sean (Kebbell) substitutes their dead child with a doll, and Dorothy (Ambrose) treats the doll as though it is her actual baby. For the purposes of discussing episode 9, it’s not important to explain how the story unfolds, except to say that in the ninth episode, we finally find out how their baby died.
It is messed up, and for parents, it is quite possibly the worst nightmare imaginable.
In the episode, Sean has to travel out of state for the weekend, leaving Dorothy alone with the baby. The weather is brutally hot. Dorothy is exhausted because the baby has been crying all night. After a couple of days without any sleep and no help from her husband, Dorothy loses it. Her mind is shot by the lack of sleep, and she finds that she’s just going through the motions of taking care of her baby.
After a trip in the car, she returns home but forgets to remove her baby from the car. Once inside, she mistakenly believes she’s put the baby into its crib, and that the baby has fallen asleep. In fact, so comforted by the rare moment of quietness, Dorothy falls asleep herself.
Around 2 a.m., however, Dorothy wakes up and goes to the crib to check on the baby. The baby is not there, and she briefly realizes what she’s done. Because of the shock that washes over her, however, Dorothy’s mind won’t allow her to acknowledge that the baby has died. She returns to the car, pulls the dead infant out of its car seat, and proceeds to act as though nothing has happened. She continues to care for the dead child for several days — kissing it, holding it, rocking it — until her husband finally returns home.
Meanwhile, a giant leg of meat so huge it cannot be refrigerated is delivered several days early to her husband, who is a chef. Dorothy is so preoccupied with caring for her dead baby that all she can do is to leave the leg of meat on her table. As it rots, decomposes, and draws flies in the suffocatingly hot apartment, Dorothy continues to carry around her dead baby, as her child also continues to decompose in her arms. The smell of death and rot is unbearable.
In her shock, Dorothy remains oblivious to what has happened, to what she has done, and to the state of her child. That remains the case even when Sean returns. That is ultimately why they have to substitute a doll for their child. It’s because if Dorothy ever comes to terms with what she did — that she let her baby die a slow, painful death inside of a hot car — it would break her.
It’s one of the most excruciating, dread-filled episodes of TV I’ve ever seen, and while that may sound like a reason not to watch Servant, that shouldn’t be the case. Servant should appeal to horror fans, while it also works exceptionally well as a mediation on grief. The cooking component of the show is also surprisingly enjoyable, and aside from that one episode, it’s not a particularly difficult show to watch. It is, however, a compelling but slow burn that is blossoming into something else entirely new, interesting, and culty in its second season.
Check it out. It’s currently in the middle of its second season on Apple TV+ (and if you decide to subscribe and have not seen it yet, do watch last year’s best show, Ted Lasso, while you’re at it).