“Tell me your journey, each of you. Tell me your life’s voyage and I will tell you who you are.” These words bookend the first episode of The Changeling, a new horror-fantasy series about a young New York couple whose lives begin to fall apart after the birth of their son. They’re spoken by horror author Victor LaValle, who serves as the story’s narrator. With a tone that mixes supernatural elements with the gritty backdrop of New York City, The Changeling aims to be a dark fairy tale for adults. The series, based on LaValle’s best-selling novel of the same name, opens like the pages of a storybook with the promise of an epic odyssey into the dark depths of marriage, parenthood, and trauma.
The gothic visual style of the series is established in the first episode by director Melina Matsoukas. Much like her feature debut, Queen & Slim, The Changeling is a dark story with Black love at the center that aims to explore society and identity. But here, Matsoukas is able to play more with color and sound, experimenting with the depiction of memories. The series, adapted for television by British screenwriter Kelly Marcel, is both visually and narratively ambitious, reminiscent of Mike Flanagan's psychologically expansive approach to classic horror stories. Blending supernatural elements with a realistic love story, The Changeling walks a tonal tightrope between brutal horror and melodrama.
Apollo (LaKeith Stanfield) is a rare-book seller who meets Emma (Clark Backo) while browsing a branch of the New York Public Library. She’s a beautiful and smart librarian and there’s an immediate attraction between the two. But curiously, every time Apollo asks Emma out she turns him down. In flashback we see the same pattern play out with Apollo’s father Brian (Jared Abrahamson), who pursued his mother Lillian (Alexis Louder) back in the ’70s. Apollo’s persistence mirrors his father’s and in both timelines, their efforts are rewarded with love and marriage. Moving backward and forward in time, The Changeling aims to tell the story of Apollo and Emma’s love while showing us glimpses of the family histories that shaped them. There’s a dark cloud over the couple that becomes more clear as the season progresses.
Everything changes for Apollo and Emma after the birth of their son Brian, with both parents pushing themselves to their physical and emotional limits. A new baby always shifts the dynamic of a household, but with Brian comes a darkness that threatens Emma’s sanity. What seems like postpartum depression gives way to something more sinister and violent, transforming Emma into someone Apollo barely recognizes. But once tragedy strikes, Apollo begins to change as well, shedding his romantic innocence in the process.
But even before things start to go very wrong, there’s an uneasiness to Apollo and Emma’s union. Visually, they look good together and make sense as a couple. They have a shared love of literature and bold curiosity, but they both seem to be looking for something the other can’t give them. Their respective tragic histories influence every move they make and serve as a barrier to them knowing each other more deeply. They’re playing house, hoping that marital bliss will heal the wounds of the past while being afraid to speak of them aloud to each other. They’re performing love but the distance between them is impossible to ignore.
There’s also something menacing about Apollo and his aggressive need to be a husband and father. Stanfield plays him with a nervous energy, both eager and forceful. Whenever Apollo needs strength he repeats his mantra: “I am the god Apollo!” And despite his svelte body and bookish nature, there are flashes of violence and rage that call into question how pure his intentions are. It’s difficult to know if these elements of his character are intentional or simply just the flavor Stanfield’s performance gives the character. And because he’s the protagonist we’re told more about him than his wife.
As Emma, Backo is tasked with shouldering all of The Changeling’s mysteries. But even though this is a story with an omniscient narrator, the way Emma is portrayed seems more influenced by how Apollo sees her. Glimpses into her past only seem to answer superficial questions about Emma and why she is the way she is. We see characters speak about Emma more often than we even see her. And though the mystery is intriguing, The Changeling is at its best when it reveals its secrets, opening the narrative up to actually explore its themes. But the series holds tightly to its mystery as if viewers must stay firmly in Apollo’s shoes, even though he has very little information to go on. There should be something thrilling about his journey for answers, but despite all of the repeating visual motifs, it’s hard to see where the narrative is going.
Though intriguing, The Changeling feels like it’s missing something. Perhaps it’s because the season only covers a portion of the book. But with eight hour-long episodes, there’s ample room to tell the full story. And yet the series strains to justify its run time, repeating phrases and images as if it's stalling until the big twist happens. The mystery becomes more frustrating with each new character that’s introduced. As the cast slowly expands and Apollo goes deeper into the depths of New York and his own psyche, the withholding nature of the narrative becomes more apparent. By the end, viewers may be left wondering if they have the patience for The Changeling’s inevitable second season.
The Changeling premieres September 8 at 3:00 AM ET with three episodes on Apple TV+. New episodes drop every Friday. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.
Jourdain Searles is a critic, comedian, and film programmer. She also hosts the Bad Romance Podcast.