Like its folkloric namesake, Apple TV+’s The Changeling is a bit of a bait and switch. On top of swapping out a human child for something more otherworldly, the new series promising a dark fantasy puzzle before delivering something much stranger — and ultimately unsatisfying.
Adapted from the novel by Victor LaValle, who also narrates the show, The Changeling falls into several of streaming TV’s worst traps. It bloats its source material past its limit, sets up mysteries it doesn’t bother to unravel, and squanders any momentum it builds through a series of ill-timed narrative digressions.
These missteps are made doubly frustrating by the fact that The Changeling has serious potential. Its otherworldly New York City blossoms before our eyes, creating a beguiling background for the show’s examinations of parenthood and intergenerational trauma. But the more The Changeling jerks us around, the more it makes you wonder, “Are these occasional moments of greatness actually leading to anything worthwhile?”
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What is The Changeling about?
Credit: Apple TV+
The Changeling gets off to a strong enough start, with rare bookseller Apollo Kagwa (LaKeith Stanfield) wooing librarian Emma Valentine (Clark Backo). While she rejects his first six attempts to ask her our, she accepts his seventh, telling him that the reason she said no for so long was because she’s about to move to Brazil, and she doesn’t know how long she’ll be gone.
The prospect of waiting doesn’t scare Apollo one bit — in fact, it runs in his blood. As a flashback tells us, Apollo’s father Brian (Jared Abrahamson) asked his mother Lillian (Alexis Louder) to dinner for years before she said yes. This parallel between father and son is just one of many connections The Changeling threads between the past and the present. We also learn about the violence that prompted Lillian to leave Uganda and come to New York, as well as the troubles she faced upon raising Apollo alone after Brian leaves them.
At first, these trips into the past make for fascinating links to the present. Family history repeats itself, calling to mind the circular and oft-repetitive structure of fairy tales, where everything comes in threes. Yet as Apollo’s own tale progresses, these connections become more and more tenuous — and more distracting from the horror that begins to play out in the present.
Apollo’s persistence wins out in the end, and he and Emma get married after her time in Brazil. They have a healthy baby named Brian, fulfilling Apollo’s greatest desire of being a great father. (In another instance of past-meets-present, this was also his father’s ultimate dream.) Apollo delights in taking Brian to the park and posting adorable photos of the two of them on social media.
However, Emma’s experience with parenthood isn’t quite so rosy. She gets next to no maternity leave, has trouble sleeping due to Brian’s near-constant crying, and worst of all, keeps receiving ominous texts from someone who seems to be watching her and her family. Wondering whether Brian is even her baby, she makes a shocking, violent decision and disappears into thin air, leaving a grieving Apollo behind.
The Changeling veers into fairy tale territory but doesn’t fully commit.
As Apollo sets out to uncover the truth about Emma’s actions, he learns of darker forces afoot in New York City. Witches and monsters exist, and somehow, they’ve gotten their claws into his wife and child, calling to mind the dark and twisted fairy tales of old. Despite this reveal, The Changeling keeps most of its magic under lock and key. The witches we do meet don’t do much beyond talk in riddles. The same goes for the monsters, which are more monstrous humans with implied beastly characteristics than outright ogres.
Possibly magical elements of Emma and Apollo’s backstories are also underdeveloped. Apollo has recurring nightmares of his father returning to him, blue-faced and with smoke pouring out of his mouth. In Brazil, Emma encounters a woman who gives her three wishes and a red thread bracelet, declaring that her wishes will have come true when the bracelet falls off — and that she shouldn’t cut it. That superstition means nothing to Apollo, who cuts the thread while uttering his mantra: “I am the god Apollo.” The threatening consequences of his hubris thunder through The Changeling as we watch the bracelet fall to the ground in slow-motion, yet the show fails to explore the significance of the bracelet further. The Changeling treats both the red bracelet and Apollo’s blue-faced father as hooks with which to reel viewers in, returning to them in flashes throughout the season without delivering on their magical promise.
Granted, these semi-magical elements do build a compelling atmosphere of dread, as The Changeling taps into the tried-and-true genre of parenthood horror. Emma’s descent into violence makes for an absolutely harrowing hour of television, helped greatly by Backo’s unnerving performance. In a similar vein, The Changeling also mines horror from the relationship between parenting and social media. Apollo’s love for posting about Brian allows strangers to effectively consume his child, resulting in the rise of a sinister social media group hellbent on terrorizing Apollo. These are effective storylines, especially when it comes to examining how being a parent impacts your sense of self. It’s a shame, then, that The Changeling‘s pacing dilutes them to mere shadows of their potential.
The Changeling‘s pacing is its worst enemy.
Credit: Apple TV+
In its first few episodes, The Changeling sets up several fascinating mysteries, including the nature of Emma’s three wishes. In the episodes that follow, The Changeling unleashes some intriguing reveals and hints about the future of Apollo’s story. But throughout the season’s eight-episode run, the excitement of these moments gets lost in the morass of a slow burn that stops being fun three episodes in.
Even when it does pick up some semblance of pace, The Changeling stifles its own momentum. The most egregious example is the show’s penultimate episode, which focuses entirely on present-day Lillian (Adina Porter). While this intriguing portrait of a supporting character touches on many of The Changeling‘s core interests — motherhood chiefest among them — its positioning in the season annihilates the intrigue built by the more propulsive fifth and sixth episodes. In another major structural error, the fifth episode’s final act twist isn’t even revisited until the finale.
There are smaller instances of these pacing issues throughout. Mysteries drag on for longer than they should, with obfuscation for obfuscation’s sake becoming the show’s main tactic. At a certain point, you realize that all this narrative feet-dragging means that The Changeling is building to an unnecessary cliffhanger, apparently more interested in setting up a second season than in creating a solid first season. It’s a strange choice given that standalone novels fare better as contained miniseries than bloated, multi-season arcs. (See: wonderful series like The Underground Railroad and Station Eleven versus whatever The Handmaid’s Tale has become.)
Even The Changeling‘s last moments — flashes of future threats and other magical forces in New York — are reminders of the better, more streamlined series that could have been. However, instead of getting excited about the continuation of this fairy tale, all you’ll be left with is the feeling that the story’s magic ran out long ago.