How Servant season 2 got funnier and darker amid the pandemic
M. Night Shyamalan's Apple TV+ series about the horror of being stuck inside with your thoughts took on a new relevance this year.
Do you remember what you were doing when the world changed? It's very possible that the week of March 9, 2020, when lockdown measures were first enforced across the United States due to the COVID-19 pandemic, will be etched in our minds forever. Rupert Grint, Lauren Ambrose, and the rest of the cast of Apple TV+'s Servant certainly remember where they were: On set near Philadelphia, filming the second season of their show about the unique horror experienced by a family who are stuck inside their apartment all day.
"It came from nowhere. We were halfway through an episode," Grint recalls. "We finished a scene and suddenly the first assistant director called everyone in for a big team meeting. They said 'yeah, we're shutting down.' But at first it was only for two weeks, so we were stuck wondering, 'Do we stick around or get the hell out? Is the world ending?'"
A year later, vaccines are rolling out across the world and it feels possible to hope that relatively normal activities can start to resume in the coming months. But life as we know it has certainly changed since last March, including for film and TV productions. Strangely enough, Servant already had an inkling of how weird things were about to get.
The saga of Jericho
Servant first premiered on Apple TV+ in November 2019. That was back in the so-called "Before Times," when it was safe to go over to a friend's house. But even then, Servant had an eye for claustrophobic horror.
Servant was created by Tony Basgallop (who wrote every epsiode of season 1, and several in season 2) and executive produced by M. Night Shyamalan. Fitting with the latter's work, the show takes place in Philadelphia, almost entirely in a one-famly home. Since Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) works as a consulting chef and bon vivant, he can accomplish most of his work in their apartment's well-furnished kitchen. His wife, Dorothy (Ambrose), works as a local news anchor, but she's just coming off maternity leave and still spends a lot of time at home because she wants to spend as much time as possible with their new baby, Jericho — or at least, she thinks she does.
The truth is that Jericho died before the events of Servant began. But rather than reckon with the horror of his death, Dorothy shut away the truth in her mind. Her brother, Julian Pearce (Grint), teamed up with Sean to concoct a scheme: They bought a doll that resembled Jericho and decided to act like the infant was still alive, for Dorothy's sake. What they didn't expect was that Dorothy would take it so seriously that she insisted on hiring a nanny to take care of the fake Jericho.
The Turners chose Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), who ended up treating the fake baby as seriously as Dorothy did. In fact, by the end of the first episode, the doll had seemingly been replaced with a real baby. The obvious follow-up questions — "is this the real Jericho, brought back to life? Is it a random stranger's baby kidnapped? Is this human baby an illusion and it's still just a doll?" — hung over the rest of season 1, but Shyamalan stresses that the baby mystery isn't the real story. Leanne, who Shyamalan says is the titular "servant" of the show, is even more important.
"Really, there's two storylines here," he says. "One is the family that's refusing to mourn, and that I find endlessly interesting: The three of them refusing to accept what happened. But on top of that is this story of Leanne, and she's the title character. That story is just beginning."
Whether alive or dead, Jericho is still just an infant, so not much of a conversationalist. A much more emotional relationship developed between Leanne, a young girl from mysterious background, and Dorothy, whose maternal desires had been going unfulfilled. They found moments of strange intimacy, but their relationship was ruptured at the end of season 1, when Leanne discovers that Dorothy is responsible for Jericho's death. She fled the Turner house, and the human-seeming Jericho is once again replaced by a lifeless doll. Free describes this turn of events as "a complete 180" on Leanne's part. Never meet your heroes!
"As Leanne gets closer to her, she starts to see the cracks in Dorothy's veneer, and it's like meeting your favorite movie star and finding out that they're not perfect. It starts to unsettle Leanne," Free says. "Dorothy goes from being her idol, her mother figure, her everything, to being something that Leanne, with her religion and her way of life, cannot comprehend. Leanne is just a teenager, really, and she just can't quite grasp how someone can make such a big mistake with their child."
Round 2: Funnier, darker, stranger
Rather than reckon with the reality of Jericho's death and the illusion she's been living under, Dorothy interprets Leanne's departure to mean that Jericho has been kidnapped by Leanne and the mysterious religious community she belongs to. Their relationship becomes infused with a new, dangerous energy. Leanne becomes the target of Dorothy's pent-up energy, and she soon makes it clear she's willing to do anything to find the runaway nanny.
"The boys were lying to her all last season, and now she sees their incompetence and their reticence," Ambrose says. "So she decides to take over and use all her journalistic abilities and skills to find this baby and break down the mystery of this cult. But then it gets really dark and rageful, and she's driven into this sort of insanity and rage because she's not getting the answers she wants. That's definitely different from the first season where it was like, 'is this lady gonna crack into a million pieces?' She's like a villain now, she's scary."
Dorothy isn't just scary, though. When she starts turning even her evening-news broadcasts to the service of hunting down Leanne, she starts delivering the serious bulletins about crime and death in a cooing, lovely voice as if she's telling a bedtime story to her missing baby. The juxtaposition is hilarious, as is the exhaustion of characters like Julian, who at one point tries to summarize the situation for a new arrival: "They had a baby. Then they had a fake baby. Then it was replaced with a real baby, and now it's a fake baby again. Jesus, keep up!" Those of us who have been stuck inside for a year know that prolonged alienation and loneliness can swing around to being darkly amusing and back again. The makers of Servant know that, too.
Another form that Dorothy's obsession takes is a scheme to start a fake restaurant that can make Seamless-style deliveries to the house where they believe Leanne is now staying. In order to pose as a restaurant, the Turners install a big oven so they can make their own pizza. Due to Sean's work as a consulting chef, season 1 of Servant was suffused with food. There were almost as many close-ups of Sean's work gutting fish and pouring wine as there were tight zoom-ins on the faces of the human characters trying to keep their emotions in check. Kebbell did a lot of the cooking himself, for real, with the help of professional chefs. His costars praise his abilities, but Kebbell says it's relaxing.
"With cooking, you start at the beginning and you finish," Kebbell says. "In acting, you don't often get that. You do a piece here and then a couple of days later you do another piece. Even still, you don't complete the picture, that's an editor's job, and there's a writer before that. So, cooking has that happy place of, 'I saw all the raw ingredients, I've put them all together in the right order, and now I'm cooking them to the right temperature to serve them up, to eat.' Or have a cast member or somebody else eat them. It's relaxing. So I actually use it as a great escape."
But while Dorothy has been going through her journey from fragile eccentric to manipulative schemer, Sean has also been changing over the course of the show. For awhile, encounters with Leanne's ritualistic shrines left him unable to taste, and a stigmata-like wound in his hand has affected his ability to prepare food. So most of the food in season 2 (both on-screen and off) comes from the pizza oven.
"The big thing was getting the dough right," he says. "We were for months expecting it to be really dry like a napkin. But instead we made it light and airy, and it's just delicious. When we make some, if you're not on it immediately, it's gone."
New faces, new rooms
Of course, Kebbell said this in the Before Times, when EW visited the set in the days before COVID-19 hit. When the cast was finally able to reconvene in Philadelphia months after filming paused, there was no room for sharing pizza. Cast and crew members were separated into different zones, everyone wore masks and face shields except for actors who were being filmed, and tests were constant. Grint says he hardly "saw a naked human face" during production on the back half of season 2. The protocols were successful (no one came down with COVID-19, and once production started up again it didn't stop), but did make Grint wonder whether Servant now had too much relevance.
"I was worried about it in a way: Are people who are actually stuck in their houses gonna find their escape in a show where everyone stays in a house?" Grint says. "But I think in season 2 the house takes on a whole new energy. We take on new areas of the house that you didn't even know existed. It's a different animal. I've enjoyed not knowing where we're going, it's thrilling."
One new area of the house becomes a focal point for the conflict between Dorothy and Leanne. When the runaway servant does come back to the Turners' home, she no longer sleeps in her former bedroom, but instead in a previously-unexplored attic full of creepy mannequins and a haunting mirror.
"The set felt very theatrical to me, it's full of antiques and old things," Ambrose says. "It doesn't look like the rest of the house at all. The scenes within it were also very theatrical, so it lent itself to the tone and brought out this heightened feeling in there with the lighting and all of the details."
It isn't just the attic that's new, either. In the final episode of season 2 (which hits Apple TV+ this Friday), a new character appears as well, and she'll act as a bridge between this season and the future of the show. "Essentially, by the end of season 2, you'll know what the show is really about," Shyamalan says. "At the end of the season 2 finale, you'll be like, 'oh, s---.'"