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The Changeling Review – LaKeith Stanfield Dazzles In A Baffling Smörgåsbord Of Delights

The Changeling, based on Victor LaValle’s 2017 fantasy-horror novel of the same name, is either a smörgåsbord of delights or a frustrating mess. You watch your eight episodes – of gorgeously shot, beautifully played, multiple narratives, repeated motifs and woozy dream sequences that never quite resolve into anything cogent – and you take your choice.

The last straightforward thing that happens after book dealer Apollo (LaKeith Stanfield, an actor so good you will follow him just about anywhere) gets together with librarian Emma (Clark Backo) is that, in an uncharacteristic moment of bravado, he cuts off the red string bracelet she has worn since her backpacking trip through Brazil. Alas, this was tied on by a witch who granted her three wishes that would come true as long as the string was never cut. Apollo, it becomes clear – very, very slowly – has just made an ungodly mistake.

He and Emma get married and in between flashbacks to traumatic childhoods (involving disappearing dads who haunt their dreams, depressed mothers, burning houses and their parents’ equally traumatic backstories) have a baby. “A baby is a dream made real,” says Apollo’s favourite, Yeats-inspired, boyhood book. “But dreams are faeries’ favourite meal.”

Before long, Emma has slipped into postpartum depression and possibly psychosis and the show has become an evocation of the visceral fear and dread – along with, if you’re lucky, the joy – of having brought a new life into this degenerate, perilous world. Emma receives – or does she – endless threatening texts and pictures of her and baby Brian from an anonymous number, which disappear before she can show them to Apollo. Sleeplessness erodes her sanity further and she comes to believe that the baby is not her baby, and eventually not a baby at all. After being driven to terrible extremes, she vanishes and Apollo must pursue her through a parallel/underground New York.

As more and more storylines elbow their way into the show it becomes increasingly hard to track anything. By the time we reach a mysterious women-only island that once held Typhoid Mary, via a Norse curse, a rare edition of To Kill a Mockingbird, a possibly infanticidal app developer, bagsful of iron chains, online trolls, creatures from the deep and a Wiccan Mumsnet it may be felt that the pseudo-insanity has delighted us long enough. Time to start pulling the threads together – but The Changeling resists that temptation and ends with a cliffhanger that will require a yet-to-be-greenlit second series to resolve. At least they had the sense to devote the penultimate episode to the truly magnificent Adina Porter as Apollo’s haunted (metaphorically and probably literally) mother Lillian, an actor who, rises to the occasion like a creature from the deep herself. She – and Jane Kaczmarek, here playing the leader of the island women – should be in everything.

If being made to feel unsettled is enough for you, The Changeling will make you very happy indeed. So too if you are happy watching great performances hold a proliferating mass of material together. If the thrill provided by daring, innovative television (even if it doesn’t quite come off) is your jam, dig in. If you are seeking answers, narrative satisfaction or resolution – well, stay away, for this show is more full of loose threads than we can understand. By the waters and the wild we’ll sit and hope for a more traditional season two.

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