For many new parents, the birth of a child is a gift and cause for joyous celebration as they welcome new life into their quickly transforming worlds. But in Apple TV Plus’ arresting new adaptation of Victor LaValle’s novel The Changeling, the arrival of one family’s beloved baby is just the beginning of their journey toward understanding how sometimes the nightmarish fears that keep parents up at night are all too justified and not nearly as irrational as they might seem.
Set largely in the magical worlds of Queens and upper (think Washington Heights) Manhattan, The Changeling tells the winding and romantic story of how antique book buyer Apollo Kagwa (Lakeith Stanfield) and librarian Emma Valentine (Clark Backo) fall in love one fateful winter in 2010. As a lifelong lover of the fantasies that books can plunge people into, it feels like fate to Apollo when he first meets Emma one afternoon during her shift as she’s doing everything she can to help an unhoused man in need and to make it clear to Apollo that she’s anything but interested in going out on a date.
For all of Apollo’s soft-spoken charm and unthreatening persistence as he starts regularly showing up at the library to ask Emma out, at first he seems like just another random man shooting his shot who couldn’t possibly understand the depths she contains. But when she finally deigns to give him a chance, they’re both stunned to realize that they’ve found kindred spirits in one another, and it isn’t long before the pair are passionately in love, married, and expecting their first child.
As closely as showrunner Kelly Marcel’s distinct take on The Changeling cleaves to LaValle’s — who narrates the series — original tale, it adds new depth to Apollo and Emma’s story in the present by fleshing out their parents’ disparate lives in the past at pivotal moments when they made decisions that would define their children’s futures.
The Changeling first starts to clue you in to one of its more interesting mysteries by highlighting the uncanny similarities between the newlyweds and the mothers who raised them. As uniquely wondrous as the circumstances of Apollo and Emma’s starting a family feels to them, the high points of their love look and feel a lot like the love that unexpectedly brought together Apollo’s mother Lillian (Alexis Louder in the past, Adina Porter in the present) and father Brian (Jared Abrahamson) in the summer of 1977.
Often — especially in its premiere episode directed by Melina Matsoukas — The Changeling plays like a beautifully shot fairy tale about Black love in the vein of classic films like Theodore Witcher’s Love Jones. That said, as much energy as Stanfield and Backo put into making you feel the profound connection that binds Emma and Apollo to one another in healthy ways, The Changeling also takes care to frame the emotional lows of their relationship as echoes of the same kind of trauma that devastated both Lillian and Emma’s mother Christine (Samantha Walkes).
But the series becomes even more nuanced, thrilling, and disturbing as it begins to weave everyone’s stories together into a haunting exploration of the deep-seated fears that all parents — especially those living in the age of social media filled with #family content — feel as they start taking their children out into the world.
Much like Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and HBO’s adaptation of that book, The Changeling begins to pull from the fantasy canon as it takes a turn for the supernatural that deftly parlays an old folktale into a powerful exploration of the impact postpartum depression can have on mothers as individual people and families as units.
Because Emma’s character is so much more fleshed out here, The Changeling’s story feels much more like it’s hers and Apollo’s in equal parts, with Backo expertly realizing new and different shades to her persona as the elation that first came with baby Brian’s birth shifts to something more sinister. And by sticking so closely to the book’s depiction of Apollo as a genuinely good father who doesn’t immediately demonize his wife’s apprehensions about their son, the show’s also able to maintain enough intrigue so as to never feel like it’s simply telling a straightforward spooky story about an idyllic marriage falling apart for “normal” reasons.
That same quality — staying true to The Changeling’s story as LaValle wrote it with all of its moving parts — is why Apple’s new show occasionally feels like it’s getting close to being too busy between its multiple interconnected timelines, a sizable cast of robust supporting characters, and central mystery that grows more complex as the season unfolds. It’s also clear, though, that The Changeling’s creative team has a strong and stunning vision for where they want to take the series. It’s one that makes working your way through its eight hour-long episodes an absolute joy — even (or especially, if you’re into it) when things start getting real weird.
The Changeling also stars Samuel T. Herring, Amirah Vann, Malcolm Barrett, and Jane Kaczmarek. The series’ first three episodes hit Apple TV Plus on September 8th.