‘Servant’ Season 2: The Mysteries Are Leaner but Just as Puzzling

Everything about Apple TV’s “Servant” seems designed to puzzle its viewers to no end. That was part of the allure of its highly cryptic first season. It’s hard to believe what is going on yet you want to keep watching to figure it out. Back to produce is M. Night Shyamalan, who built an entire career on the fine art of the plot twist. Season two can feel imperfect, precisely because it has to figure out how to keep its mysteries uncovered for another full round. You can only go so far with this premise. But it’s still skillfully directed and acted, with moments destined to get under your skin.

When last season ended, the accursed couple Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) and Sean Turner (Toby Kebbell) had received a major shock when their nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), appeared to have run off with their baby Jericho. You may recall Jericho began last season as a coping doll meant to help Dorothy and Sean process the death of their real infant son. Then it seemed Jericho had suddenly come back to life. On top of that, Leanne turned out to be the member of a strange cult Dorothy had reported on in her work as a TV journalist. Now the couple are racing to try and find Jericho. A great challenge is that they have to do it carefully. Because Jericho is officially dead, they can’t necessarily get much help finding him if he’s been supposedly kidnapped. Besides, Sean and Dorothy’s brother, Julian (Rupert Grint), can’t be entirely sure if her claims are even accurate. Yet they did have a baptism for Jericho where Dorothy is sure she spotted the leader of Leanne’s cult. 

From here season two of “Servant” zig-zags between dark suspense and more clues to the greater mystery. This is one of those rare shows where you truly almost can’t guess how any of this will resolve itself. Apple TV is smart to keep this as a weekly series, because with its slow burner tone and refusal to explain much, binging would require real stamina. But none of this makes the show a flop. There’s a tighter pace and atmosphere to spare. The season premiere is directed by Julia Ducournau, who made the brilliant 2016 cannibal arthouse drama “Raw.” She brings a stylish yet unnerving tone to moments like Sean burning his hand over a stove, since Leanne might have cursed his sense of taste and touch. The apartment where this whole drama has unfolded takes on a more menacing air in its shadowy lighting. Spaces feel confined and claustrophobic. The first few episodes have a chase aspect as Sean and Dorothy try to track down Leanne, including using her photo for a “missing teen” alert on Dorothy’s newscast. 

Yet as with season one, the best way to describe “Servant” is almost as a series of moments. There are many mind games going on, even within the intrigue already at play. Sean gets Julian to help him try and find Jericho, but Julian will also pull off something in the order of making up a note for Dorothy, claiming Jericho is alive. Is he doing this just to ease her mental state? As Dorothy tracks down leads to find Leanne, Sean and Julian talk behind her back wondering if she’s simply insane. Nothing can be trusted. There are also flashbacks to Sean and Dorothy’s previous stint as parents, where we see they were not the most admirable people at the job. “Servant” then edges closer to the ongoing obsession with cult thrillers. A mansion might hold a clue to where Leanne and Jericho are hiding out, so a lot of dangerous snooping is done by the couple and Julian. They’re so obsessed to find this kid they even fake their own restaurant menu to try and see if the people in the mansion will order pizza, and as it turns out, they do. This leads to one of the season’s more effectively eerie moments involving a hidden camera on a delivery guy.

You can’t really spoil “Servant,” the key is to not spoil its details. If there is a fault to the show it lies in how it refuses to go beyond the central tension of the story: Is Dorothy insane? Was Jericho ever real or just a doll? Some scenes establish a major question then disappear in the haze of the narrative, like Sean taking the old doll from last season from the garbage and bathing it. Why? That question personifies the entire show. For a moment it may seem like “Servant” will fall into the current fad in movies and TV to use cults as a go-to scare or villain. It does feel like a mere tool for whatever rug-pulling Shyamalan and co-showrunner Tony Basgallop have in store. A challenge is in keeping the momentum going. Some episodes are gripping while others feel like filler where the showrunners grasp for excuses to keep this as a 10-episode season. At its best this is a wickedly playful gothic thriller that knows how to tease. What remains to be seen is if the payoff is worth the trouble.

Servant” season two begins streaming Jan. 15 with new episodes premiering every Friday on AppleTV+.