The Changeling begins with a warning, the kind of warning that all good stories begin with: Once upon a time. Overlook those four words at your peril; they are frequently the only note of caution you get before a story takes you somewhere strange, unsettling, and maybe even wrong. Like the amorphous creature suggested by its title, it’s hard to know what shape The Changeling will take, but the Apple TV series is off to an eerie, dreamlike start that’s hard to look away from.
Based on the novel of the same name by Victor LaValle, The Changeling introduces viewers to Apollo Kagwa (LaKeith Stanfield), a soft-spoken book collector, and the fairy-tale romance he shares with librarian Emma Valentine (Clark Backo), a similarly quiet oddball that he eventually marries and has a child with. Apollo and Emma are both ciphers, characters with interior lives we are not privy to because they are not expressed. When they are, it’s because they are learning something horrifying: Their memories of their respective pasts are wrong, each of their childhoods rewritten by trauma.
Independently of each other, Apollo and Emma find that familiar nightmares are in fact thinly veiled memories, and that terrible events of their past — missing parents, lost families, immigrant struggles — may have more immediate bearing on the present, and something supernatural stalking them both. Slowly, Emma loses her grip on reality and is repulsed by her own child. Slowly, Apollo slips into despair, unaware that something out of the ordinary may be happening. Together, they are sleepwalking toward tragedy, and the heart of a fairy tale they didn’t know they were in.
The Changeling keeps its cards close to its chest. Adapted for the screen by Kelly Marcel (a writer on Venom), the three-episode premiere is more of a rabbit hole than a strong hook, meant to give the story’s 2010s New York City (and the other places and times it visits) a feeling that’s off just so. Camera lenses subtly warp doorways, a wide but muted color palette turns the screen’s vivid imagery into an old picture book, and plain, workmanlike dialogue all cohere to fashion a world that is like ours, but wrong. To what end will only be clear if you’ve read LaValle’s book; viewers coming to The Changeling cold will likely be hopelessly lost. But at the very least, they will be lost in a way that feels intended.
Instead of a plot, The Changeling simmers in a cauldron of ideas, fragments of stories that are carried within its characters. A white cop and an Ugandan immigrant see Rocky together in ’70s New York City; they name their son after Apollo Creed. That cop disappears, and no one ever seems to know why. Two girls lose their family in a fire, and cling to each other as they live through the foster system. One of them grows up and meets what may be a witch, who grants her three wishes.
Through vignettes like these, The Changeling weighs ideas that are heavy on the heart — most pertaining to parenthood, and its failure. The way a child who loses their parents never stops mourning them; the resolve to be better parents than the ones we had or didn’t have, or the way parenting can turn you into something meaner, primal, and shockingly different from the person you thought you were. The way we can give up entire parts of ourselves wholesale in order to bring a new person safely into the world. And how all of that can go wrong.
The Changeling has no shape, but it does have a pulse. It is a writhing, slippery thing that’s hard to grasp in its first act, but it’s very much alive. That its creators have brought it to such distinct and stylish life is remarkable. It is also frightening. It’s impossible to know how it turns out. But I suppose that’s my fault. The storyteller warned me, and I decided to listen.
The first three episodes of The Changeling are now streaming on Apple TV Plus, with new episodes weekly.