The Changeling Premiere Takes Three Hours to Set Its Stakes (Recap and Review)

Apollo and Emma huddle their heads together on a subway car as she goes into labor in The Changeling premiere
Screenshot/Apple TV+

The following recap contains spoilers for the premiere of The Changeling on Apple TV+: Episode 1 (written by Kelly Marcel and directed by Melina Matsoukas); Episode 2 (written by Kelly Marcel and directed by Jonathan van Tulleken); and Episode 3 (written by Kelly Marcel and directed by Jonathan van Tulleken), but not the book by Victor LaValle.

Editor’s Note: This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.

The Changeling is based on an award-winning novel. I always think that’s a good sign, even when I haven’t read the book, insofar as we can at least be confident that we’re getting a story that’s worth telling. But there’s a difference between a TV show and a novel, and all of the questions about adaptation creep in.

I do not know how faithful of an adaptation The Changeling TV series is, in that I haven’t read the novel, but I have the suspicion that it might be too faithful. The book’s author, Victor LaValle, features here as a narrator, but the narration feels largely superfluous, if not condescending. We don’t need to be told something we also see.

Moreover, the pace of these first three episodes is laboriously slow. I can imagine that in the book this could feel like time well spent, getting to know and care about these characters, but on the screen, this all simply does not need to take this long. And, more importantly, even though The Changeling spends three hours doing nothing but setting up its story, it hardly manages to get the job done when it comes to getting us invested in its stakes.

Emma subtly smiles in a restaurant
Screenshot/Apple TV+

At least for me, Apollo’s (LaKeith Stanfield) courtship of Emma (Clark Backo) does indeed feel like stalker behavior, and it doesn’t help for the narrator to lampshade that worry to say Apollo views it as perseverance. Neither does it help to parallel their story with the story of how his father, Brian West (Jared Abrahamson), similarly harassed Apollo’s mother, Lillian Kagwa (Alexis Louder), into dating him. It’s just intergenerational stalker behavior. Is there new screenwriting guidance out there that advises writers to introduce their protagonists by having them kick a cat?

I suppose I’m not sure if we’re meant to find Apollo’s behavior endearing or if The Changeling is planting seeds about how his disposition is actually problematic in these opening scenes. I’m hoping it’s the latter, but through three episodes my uncertainty remains.

Apollo stands in a garage holding his baby Brian
Screenshot/Apple TV+

Apollo and Emma do get together. She says she only rejected him at first because she’s going to Brazil for an indeterminate period of time, which she does do. When she comes back to him, she relays a story about meeting a woman by a lake she’d been advised to avoid, who told her to make three wishes while tying a piece of string around her wrist. She’s supposed to wear that string around her wrist until it falls off and is admonished against cutting the string at any point. She’s also warned to be careful what she wishes for.

When Apollo hears this, his immediate reaction is to pull out a knife and cut the string, declaring that he is the god Apollo, as he is wont to do. Again, I’m not sure if this is supposed to be endearing, though I think it is, and it just doesn’t work for me. Apollo strikes me as a narcissist when he declares that he is a god, however facetiously, and the cutting of the string without Emma’s permission strikes me as a violation of her autonomy. Of course, in the real world, I don’t believe in the witchcraft! That is not the point.

An old woman with different colored eyes and white hair looks on in The Changeling premiere
Screenshot/Apple TV+

Regardless, Emma rolls with it and even seems to find it endearing herself. Next thing we know, the two are getting married. Then Emma is pregnant. She has to give birth on the subway instead of at home as planned because their train breaks down underground, but that goes OK and they name the boy Brian, after Apollo’s father.

Apollo believes at this point that his father abandoned him when he was a child, so it’s an odd choice. But he used to have dreams that his dad came back for him, and he’s been having them again as an adult, so maybe that has something to do with the decision.

We learn much later, in Episode 3, that Brian West did not actually abandon his family but was forced to leave by Apollo’s mother, Lillian. We don’t know exactly why, but Lillian (Adina Porter) tells Apollo that Brian did indeed try to come back for him, but she made him go away. Apollo’s memory is inaccurate.

Emma’s memories of the day her parents died, it turns out, are also inaccurate, at least according to what her sister tells her in Episode 2. Their mother kept them home from school and then set the house on fire, but Emma doesn’t remember any of that.

I don’t know how important any of this is, because after three episodes I still don’t have a great sense of what this story is about. The most significant thread is clearly that of Emma’s breakdown in the months that follow her baby’s birth. She’s sleep-deprived but also receives photos to her phone of Apollo and baby Brian out in the world, which proceed to disappear.

Apollo didn’t send these photos, and Emma can’t prove that they ever even existed at all. So, she loses her mind and ends up killing the baby… Or does she?

Emma looks forward intently, her hair messy
Screenshot/Apple TV+

Emma insists that it’s not a baby, and while The Changeling has done little up to this point to ground the possibility that she might be right, I do think we have to keep that possibility tentatively open. In Episode 3, Apollo encounters another woman who tells a similar story. He freaks out and yells that she’s going to kill her kid, but…

Why is this show called The Changeling?

A woman at a support group meeting hunches forward with a pained look on her face
Screenshot/Apple TV+

My biggest gripe with the series so far is that I can’t say that I know after watching three hours of it, or even speculate in a well-grounded way. That’s a narrative failure for a TV show, even if I could see such a slow play working in a novel. I expect that things are going to take shape in Episode 4 next week, since we’re pretty clearly through the first part of the story at this point, but I’m still trusting that this will become a good story more than I’m feeling like it is one that I’m already caught up in.

Episode 1 begins with with a short prologue about a sloop called The Restauration from Norway that set out to cross the Atlantic on July 5, 1825. The narrator calls this an impossible journey and tells us that they only succeeded because they had help. Coming out of Episode 3, I still have no idea how this fits into the story at all. The Restauration was, however, a real ship.

Apollo is chained to a pipe in front of windows in The Changeling Episode 3
Screenshot/Apple TV+

Emma would seem to be alive and out in the world somewhere. Apollo’s father, Brian West, could also still be alive. Apollo’s son, Brian, is by all accounts dead, unless that wasn’t really Brian and Emma somehow knew what she was doing.

We don’t know how this all relates to the three wishes she made in Brazil, though there is an implication that Emma’s third wish pertains to it. We don’t know what the content of that wish was.

It’s good that we have questions coming out of the three-episode premiere of The Changeling, but I do wish the big picture was a little clearer or that we’d been given a bit more to this point to fuel the idea of a supernatural element. The series may be going for ambiguity, but instead it presents Emma as pretty straightforwardly unhinged, with only those pictures on her phone given to provide the sense that more may be going on.

I hope this story builds some momentum next week.

Written by Caemeron Crain

Caemeron Crain is Executive Editor of TV Obsessive. He struggles with authority, including his own.

Caesar non est supra grammaticos


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  1. Watched the first episode and five minutes of the second. Then gave up. There are too many choices of quality and distinction out there to invest one’s life-moments on something so meandering and — apparently — meaningless. Have fun with the rest of the series, that will be me here in the cheering section, waving pompoms, wishing you luck.

  2. The iPhone had a screenshot feature as early as 2007 (which is what she appears to have), and Android added one in 2011. They met in 2010. She went to Brazil for at least 6 months. Then she came back, they got married, and she became pregnant. They would most certainly be into 2012. So take a screenshot! That plot hole is driving me insane. Also, how does she not realize Apollo can’t take a photo of himself from across the street?

    • It’s plausible to me that, even if her phone was able to do a screenshot, she didn’t know how to do it in 2012. It wasn’t quite as common a thing people did then as it is now. And I bet there are still people who don’t know how to do it. So, I don’t know… we clearly have to look past that, anyway

  3. The show The Changling is after the book it is representing by Victor LaValle. To answer your question for why it is named that way. Which is a very good horror book. You might want to read it. There are definitely some unanswered questions in the book or unexplained pasts but maybe the writers will fill that in eventually.

    Me personally am not too much a fan of fast action all the time. I think the does a really good job of moving slow and yet giving you pieces to pull in at the intricacies of it.

    I will agree on Apollo, his character to me tethers on the narcissist side, even when he tries to be humble. But he is also this way in the book.

    All in all, I think audiences should stop expecting every answer and action in the 1st two episodes. It’s a reason it’s a tv show and not a movie, real life is not action packed. I think Apple is trying to set the pace of how we perceive moments, which if you like psychology will notice that what we watch has definitely proven to effect our own perception of how and what we view thing, timing, and people.

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