In Servant, the new TV series from notoriously twisty director M Night Shyamalan, a couple are devastated by the loss of their baby son, Jericho. To help them cope, the mother, Dorothy, adopts a lifelike doll, and even hires a nanny to look after it. But as is inevitably the case with Shyamalan, the man behind The Sixth Sense and Unbreakable, all is not what it seems. He talks about how Servant taps into our greatest fears and what fills the gap when religious faith is gone.
Our biggest nightmares
Our worst fear is something happening to our children. That’s a very primal fear inside of us. Everyone can relate even if they don’t have kids, that sense that you’re supposed to be the protector. When you have children, you panic when they don’t answer the phone or they’re not where they’re supposed to be at a certain time. All your nightmares play out instantaneously. The second kind of urban nightmare is that you bring someone into the intimacy of your home… and they maybe aren’t who they say they are. Servant being about a woman and a family that’s not accepting what happened feels very real, like a defence mechanism, a survival tactic they’re using to get through the day. That’s very meaningful to me, how do we accept the bad things that happen to us, and if these things can happen is there a God?
The grotesque fun house we live in
Setting Servant in a very materialistic, hedonistic world of money and wine and food and brownstones and events – it’s having faith in the superficial and they’re not dealing with the personal, intimate tragedy that has occurred. Dorothy keeps up the veneer that everything is OK. Meanwhile, it’s not OK. But if you pretend enough then it’s real. All of that certainly speaks to the political climate that we’re in and our general obsession with curated images of ourselves – maybe not the most honest portrayal of our lives on social media. It feels grotesque that our society is kind of a fun house right now. This family could be a metaphor for all of us needing something to believe in. And they so desperately want to believe in something. If they’re given a narrative, they’re going to grab it and say, well, things aren’t as bad as we thought they were because we have this narrative to hold on to. Seeing the darkness invokes a conversation about light in your life. They are always tied.
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I was thinking about why we’re OK when we watch a commercial selling you detergent, and 30 seconds later there’s another commercial selling you toothpaste, then a car after that. We just sit there and we don’t mind watching it. Then the show starts up again and you question everything. I wonder if it has something to do with mystery unfolding – I’m using mystery as a very broad way of saying the beginning of a story. So the beginning of one story has a mother in a kitchen saying her shirts are dirty, ‘Oh, no, what am I going to do?’ You want to see the resolution of the stain on the shirt. I’m being silly about it, but actually it’s really just information that needs to resolve itself. Now here’s the next piece of information that needs to resolve itself. With longer-form storytelling it’s much harder to hold people’s attention from beginning to end. You get tired without the resolution of these smaller stories with little baby mysteries at the centre, even if they’re just about selling a car.
The real-life twists that surprise M Night Shyamalan
At the moment when Trump was elected, I was like, wow, that didn’t seem possible. But I also felt that about Obama. When Obama got elected I did not think that the United States would be OK with a black man as president. They were both big surprises in terms of understanding us as a culture – and revelatory, really. As with all great paradigm shifts, they revealed something about what we thought we knew. Obama getting elected revealed something in a great way, Trump getting elected reminded me of something that I guess I knew as well. I think the great endings, the great moments, are surprising – but they’re also retrospectively inevitable. Both of those events make sense to me when you really understand the complexity of our country.
Servant is on Apple TV+ now