Heading into its fourth and final season, M. Night Shyamalan’s thriller Servant has a lot of questions left to answer. In fact, pretty much all of the big ones remain unanswered. The Apple TV Plus series is ostensibly about a young couple losing their child, only to have it miraculously returned to them not long after their new nanny arrives. But after three seasons, the mysteries have only continued to pile up. In addition to those core family secrets, there is a crumbling house that feels almost cursed, warring religious factions, strange magical powers, and possibly even angels.
It’s a lot, and early on in season 4, the show doesn’t seem too bothered with tying up all of the loose ends: it’s more concerned with ratcheting up the tension and making you feel as uncomfortable as ever.
Note: this review is based on the first three episodes of Servant season 4. It includes very light spoilers for those episodes and some key spoilers from the previous three seasons.
But before we get into that, a little reminder about where we are following season 3’s cliffhanger conclusion. That chapter ended when Dorothy Turner (Lauren Ambrose), fearing for the safety of her baby, Jericho, decided to sneak him out of the house. But in the midst of a conflict with her husband Sean (Toby Kebbell), brother Julian (Rupert Grint), and the nanny she’s so terrified of, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), Dorothy ended up falling several stories thanks to a creaky railing infested with termites.
The final season opens with Leanne, seemingly oblivious to how Dorothy feels about her, getting the house ready for her return. She cleans and decorates and starts baking Dorothy’s favorite cake. It’s mundane domesticity rendered unsettling by the close-up shots and the nagging feeling that something bad is just about to happen. Then, naturally, a member of the cult intent on bringing Leanne back into their fold shows up, and all hell breaks loose.
One of the defining traits of Servant is how clearly influenced by Alfred Hitchcock it is. The vast majority of the show takes place in one Philadelphia townhouse, and even with all of the bizarre baby dolls and magic, it has the kind of grounded core that calls back to Rear Window, as if you’re spying on the Turner household through the windows. The early moments of season 4, however, ape a different Hitchcock classic with a sequence that pulls straight from The Birds. It’s pure chaos. Leanne is chased by cult members, with seemingly everyone on the block — joggers, hot dog vendors, mail carriers — potentially in disguise and out to get her. This is the closest Servant has ever come to action, with the street outside the Turner home turned into something like a war zone as Leanne starts to fight back. She only manages to escape with some avian help.
From there, the show gets back to its typical vibe — which is to say, creeping dread and unexpected revelations. Dorothy returns home but is confined to her bed following the accident, and her mistrust of Leanne has now turned into full-blown hatred. Despite Leanne’s constant attempts to care for her, Dorothy refuses to have anything to do with her child’s caretaker, eventually going so far as to hire a pair of adorable yet prying live-in nurses named Bev and Bobby (Denny Dillon and Barbara Kingsley, respectively ) to handle those duties.
All the while, the Turner home continues to literally crumble, as it has slowly been doing for the last few seasons. Early on, the entire neighborhood is forced to deal with a sudden and intense outbreak of bed bugs, which is especially fun for bedridden Dorothy. And following the attack in the street, Leanne is increasingly paranoid about the cult that’s trying to get her, further mobilizing her own followers for protection. There are hazmat suits and hidden rooms and an extremely unnerving bout of leg shaving. At one point, there’s even a seance.
Part of what makes Servant so delightfully fun to indulge in is the fact that it doesn’t waste your time. The episodes are only around 30 minutes long and packed with so many intriguing threads and strange moments that it can be hard to wait to see what unforeseen development happens next. The short episodes also give you a chance to catch your breath after being bombarded with a concentrated dose of creepy. And even with so many needles to thread, that structure remains in place at the beginning of season 4.
That said, with Bev and Bobby, this season does at least introduce characters to help briefly break that tension. The pair immediately and forcefully insert themselves into everyone’s lives. And while it’s clear there’s more to them than their bubbly personalities, it’s still hilarious to watch them hand Julian, a recovering alcoholic, a Marie Kondo book to help him clean up his life or give Leanne a self-help guide for troubled teens. They provide just the kind of outside perspective the family desperately needs.
The first few episodes don’t answer the biggest question for the series: namely, if it will manage to stick the landing. It’s a problem that has plagued this style of puzzle box mystery show since Jack decided to stick around Lost island. I still have no idea what exactly Leanne even is or how Turner’s child is able to transform from a reborn doll to a living human baby and back again. And I’m still desperately waiting for someone — anyone — in Dorothy’s life to finally tell her what she did to start this whole strange series of events.
So yeah, it could all still be going nowhere. There’s plenty that could be left unresolved by the end, and the answers we get may not satisfy those who have stuck around for the last few years. But the beginning of Servant‘s final season pushes forward with the kind of confidence that at least ensures I’ll be enjoying the ride to wherever it’s actually taking me — and the one thing I know for certain is that I have no idea where that might be.
Servant‘s fourth season starts streaming on Apple TV Plus on January 13th, with new episodes released on subsequent Fridays.