SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched the first season finale of “Servant,” streaming now on Apple TV Plus.
Tony Basgallop’s “Servant” for Apple TV Plus began with a young woman named Leanne (Nell Tiger Free) being brought into a couple’s home to care for their reborn doll. Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose) couldn’t face the tragedy of losing her infant son Jericho, so her husband Sean (Toby Kebbell) allowed her to believe the baby was still with them, through the use of the doll. Only, shortly after Leanne’s arrival, the doll was replaced with a living, breathing baby. But the first season finale brought things full circle when Leanne left the home, leaving Dorothy once again with the doll — only this time she recognized it for what it really was.
“For all intents and purposes, she has reconnected with a baby, and if you take that away and put a doll in front of her, she’s conscious enough to know the difference,” writer and producer Tony Basgallop tells Variety. “She has now been living with this real baby for the past couple of months, and now when you put a doll in her hands, it’s not a substitute. She’s not in that place where she has the mental break where she’s seeing things that are not there. She’s more conscious now than she’s ever been, and all she wants now is her baby — her real baby.”
Leanne took the job because she idolized Dorothy, having grown up watching her news reports on television. But as she spent more time in the house, she learned the image she idolized was not who Dorothy truly was. Finding out that the real Jericho passed away while in Dorothy’s care was the hardest pill for Leanne to swallow, so she ran back to the cult-like family that raised her.
But although Leanne has been hurt by learning some darker truths about Dorothy, “she came to make another life; she walked away from everything because she coveted Dorothy’s things, and the desire, for Leanne, is still there,” Basgallop says. “She is still looking to Dorothy as a maternal figure.”
The journey of the second season, Basgallop previews, will be not only watching Dorothy and Sean search for their son but also repairing the damage Leanne did to her relationship with the couple.
“With Leanne, it’s an ongoing reveal. We don’t fully understand who she is and where she comes from, and her interpretation of who she is and where she comes from may not necessarily be the correct version,” Basgallop explains. “How is Dorothy ever going to understand what Leanne has done to her by taking this baby? There’s so much to do with Leanne; she’s such a young character and still growing. Constantly looking at her past is what’s going to guide her to the future.”
Here, Basgallop talks with Variety about the events of the first season finale of “Servant,” including how much trauma Dorothy is still forcibly repressing, getting down to Dorothy’s journalistic roots, and crafting the image of Leanne being re-embraced by the cult members.
Why was it important that Dorothy finally recognize the difference between the real baby and the reborn doll at this point in the story?
I didn’t want to leave Dorothy in a confused or deluded state. She has shut out the tragedy and now she wants her baby. That gives us a brand new drive for Season 2. This woman believes her baby has been stolen — that’s a thriller in its own right. So what do you do? How far would you go to get your baby back? It’s time to show Dorothy as the strong mother: Despite the horrendous tragedy she suffered, she is still going to protect her child, she doesn’t accept what she did, and coming into Season 2, we have this fiery character who’s going to stop at nothing to get this baby back. The question is, whose baby is it? Coming out of Season 1, that was the version that gave us the most options, really.
Earlier in the finale episode, when she was holding a different baby doll, she had flashes back to her own tragedy with her child. How consciously is she burying the memories of what happened to Jericho at this point?
It’s one of those ongoing things with Dorothy. Every time we threaten to open up this door, she puts up a huge barrier. It’s what Dorothy can’t face. But I also want the audience to constantly be questioning for themselves, ‘How deeply repressed is this memory? How close to the surface is it? Is she aware? Has she been pretending all this time?’ Why is she shutting this out has always been one of the central questions of the season, and with the understanding that we have after Episode 9 of what really happened and where the psychological break occurred, you start to look at Dorothy differently. I want to keep Dorothy in this state where we’re not sure how much she believes anymore.
Yet, when it came to getting to the bottom of from where she remembered Leanne’s aunt, Dorothy dug to find the answer, even though it meant bringing up a different kind of traumatic experience in witnessing explosions at a compound.
I don’t think the events at the farmhouse that we witness at the end of Episode 10 has necessarily had a long-lasting traumatic effect on Dorothy. She’s processing the information of who is behind this, what game is afoot really? And what an impossible situation that is, because her baby is essentially being taken by someone who is legally dead, or should be an angel, or maybe she is an angel. The great thing about Dorothy as a character is that because she’s this TV journalist, nothing goes unaffirmed: She has to investigate everything. And here she is, she’s stumbled into another headline, and she has to make sense of it.
Why has Sean been so willing to accept the things that have been happening to him, such as the splinters and loss of tastebuds?
Sean has been on this spiritual journey in a sense of accepting the miracle that has been placed in his lap. And every step of the way he’s been trying to justify what’s happening, trying to justify the decision to keep the baby in the house. But at the end of the first season he’s actually begun to accept the fact that this might actually be his child — this might be the second chance. Whether or not they deserve the second chance is up for question, but we leave him at the end of Episode 10 in a place where he’s willing to accept the miracle; he cannot justify what’s been going on in this house, and he’s willing to open himself up — just at the moment where Dorothy begins her journalistic quest to get to the bottom of what’s really happening.
That says a lot about their marriage.
There is an easy solution to all of these problems, and that’s for this couple to sit down and acknowledge the tragedy that came into their life. But that’s not what these people do. The way I write is to find ways for these characters not to confront the issue. They’re constantly talking around it. Whenever it gets too painful, Sean will make another recipe. They can’t deal with what happened: It’s too painful to talk about. What are they hiding? Why do they see the world differently?
Is the Amber Alert moment in the first season finale foreshadowing Season 2? Or do Sean and Dorothy have to go about trying to find the baby more quietly, considering he’s not really their baby?
That’s kind of the joy of coming back into Season 2: We’re coming back into an impossible situation. How do you search for a missing baby when technically that baby’s dead? It’s a fantastic place to put Dorothy because it’s playing with her version of what reality is; she has a very different belief to Sean and to Julian, and searching for this baby is a fantastic opportunity to have some fun with Dorothy.
In that journey, will the show answer whose baby it is?
I can’t possibly give you that answer. There are many different versions of Dorothy’s reality here and who this baby is. As always, what’s so great is for us to question it with the character — do we believe that this is a miracle; do we believe this couple deserves a miracle; does Leanne believe she delivered a miracle to this household? I think we’re going to keep these questions alive, very much.
The first season was designed to primarily tell stories within the house. Do you plan to continue that in Season 2, or will the search for the baby, and the cult, force them out more?
It’s a very interesting way to tell this story — a thriller — because it locks you in in a certain way and I’ve always said it does force me to tell stories in a different way. That’s where the tension exists: waiting for the information in the home is a real strain because there’s the frustration. There’s not one place they can go and hunt this cult, and then we follow them on another path. They have to draw them in. That’s very much the threat beyond. The great thing about this show is it focuses everything in the house, so there’s no big jump to reveal some huge cult story. It’s not a story so much about a cult as it’s our fear of religion, in a sense — our fear of the unknown. These people can return at any time. Our characters are actively seeking this cult in order to get the baby back, but until we bring the cult back to the house, it’s through the search, which is great because you don’t want to resolve that threat too soon. How do you draw them back? It’s challenging, but that’s half the fun of it.
Leanne left that past at the start of the season by joining Dorothy and Sean’s household, but at the end, she ran back to them. What did you need to put her through to make that feel like her only option?
Leanne’s journey in Season 1 was she came into this house and she absolutely idolized Dorothy — she saw no wrong and she wanted her as a mother figure — but as she discovered the truth about what happened with the baby, she realizes that Dorothy’s fallible; she realizes that she’s not the perfect role model she’s been looking up to. So her decision to leave at the end of Episode 10 is really based on disappointment: Dorothy isn’t what she expected; Dorothy isn’t what she held up in her mind as this perfect mother that she craves. Leaving with the baby felt like the natural thing to do. She’d made the mistake of coming here, giving her the baby, and it wasn’t something that was supposed to happen — it wasn’t something she was instructed to do. She struck out on her own and she made an error. It’s how we rebuild that relationship in Season 2 that will be fascinating.
In theory, couldn’t Leanne have just run off on her own, not back to the cult?
I think in times of vulnerability you turn to family, you turn to people that are close to you, you turn to something familiar. It’s a nice way of bookending the first season in terms of, she came here rebellious in order to find herself, and by the end of it, she was hurt and confused by her encounters and she returned to what she knew.
How detailed did you get on the page with what you wanted that moment to look like when Leanne returned to them and they physically embraced her so that it looked like a huddle in the middle of the street?
That was kind of a mix between myself and the director. A lot of it was on the page, in terms of how we present it. I loved the idea of the street being filled with these mysterious people and Leanne walking into the fold. The way that that was shot really summed that up for me. They’re enclosing her and embracing her, and it’s that visual shortcut to show that she is loved, that she is welcomed. We wanted something that was going to be open to the audience’s interpretation. As soon as you go into the cop’s POV, you see them one minute and then they’re gone the next, but how long was that gap? Was it long enough for them to run off, or have they just been taken? It’s about finding that moment, as well, to give the audience two versions. Everything we’ve done in the first season was very deliberately done to give you two versions.
What aspect of the audience interpretation has most interested you as you’ve seen responses unfold on social media throughout Season 1?
A lot of people are mystified by who this girl is and what her intention is. I think a lot of people are clicking into the supernatural story: There’s something otherworldly here, there’s a spiritual presence in everything that happens. But other people are literally just seeing a crime — an exploitation. And I’m glad the audience is seeing it in two ways because the truth is whatever path you choose is OK. I’m the last person who would ever see a miracle, so it intrigues me to find the people who are looking for a miraculous explanation. It’s why I wrote this sort of story.