M. Night Shyamalan never ceases to amaze us all by most baffling productions, right?
This last weekend, I got to finish Servant (2019-), a new show produced by Apple. What drew me to this particular series was the name of its exec producer – the one and only, M. Night Shyamalan.
Shyamalan had a rough last year. After a meticulously built mystery surrounding the bridge linking Unbreakable (2001) and Split (2016), the director let everyone down with Glass (2019). It’s a film, which not only didn’t live up to the expectations. In fact, Glass (2019) flushed the previous two movies down the toilet.
But that’s not the first time Mr. Shyamalan gets lost in his own imagination. His career is a constant rollercoaster. A once-praised mind behind A Sixth Sense (1999), he also went on to become a complete disgrace after The Happening (2008). It’s also Shyamalan, who polarized audiences with movies such as The Village (2004) and Signs (2002).
All of his films have one thing in common – the twists and mysteries. And the new series Servant (2019-) delivers plenty of both.
What is Servant (2019-) about?
The first season of Servant (2019-) tells the story of Dorothy and Sean Turner, a married couple who recently goes through a dramatic breakdown. Their newly born child, Jericho, has died, and the tragic event has pushed the two astray, to the land of despair. To cope with the situation, Sean and Dorothy get a doll that mimics their deceased son, however, Dorothy treats it as if it’s her own blood. Soon, the couple hires a nanny – Leanne – who’s supposed to play along.
There are many types of pain resulting from a personal loss. Yet Dorothy isn’t the grieving mother that I imagined after reading Servant’s (2019-) synopsis. Dorothy’s enthusiastic for most of the time, with her everyday routine revolving around the news anchor job. Over the course of season one, Dorothy rarely gets woken up from the nightmare of her trauma.
That is a whole different dimension when compared to Sean, who spends most of his time at home. Sean’s a chef, a true connoisseur of unpredictable tastes, and an exquisite sommelier to top it all off. He’s also a self-centered prick, but one that still has feeling for his mind-numbed wife.
Shyamalan’s story finds these two on a definite crossroads, where all the signs indicate an inevitable end to their grieving relationship. Dorothy denies the notion of losing a child, and finds peace in holding a motionless doll. Alas Sean plays along with this highly questionable therapy, Shyamalan still introduces him as the sane one under this roof. There are dark clouds hanging above their heads, tensions are rising, and when things are about to derail entirely, that’s when Leanne steps into the house.
We’ve cleared some basics regarding the plot of Servant (2019-). Now the fun begins.
How food describes characters in Servant (2019-)
Characters in movies can be described to the audience through many actions, situations or things. The way a character dresses could say a lot – like the zany protagonist of Zoolander (2001) – as well as what they read, watch, listen to, or… cook.
In one of the most terrifying scenes of Servant (2019-), Sean receives a bucket full of eels, which he immediately throws into a sink. After grabbing one of them, the chef begins a deliriously gruesome process of preparing the animals for food. Sean sticks a nail in the squirming fish’s head, then smashes it in with a hammer. As barbaric as it sounds, that’s not the end of the story. While the animal is pathetically writhing in pain, Sean proceeds to an act of skinning it half-alive.
All of that happens in front of Dorothy and Leanne.
This is one hell of a shock at the first viewing. It says a lot about the character and the tension between Sean and Leanne, who quite unexpectedly witnesses such appalling act of cruelty. Sean uses the moment to plant a seed of fear in Leanne’s head. Heed my warning that I’m not to be f***** with, as if to explain Sean’s intention. However, just a few scenes later, Leanne throws the innocence away and brutally kills one of the fish on her own.
Food’s used here as a button that activates our imagination. An act of animal cruelty shocks, however it also enriches the characters’ canvasses. Such a method isn’t far from another thriller series Hannibal (2013-2015), where many gross-out scenes had their roots in Hannibal Lecter’s kitchen. There too, food was used to elicit awe and disgust, all of which was evoked through a disturbing contrast between the ingredients – human organs – and the Instagram-like appearance of the dishes.
Sean’s finesse could easily compete with dr Lecter’s though. In some of the later episodes, Sean serves a dish served with… a helium-filled balloon. You get the idea – it’s posh and uber fancy, the kind of stuff you’ll probably never get to try.
Furthermore, food describes the mood in Servant (2019-), as it also reveals the emotional state of some of the characters. As in the described eels scene, this particular moment serves three major purposes:
- Reveal a very violent, merciless side of Sean
- Prove there’s something very wrong with Leanne, the nanny
- Indicate the shifting tides between Sean, Leanne and Dorothy
But that’s not all to the meaning of this scene.
There’s a reason for the saying slippery as an eel. Eels symbolize survival at all costs. These slimy animals are ferocious predators, as well as masters of disguise. If you read between the lines, there’s some kind of resemblance between them and Leanne – the mysterious nanny’s also rather shifty, yet able to gain the high ground too thanks to her all-innocent attitude towards Dorothy.
I’ve also mentioned that food in Servant (2019-) helps to indirectly paint certain images, like traits of characters. A most admirable example here is the dinner with Uncle George.
If you forgot, Uncle George is the creepy-looking guy that invades Leanne in Turners’ house one day. He sticks around for a while, leaving a rather ghastly vibe around. However, the peak of his strangeness is reached at the dinner table. While others politely consume a poultry dish with sauce, Uncle George grabs a napkin, then wipes the entire piece of meat clean, draining it from any drop of the sauce. The whole scene feels incredibly uncomfortable, and it’s mostly disturbing due to how well it sums up the entire visit of Uncle George. He’s a menacing character, an omen of evil, and this odd behavior rings an alarm that’s noticed by everyone… except Dorothy.
With the food symbolism behind, we can now move onto another mind-blowing piece of the puzzle…
Meaning of splinters in The Servant (2019-)
Halfway through the season one, I was scratching my head till I got bald, wondering what’s the fuss with Sean’s splinters.
From what M. Night Shyamalan hints early on, Leanne’s a religious person, right? She hangs these handmade crosses above Jericho’s cradle, which instantly brings some kind of occultism to mind. While it’s tempting to go this way (and I will later on), to explore how occultism appears here-and-there in Servant (2019-), let’s lean towards a rivaling theory here.
As found in resources regarding dreams and their meaning, splinters refer to minor irritations of a body or soul. These nasty pieces of wood can represent a physical issue that’s yet to emerge in one’s life, but also someone irritating in the surroundings.
I can’t help but see this theory as a likely inspiration for Shyamalan. Sean’s body reflects his spiritual and emotional state, manifesting the way he feels about Leanne. Her presence is distracting for him, and exposes Sean to a great deal of stress. As his tension rises, the irritation grows into a gangrene, leaving Sean’s body with numerous splinters. That, eventually, removes his sense of taste – a result of an exposition to high levels of stress.
That’s also a key part of the dynamics between Sean and Leanne. Leanne buys herself in, sneaks under the arm of the chef and helps him out in the chores, at the same time being very close to Dorothy.
And, just as a comparison, here’s what M. Night explained in regard to this splinters thing (go to the 12:00 minute to that particular part):
Occultism, witchery and horror in The Servant (2019-)
Servant (2019-) incorporates few of these symbolical layers, one of which echoes with the director’s fascination with cults and religious communities.
One of those layers is based on the belief of our male characters – Sean and his wife’s brother – that Leanne has some disturbing secrets to hide.
As the final scenes of season one reveal, Leanne indeed grew up (or joined, that’s to be disclosed in season 2) in a cult. Her roots would explain the weird handmade crosses, as well as self-scourging and her panic reaction to the visit paid by Uncle George or Aunt May. She’s on a mission, which might involve hurting either of the Turners.
At some point, Shyamalan leaves an almost invisible note to his audience, but one which reveals a major piece of information for us. Leanne has the unique ability to resurrect dead things. While that’s a theory born early on in the series, it’s the scene with a cricket she brings back that explains her unique powers and cements this theory.
What the creator of Servant (2019-) leaves unresolved though, is whether Jericho can live only with Leanne by his side, or not. It’s the scene when Dorothy’s brother holds the doll over the stairs, when Shyamalan leaves me bamboozled. Nonetheless, Leanne’s withcraft is most certainly a thing.
Dorothy’s absence of mind – what’s that all about?
Another confusing piece of the puzzle is a collection of scenes in which Dorothy seems to leave her body for minutes.
The state of apathy, that she reaches can be explained though. It’s most likely a shock reaction to places and moments that bring the death of Jericho to her mind. Yet this is just one way to look at these brief stares into nothingness.
Dorothy’s stand-and-stare moments could also be short sequences of possession. Judging from the end of season one, Servant (2019-) is really about some otherworldly forces, and Dorothy could be something of a gateway for malefic forces that haunt Sean and Dorothy. Even more proof can be presented here. Consider the fact that Dorothy remains the only character who keeps on denying all the weird events and happenings around. When a dead dog comes running down the stairs, she’s far from losing her s***, as opposed to Sean. It’s an incredibly nurtured sense of picking your own convenient reality, that almost seems as if controlled by inhuman forces.
The symbolical meaning of a servant
That’s the most obvious thing to analyze in Servant (2019-), but let’s go down this lane too.
Servitude has a long history, almost as long as the history of mankind is. Depending on the source and culture, serving someone can have a different meaning. From the historical perspective, servitude equalled being conquered, often humiliated or deprived of one’s rights or power. In that sense, servants were the lowest class of people, treated with disrespect.
However, servitude in the Bible paints a completely different image. In the teachings of Jesus Christ, servitude marks the good-willed people. A tale about the Good Samaritan points to humble intentions and how serving and helping others benefits a true believer. In fact, servitude is at the core of each religion, where each impersonation of a higher being treats people as its servants.
There’s also an interesting take on servitude when it comes to the story of Faust who sells his soul to the devil. In that case, servitude becomes a part of a deal, which calls very close to home in Servant (2019-) as well. From the scraps of facts provided by the creators of the show, one could deduct that Leanne’s on a mission related to the Turners. In fact, that’s the deal she makes – gets to choose the home, but needs to be a humble servant there. While I still don’t know what she gets in return (a home, a family, an escape?), such Faustian motive echoes from Servant (2019-).
There are also other questions to be asked. Could it be that by inviting Leanne as their nanny, Sean and Dorothy unwillingly became servants of a cult? Or maybe some evil spirits are their debtors, as Dorothy’s sudden mind travels could suggest?
Leanne and Jericho
Okay, that’s just a silly thing that popped to my mind after season one wrapped up.
When a police officer passes the hugging crowd, and then goes back only to see an empty street, I felt a strong The Sixth Sense (1999) vibe here. While this could be explained in the simplest way – that the crowd silently dispersed – Shyamalan likes to enter the dreamy, unreal realms in his stories. Therefore, a belief that Leanne was not entirely real could actually be true. A few signs leading to such an assumption are scattered – like the curriculum vitae letter that disappears (or was never real).
I also have doubts as to whether Jericho was ever alive in the series. Assuming Leanne has never arrived at the Turners house, Jericho would obviously be dead. Yet even if Leanne was real, then her witchery could influence the minds of Dorothy and Sean (and others who visited the house), thus creating an illusion of a living child under the roof.
I hope you have a head full of thoughts and you enjoyed my article. Feel free to drop me a line or leave a comment – I’d be very happy to discuss other theories and symbols hidden in The Servant (2019-)!