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Three seasons in, ‘Servant’ will make you savor every moment

The first three minutes of Servant‘s third season on Apple TV+ unfold without a word.

It’s just us watching Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free) go through what seems like her typical morning routine. Her morning prayer, her daily journaling, a hot shower. But an air of menace hangs over every frame. Part of it is the baggage we carry into Season 3 from the 10 hours of TV leading to this point. But it’s also evident in the present.

Leanne’s quiet moments spent kneeling at her bedside in prayer include the prop of a dagger that was originally meant to be the instrument of her mutilation and eventual blood sacrifice in Season 2. The journal is just a series of empty pages with days of the week scrawled at the top. Whatever’s going on in Leanne’s head, she can’t get a firm enough grip to put it down on paper. And the ritualistic scars etched across her back — a permanent reminder of Leanne’s cult upbringing — leap into full view as the steamy water washes over her.

For two seasons and 20 episodes, we’ve watched with morbid fascination as Leanne has become a fixture in the Philadelphia townhouse belonging to Dorothy and Sean Turner (Lauren Ambrose and Toby Kebbell, respectively). We first met the couple, a tenacious newswoman and a highfalutin celebrity chef, in a moment of extreme grief as they tried to come to terms with the death of their newborn child.

Leanne arrived on the scene as a young but deeply committed nanny. Even as Dorothy cradled and cooed over a disturbingly lifelike therapy doll as if it were her actual son Jericho, meek and quiet Leanne treated her boss with kindness and compassion, embracing the “it’s a real baby” delusion. She was completely unfazed when that doll was seemingly replaced with a living, breathing baby. Dorothy’s grief allowed her to accept this completely impossible turn of events, and Leanne stuck by her.

The wordlessness of those three indulgent minutes purposefully keeps us fully present in every frame.

In Season 3, the nanny is more of a known quantity. We know about the cult that raised her, and how it’s likely that the living baby called Jericho came from the cult, perhaps birthed by Leanne herself. And we remember well how Dorothy cruelly imprisoned and tortured her nanny in the second season, only to save her from a grisly fate in a last-minute twist at the end. But Servant is frugal with its reveals.

The team led by creator Tony Basgallop and executive producer M. Night Shyamalan leans on artful cinematography and formal production design more than blunt exposition. In the breathless and strangely tense sequence that kicks off Season 3, the lens hugs Leanne tight. We see what she sees in her most private moments; the shots are framed to suggest intimacy rather than intrusion. We’re not voyeurs, Servant is saying; we’re guests.

The first five of the 10 episodes making up Season 3 have been offered to critics. In all of these, Servant favors a creeping march in step with Leanne’s opening routine. This is a show that has always taken its time, and the wordlessness of those three indulgent minutes purposefully keeps us fully present in every frame. This pace might feel plodding to some, but it’s been the show’s raison d’etre from moment one. Servant‘s established formula is still humming along in Season 3.

I’m staying away from specifics because this is a mystery, and spoilers undermine the impact. But needless to say, each episode carries a single-word title that reads like an innocently ominous warning. Just about every scene unfolds inside or just outside the Turners’ home. While the boundaries expand a bit further into new settings — just as they did in Season 2 — the location constraint is a conscious decision by the creators intended to keep viewers guessing about everything happening on the outside, even as they puzzle over the mystery within. Throughout, the camera is a near-tangible presence, with its consciously artful framing of every scene often saying more about what’s going on than the characters themselves.

A still from the Apple TV+ series, Servant. Two men stand facing each on a crowded city street.

Credit: Apple TV+

When Dorothy’s brother Julian (Rupert Grint) meets with his old private detective pal Matthew Roscoe (Phillip James Brannon) to set up a new information-gathering assignment focused on Leanne — Julian has never fully trusted her — we watch the two men from above, as if we’re dangling on an overhanging tree branch. Where Leanne’s tightly shot opening scene communicates a sense of intimacy, this one feels shifty and secretive. Now, viewers are the opposite of invited guests; instead, we’re eavesdroppers.

In this scene, Julian and Matthew face in opposite directions. The staging reflects how the two men do not see eye to eye. Matthew is still traumatized after the cult used him as a pawn in Season 2. His uncertainty about helping Julian is made clear well before he spells it out in dialogue.

Strong performances from the main cast carry through into Season 3, which is no less engrossing at its midpoint than the two batches of episodes that came before. Servant‘s pace and form-over-function approach has built a deeply absorbing mystery since its start. Nonetheless, it’s an acquired taste.

I’ve come to think that the key to appreciating Servant is baked right into its luxurious food porn. Sean’s career lives at home. His work as a chef who embraces the conceptual cooking of molecular gastronomy opens the door to long and lingering looks at the parallel processes of creation and destruction that are central to cooking. The camera constantly brings us close to dishes and ingredients at every stage of prep, giving us the time to take it all in and appreciate the process as much as the result.

Any fan of fine food will tell you this: A meal is meant to be savored. Servant‘s obsession with Sean’s creations is a reminder that the show, too, is a heavily conceptual work that is best enjoyed in small bites. Count it as a blessing that Servant has remained a weekly series rather than an all-at-once binge opportunity. The pace of the show is too slow for that kind of heavy indulgence. This is the TV equivalent of fine dining. Like a long and indulgent high-end meal, Servant is built to dazzle us slowly. The act of consumption is central to the experience. The show invites us to consciously live in its every moment and think about the various ways it’s communicating character and story.

Season 3 bites right back into that dynamic without a word. Leanne’s silent procession through her morning routine speaks volumes. The status quo carries on for the Turners even now, as more evident signs of menace creep in from all sides. The table is set once again. Halfway through the season, it’s clear that Servant has quite a feast in store.

Servant Season 3’s first episode premieres on Apple TV+ on Jan. 21. New episodes will be released every Friday.

Mashable