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Lauren Ambrose and Nell Tiger Free tease the fine line between rage and love in Servant Season 2

By Tara Bennett
Nell Tiger Free and Lauren Ambrose in Servant

One of the smartest and creepiest gems lurking in the Apple TV+ original library is M. Night Shyamalan and Tony Basgallop's Servant. Endlessly off-kilter, chilling, heartbreaking, and surprising, the claustrophobic tale is about the upscale Turners, a Philadelphia-based married couple who experiences the tragic loss of their infant. It so devastates the mother, Dorothy (Lauren Ambrose), that her family decides to let her think a hyper-realistic doll is their actual son, Jericho, so she can "manage" her trauma. They even hire an austere yet empathetic young nanny, Leanne (Nell Tiger Free), to help carry out the ruse... and then things get really weird.

In Season 1, Dorothy and Leanne's stories played out in parallel under the same roof. In seeing how they both treated and cared for Jericho, we got a clearer sense of each woman's moral compass, their individual quirks, and flaws leading to a climax of Leanne leaving the Turner home and taking Jericho with her.

As the second season starts on Apple TV+ today (Jan. 15), the two women are still entangled in a near-unbreakable orbit. Still apart, each woman is still struggling with her own demons, literal and metaphorical, in arcs that explore the complexity of what it means to be maternal and compassionate, and the weight all of it puts on women who aren't as easily defined as their families would like them to be.

The pair returned to Philadelphia early last year to shoot the second season and they admit to SYFY WIRE that getting a lot of prep material or back story to chew on ahead of time isn't how this show operates. "[Creators] Tony and Night didn't really tell me anything about what was going to be happening in Season 2," Free says. "As the scripts came, and more conversation started happening, it was clear that Leanne was taking a very different role in the house than she had previously. And by Season 2, Episode 10, she is light years away from the quiet girl from Wisconsin that we saw in Episode 1 in Season 1."

Leanne and Dorothy both changed in some very permanent ways. In Season 2, Dorothy's manic tendencies are on overdrive as she views Jericho's disappearance from the Turner house as a kidnapping. This delusion propels her to seek out Leanne and the baby with a crazed focus.

"I was really interested in this turn that Dorothy makes to misguided strength and power, and intensity and rage, and taking control instead of being the sort of vulnerable, delicate flower who you wonder is gonna break and crack into pieces," Ambrose muses. "I guess that's still all there. But then she's also a rageful villain at times, so that was fun. It's a different side of the character."

With Leanne, it's all about processing the events and freedoms she experienced in the Turner household as opposed to the heavily controlled, religious austerity she lived under while growing up. Free says, "I think in Season 1, in her interactions with Aunt May [Allison Eliot] and Uncle George [Boris McGiver], there were definitely moments where we were seeing Leanne start to rebel and question her upbringing and question these things like, 'Why is God like this? Why is he doing this? Why can't they have their baby back? Why can't I make up the rules?'"

Free continues that she hoped the writers would continue to explore that throughline and she was thrilled to see more of it Season 2. "We see her shed this old skin and she emerges because she has to undergo a lot of trauma in Season 2," she says. "She gets really put through it. You're watching and you don't know if it's going to break her, or is it going to make her stronger?"

Toby Kebbell in Servant

When Dorothy and Leanne eventually reunite midseason in Season 2, the power dynamic is clearly changed. Leanne has seen too much and considered too much on her own to go back to the Turners in the same meek fashion.

"I think that the relationship between Dorothy and Leanne is shattered as soon as we find out about the truth about baby Jericho," Free posits. "But Leanne loves Dorothy. She does. That love might be misplaced, but she does truly love her. And, you know, sometimes forgiveness is impossible and sometimes it's not. In Season 2, Leanne spends the whole season battling between this idea of 'is Dorothy this monster, or is she just a tired mother? Should I hate her, but I can't hate her, but I want to hate her, yet I can't hate her because I want the best for her.'"

And for her part, Dorothy's actions in Season 2 regarding Leanne certainly frame her as more of a villain rather than the sympathetic, albeit odd, mother figure she maintained in Season 1. "I feel like it was a gift to be able to play this flawed character," Ambrose says about the changing facets of her character. "And obviously, it's a good opportunity to look at how I am as a mother and how I am as with certain ambitions. She's kind of a grossly ambitious person, and that's part of the comedy of the character and that's always fun to play. Through playing the person and playing the scenes, I do judge when I immediately read it, and I ultimately came away from it feeling compassionate toward her because she's flawed, like, everyone, just maybe more."

Free also feels sympathy for her own character, especially because she feels no one really sees who Leanne is, or appreciates her as they should. "Everywhere Leanne's gone her whole life, somebody has wanted something from her. People see Leanne as 'What can they get from her?' It's never about 'What can I do for this person? How can I help this person?'

"Leanne is a teenage girl," Free emphasizes. "She's trying to juggle these immensely large themes and large problems of life and death that she has in her hands. She's 19. She's just a kid and she's also trying to deal with her hormones and trying to understand what mascara is and her relationship with her mother and boys and all these things. She's got a lot of s*** to deal with. And no one's ever like, 'Thanks, Leanne! Thanks so much for running away from a cult and bringing us a baby.'"

Both women are excited to see how audiences process the tone of this upcoming season, which remains terrifying but also veers into more black comedy — especially as Dorothy spirals. Ambrose says she gave a lot of different "Dorothy" reactions in any given scene, but the series doesn't really take shape, even to her, until she sees the final episodes.

"In terms of tone, we actors do our best to bring the reality of the moment, even if it's a comedic thing, or if it's a horror/scary moment, we bring the reality as best we can to the moment And then, on this show, more so than any show I've ever been on, so many other artists come in to tweak the tone," Ambrose explains.

She cites the show's score, eclectic camera work, and the array of directors who come in and adhere to Shyamalan's mandate of having a strong "perspective" as just some of the elements that make Servant stand out. "It's never shot like a TV show. It's never typical coverage," she says with equal parts admiration and slight confusion. "There's always some crazy piece of equipment that they've rented for some elaborate shot for some moment that I didn't even realize was a big moment. But they had this crazy thing planned for it, and I'm like, 'OK, here we go, this is what we're doing — we're focusing on the person's legs for the scene?'" she says with a laugh.

Viewers, too, will be excited to see how the sophomore season all comes together. Free highlights Episode 5 and the season finale as bright spots, while Ambrose is excited for Episode 4, which Shyamalan directed. "There's sort of this face-off between the two characters as both come into their strength and powers," Ambrose teases. "They're grappling for control, in a way, and ultimately feeling very out of control in the hands that they've each been dealt. It will be interesting to see how it turns out and how it's received because it really does go very far and the characters go really far. When I read that I was like, 'I don't think this is appropriate. How do we do this? What is this?'"

Servant Season 2 has commenced on Apple TV+.