Call me old-fashioned, but I still mourn the loss of longer TV seasons. This new standard of eight-episode seasons leaves much to be desired for viewers who revel in the experience of watching a carefully curated story unfold over the course of many installments. Sure, there are legitimate reasons for cutting down episode counts — we know our attention spans are dwindling, and sometimes, feeding the audience small doses is the best way to maintain viewership. But for a professional TV watcher like me, without effective and tight storytelling, shorter seasons dramatically alter the viewing experience.
Recapping this show reminded me of covering Janine Nabers and Donald Glover’s Swarm; after watching Swarm’s season finale, I deeply yearned for two more episodes to flesh out this jigsaw puzzle of a season. The Changeling, too, would’ve benefited from an additional few episodes to streamline the plot and make up for the slow, mid-season pacing by allowing the season to crescendo, leaving us on the edge of our seats. Instead, we got even less time to figure things out as the episode was roughly 30 minutes instead of the usual 40 minutes to an hour. It’s jam-packed with action, yet the plot only moves incrementally, leaving us with a cliffhanger.
After two episodes focused on Lillian and Emma’s much-needed perspectives, the finale brings us back to Apollo’s narrative. He’s now on the second phase of his hero’s journey: the initiation. This phase of the journey is when the protagonist actively begins navigating the tests and challenges before them. Apollo has come face-to-face with Kinder Garten, who is revealed to be just one of a network of 10,000 men who all go by the moniker. This group of nefarious men are the ones who trolled Apollo on Brian’s tribute page. Kinder Garten admits to killing his daughter and chastises Apollo for not bringing Gretta back to him. Then, Apollo hears growling from an unseen and seemingly more ominous monster in the forest and runs, following the screams he hears from the village of women and children. Once he gets to their campsite, he sees the community they built engulfed in flames.
LaKeith Stanfield’s acting shines as we watch Apollo move through one of the burning buildings, overcome with emotion from the memories he shared with the children, his face and eyes exposing the gravity of the loss. Both Stanfield and Jane Kaczmarek, as Cal, gave stellar performances. Apollo sinks to the floor inside the building, almost succumbing to his anguish until Cal appears, informing him that some people could evacuate, but Gretta is a fire victim. Cal urges Apollo to quietly leave the island with the remaining community members instead of trying to attack Kinder Garten, whose wicked voice booms.
William has completely ditched his alias and terrorizes Apollo with his true, terrifying identity. His voice is theatrically villainous, straight out of a fairytale, as he refers to his victims as “little piggy.” The second, larger-than-life-sounding monster grows menacingly while the survivors travel to the shore to get away from the island. They try to move in silence to hide their location from their predators until they encounter a vast cliff they must scale down to make it to the boat with the others who managed to evacuate. There’s an excruciatingly small rope they climb down one by one, with Apollo and Cal going last. Gayl, the little girl Apollo bonded with from the village, holds onto Apollo, and he carries them both, promising Gayl’s mother that her daughter will be safe.
They make it about midway down the cliff as both Kinder Garten and the other still unseen creature approach their location. The rope begins to falter under the weight of the survivors, threatening to come free from the stump it’s tied to. Apollo releases Gayl, allowing the people who have already made it to shore to catch her, but Apollo and Cal suspensefully fall the rest of the way. Miraculously, they survive, though they’re both injured. They flee to where the boat waits for them, but Cal directs Apollo to stay behind with her, and he’ll take the small creek boat. She tells the women to leave without looking back and returns to the island with Apollo.
Cal launches into a monologue about how calling her and her band of women “witches” is a misnomer. She says, “Maybe what they really mean is we’re women who did things that seemed impossible … the only real magic is in the things you’ll do for the ones you love.” She tells Apollo that what she saw in Emma as the scorned mom paddled away to find her child could only be described as this kind of magic. Cal also expands on why she goes by Callisto, the Greek nymph who got “about as happy an ending as those Greek stories ever get,” as Zeus turned her and her son into constellations, allowing them to be together in the sky for eternity. Cal wants her Greek tragedy to end the same way, and she tells Apollo it’s time for her story to end and for her to be reunited with her child. She urges Apollo to find Emma in the only forest in New York City so he “can finally believe.”
Getting the survivors on the ship was merely a ploy to give Apollo more time as Cal knows the unseen monster, which she refers to as “the big one,” can swim. They watch the sky while the creature swoops down into the water, camouflaged by the night sky, and the people on the boat scream. Apollo gets in the creek boat, and Cal returns to the island ready to end her story valiantly by fighting Kinder Garten head-on and buying Apollo time. She climbs back up the cliff, gripping one slippery rock at a time while the rain pours down. Kinder Garten awaits her at the top, and there’s a gruesome and bloody fight between the two, but Cal comes out on top, bludging the man with a rock before fatally stabbing him. She catches her breath, spreads her arms wide, and then gracefully jumps from the cliff, leaving the scene as a martyr. Apollo looks to the night sky and sees one more constellation twinkling into existence before rowing back to the city.
The show switches back to Emma’s perspective, and we see her approaching the forest in NYC’s old Little Norway neighborhood. LaValle’s narration ushers us out of the episode, repeating the lines from To the Waters and the Wild while we watch the prophecy playing out, mirroring the book’s illustrations. Emma enters the forest to see a carousel glowing, that same magical blue glow she emitted while rowing away from the island. Apollo makes it to the mainland, where he finally visits Brian’s grave. He opens the casket where the changeling is buried, still alive. The changeling bites Apollo’s hand, drawing blood and proving once and for all, “It’s not a baby.”
• Okay, despite my criticisms, the cliffhanger left me anticipating a season two now that the story is picking up again, which shows there’s potential. In some ways, it felt more like a mid-season finale. LaValle’s novel also had a slow buildup, so I’m holding out hope. These actors put their foot in their performances, and the aesthetics are everything.
• One of the most important revelations of the finale was but a blip in the episode, but we find out that the unseen monster is presumably a female entity as Cal refers to her as “she.” Then, at the very end of the episode, we see Apollo creeping through a cave where what looks like a dragon opens its eyes. This could be the “she” Cal spoke of.