“When a baby is born, a mother is also born … the woman existed, but a mother is something absolutely brand new.” Emma’s sister’s words reverberate throughout the episode as Emma adjusts to life as not only a new mother but a mother of a possibly supernatural baby. It’s not that Brian has shown signs of Marvel-inspired superpowers or resembles Kuato from Total Recall, whom Apollo ironically compared him to, but something just isn’t quite right. And if you ask Emma, Brian knows something is off too.
Before she ferociously marches through the streets of New York, aggressively pleading with a 6-month-old strapped tight to her chest, Emma’s descent into madness begins with a very normal condition. For many women, the postpartum period is a time of mixed emotions heightened by the hormones and exhaustion associated with child-rearing. Emma and Apollo, whose recurring nightmare returned, suffer from sleep deprivation while Emma desperately tries to get baby Brian to latch onto her breast. There’s a raw and restless energy, something all new parents can relate to.
At first, Emma is a ball of anxiety and unflinching devotion — at one point, she tells Apollo that now she has “this thing” she loves so much she’ll have to kill herself if anything happens to “it” — while Apollo is taking to fatherhood like it’s his divine duty on this Earth. Interestingly, Emma referring to Brian as “it” preludes her behavior at the end of the episode, where she doesn’t even believe the baby is the same one she gave birth to. Most of Emma’s scenes with the baby are filled with shadows and darkness, while Apollo’s scenes feature light and the buzzing life of the city. He takes Brian to the park every morning to hang with the other dads and keeps him close to his heart in a little carrier while searching for antique books with his best friend, Patrice. They go to an estate sale where Apollo’s mood gets even better when he finds a first edition copy of To Kill a Mockingbird that features a personal note from Harper Lee to Truman Capote, a find he believes is worth at least $10,000.
Juxtaposing Apollo practically levitating with new parent joy is Jonathan van Tulleken’s camera work that jerks us into a strange point of view, which is that of a creepy observer. When he’s at the park, one shot comes from a distance, our view slightly obstructed by trees as if we were watching from across the street; when he’s putting Brian into the car, the camera catches him from an alleyway; when he’s in the attic at the estate sale, the camera is often positioned in little hiding places, buried by various objects. Unbeknownst to him, there’s an inherent feeling that Apollo is being watched, yet he keeps putting Brian down on the floor or turning his back to him. Since we know this story is about a changeling, we must pay close attention every time Brian is left alone, as a changeling is the decoy left behind when a real baby is abducted.
While Brian is galavanting across town with his firstborn, Emma realizes that perhaps her baby is actually being watched. A mere eight weeks after giving birth, Emma has to return from her maternity leave because their family depends on her medical insurance. Naturally, Apollo sends her selfies of his adventures with Brian, but eventually, she starts receiving pictures of Brian and Apollo from some of the angles I mentioned above, pictures that would’ve been impossible for Apollo to take as he’s in each frame, unaware of being watched. As soon as Emma properly looks at the photos, they vanish.
When Emma asks Apollo about the mysterious pictures, he doesn’t take her seriously and slightly patronizes her for wondering whether he deleted the pictures from the text thread as that’s impossible (well, it was then. Shoutout to Apple for the unsend feature!!). Though she knows details about Apollo’s outing with Brian, specifically that he changed the baby on the ground, Brian refuses to validate her experience. When she gets a photo late at night, the picture is gone by the time she runs to Apollo to show him. As LaValle narrates in the beginning, “After two months of little to no sleep, a person might suffer panic attacks, paranoia, and phobias no lullaby can soothe.” On the surface, Emma’s psychosis could be chalked up to sleep deprivation and the perils of postpartum. But as she keeps receiving the unsettling pictures, she becomes increasingly unhinged.
Despite finding some solace in an online support group (giving us a great scene of her manically covering the windows with tinfoil to block out light), during one of Brian’s doctor’s appointments, Emma is circling the drain. The tension between the mother and son is palpable, and flashes of Emma begging Brian to stop crying play during the scenes at the doctor’s office. Emma has a deranged look in her eye while watching the baby, the bars of the crib mimicking a jail cell representing how trapped in her own mind she is. Soon she reaches her boiling point, calling her crying son a “little fucking fucker.”
The doctor assures Emma that Brian is perfectly healthy and normal but can see from Emma’s appearance and jittery vibes that the new mom is struggling. Emma storms home, speaking so aggressively to Brian that passersby look her way. She sternly says, “We both know something’s not right … one of us is gonna have to change it up,” and calls the silent baby “the devil.” She walks into the street, yelling at ongoing traffic, as a man on the sidewalk screams what we’re all thinking: “It’s not a real baby!”
Emma bursts through the door and dumps Brian in Apollo’s arms, and the baby immediately stops crying, sending Emma deeper into a tizzy. She tells Apollo that Brian is an asshole and retreats to the bedroom, where she gets yet another freaky picture of Brian, but this time it’s a picture of her carrying him after the appointment. Apollo asks his wife if she’s okay, stating that the doctor called and expressed concern over Emma’s mental state. Together, they agree she’ll talk to someone about her postpartum, and she’s eventually prescribed medication.
Six months after Brian’s birth, Emma’s sister Kim comes to check in on the new family since Emma stopped answering her phone for the last few weeks. It’s time for his six-month checkup, but a visibly broken down Emma says that Brian isn’t even home and declares she has an errand to run. Kim accompanies her to a janky apartment building where Emma is instructed to visit by someone named Cal. Once they arrive at the right apartment, a sinister-looking woman hands Emma a bag filled with chains before quickly shutting the door.
If the bag of chains isn’t weird enough, Kim says she’s seen the look on Emma’s face before … on their late mother. This triggers her to reveal a family secret to Emma. For her whole life, Emma knew that her parents had died in a fire; however, she finds out from her sister that the facts of that fateful day completely contradict her memory of the truth. Until now, Kim told Emma that the fire began after the sisters were at school, and fire trucks were already there when they got home. The truth is much more disturbing — Emma and her sister were in the house when their mother started the fire.
Kim says the day began with their mother keeping them home from school. Their mom was clearly anxious about something and told their father, who was agitated after a long shift, that she “wanted to keep them close.” She starts doing Kim’s hair (in Emma’s memory, she was the one getting her hair brushed), singing the same lullaby Emma sang to Brian at the beginning of the episode. The girls doze off, and they’re awakened by their father urging them to leave, the house enveloped in fire and smoke. Their dad tries to evacuate the family, but their mom sits amid the fire in a chair and pulls Emma into her arms, cryptically saying, “We should all go together.” Emma backs away from her mother and says, “Let me go.” Thanks to their dad, Emma and Kim safely make it outside and watch the house go up in flames. Their father says his final good-bye before going back to rescue their mom, never to be seen again.
Emma asks her sister why she’s telling her the truth now, and Kim admits that Emma’s face mirrors their mother’s face the day she set the fire. In response, Emma blurts out: “Sometimes I look at Brian, and I don’t think he’s my son … he looks like Brian, but it’s like he’s someone else’s son.” Kim, already immensely concerned, tells Emma that she’s suffering from exhaustion and thrown off balance from having to return to work so soon. She acknowledges that Emma’s childhood trauma of being left without parents could contribute to her seemingly irrational feelings toward Brian.
Knowing the truth about her parents sends Emma further into insanity. One morning, dressed in all white, she announces that she wants to get Brian baptized, something Apollo’s mom has been urging them to do, though at the beginning of the episode, she was staunchly opposed to the idea. She’s so serious about getting him baptized that she makes the appointment that day. Apollo is annoyed about being left out of such a big decision, and the couple starts fighting. Apollo says Emma probably wants Brian to have an exorcism, not a baptism. He blows up, saying Emma is the problem, shouting, “Why don’t you take a pill or something?” Apollo’s flippant comment is the last straw for Emma. She returns his cruelty with a blank stare and then calmly leaves the apartment. Before opening the door, she faces Apollo and says, “You don’t see, but you will.”
• At the end of the episode, we get a glimpse of Emma’s disturbing behavior that those who read the novel know is about to come. The way she kicked in the door and entered looking like a monster tells us everything we need to know.
• Does the switch from baby Brian to changeling Brian likely happen when they leave him in the living room to sleep? Or perhaps it was before when he started to latch but ended up biting Emma. It’s hard to tell, but nothing could convince Emma that that’s her baby.
• Patrice is great comic relief! His “fuckoffy” comment was the perfect quip to that know-it-all white woman.