Features and Columns · Movies

We Need to Talk About Lauren Ambrose in ‘Servant’

It’s never been more fun watching someone spiral out of control like Dorothy Turner does in M. Night Shyamalan’s Apple TV+ series.
Lauren Ambrose In Servant
Apple TV+
By  · Published on March 20th, 2021

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Lauren Ambrose’s performance as Dorothy Turner in the Apple TV+ series Servant.

If you’ve ever worked in customer service, then you’ve probably met someone with the same energy that Lauren Ambrose brings to her character Dorothy Turner in the M. Night Shyamalan produced Apple TV+ series Servant. Think back to all the difficult customers you’ve encountered, the ones who wear their emotions precariously on their sleeves, with demands as outrageous as their personalities.

Even if you’ve never sat behind a help desk, you’re likely still aware of what those individuals I’m alluding to are like. Just look at any viral video featuring an anti-masker or an indignant Karen having a public meltdown. People with that level of petulant rage seem to grow larger than life as they spin out of control, taking their emotions to such extremes that you can’t believe they’re coming from a grown adult.

The swirling storm of destructive emotions that typify people like that are crucial to what makes Ambrose’s performance as Dorothy so intoxicating. Her character has a gigantic presence that is teeming with volatile anxiety that Ambrose slyly turns into a wickedly entertaining, tour-de-force performance that is as shocking as it is hilarious. She’s created a multilayered character who is at once like two different people: a woman suffering from a psychological break and a mother doing what she thinks is best for her son. Or, “son.”

Warning: The Following May Contain Light SPOILERS for Season 1 of Servant

I want to take this moment to say that to properly dissect the performance given by Lauren Ambrose in Servant, I need to discuss a few details that require me to reveal some of the twists and turns of the show. My aim is not to outwardly spoil anything — especially for the latest season — but certain plot points that are central to her emotional journey must be touched upon to fully understand why she’s so magnetic on screen.

If you are unfamiliar with Servant, let me give you a quick primer. The series follows new parents Dorothy and Sean (Toby Kebbel) and their son, Jericho. In the first episode, the Turners hire a nanny, Leanne Grayson (Nell Tiger Free), to watch over their newborn as Dorothy begins balancing her life as a parent and a respected journalist in Philadelphia.

The crux of the series is that Jericho isn’t a real baby, but rather a hyperrealistic doll given to Dorothy by Sean, her brother Julian (Rupert Grint), and her therapist Natalie (Jerrika Hinton). The real Jericho, we learn, tragically died at only a few weeks old in an accident that Dorothy was responsible for. This incident caused her to revert psychologically into herself, becoming catatonic until the doll was introduced to her. The method — inspired by the very real reborn dolls — brought Dorothy back to reality, but only so far as she believes the doll is actually alive. However, as we discover at the end of the first episode, once the mysterious Leanne joins the family, the doll suddenly turns into a real baby, sparking the series’ urban folk horror mystery.

Servant is set primarily within the confines of the Turners’ opulent pre-war brownstone, where Ambrose’s Dorothy is a hollow wall hidden behind a thin veneer of slowly cracking floral wallpaper. The trauma she’s faced is unfathomable and has carved a hole in her heart. But with an unwavering smile and piercing eyes, she attempts to mask her character’s true emotions behind perfectly coiffed hair and designer dresses so you don’t see how quickly she’s falling apart.

That she grows so hyper manic while attempting to act normal only puts her breakdown in a clearer spotlight. In her mind, Jericho never died, so she’s nothing but a young mother trying to balance her life and have it all. But Dorothy exists in a constant state of denial, and Ambrose plays her as always being on the cusp of remembering what happened to her son. This push-and-pull of emotions creates the necessary friction for the scenes where Dorothy finally explodes, like when her family attempts to wake her up to Jericho’s fate at the end of the first season.

Building a performance as harrowing and dynamic as this meant Ambrose had to walk a tightrope into not letting her character become a gross exaggeration of someone struggling with traumatic grief. As she told Backstage:

“How do you make sense of all of those catatonic moments and all of the mania? I don’t know if that’s necessarily in the script…I didn’t do it from an outside-in way of what it looked like. It was more just trying to navigate the mask she wears.”

The mask Dorothy wears is the lies she tells herself about the death of her son. It’s why she, in her heightened emotional state, often acts in a way that feels forced, or unrealistic. That’s not Ambrose the actor pushing out these emotions, it’s Dorothy the character. There’s an unsteady conviction about what happened to Jericho building pressure within Dorothy that’s constantly on the verge of boiling over, and she tries to compensate for these complex emotions by acting like everything is fine. But because Dorothy’s trauma has her so keyed up, she hardly fools anyone.

One could argue that in Servant, Ambrose treads the line of being over the top, but she’s so emotionally grounded that it’s difficult to point to a single moment that feels disingenuous. The actions she takes feel motivated by a woman struggling with a devastating trauma, not by actorly choices meant to convey an abstract idea dynamically.

Ambrose puts herself through an emotional ringer to become Dorothy, but the most surprising — and compelling — aspect of her performance is how she finds such darkly riotous humor in her character’s downward spiral. As Shyamalan told Backstage:

“It was hysterical and it was effortless and tragic and yet super, super funny. Others who were auditioning were tentative about the mania part of it, about the kind of over-the-topness. But Lauren tripled down on it. She just went for it and imbued every single moment, even the ones that weren’t written that way, with that kind of vibrating pain. That translated into these kinds of pyrotechnics that you’re watching her do.”

The humor behind Dorothy’s pain is where Ambrose truly gets to shine. She gives the character these remarkably entertaining facial expressions — whether it’s in abject rage at Leanne or her utter devotion towards Jericho — that feel like they’re teetering on the brink of mugging to the camera.

But then you remember those viral videos featuring Karens and anti-maskers, how their manic melodrama stretches their facial features until they become practically cartoonish. Which they are, but they’re also utterly authentic expressions. These are real people feeling real emotions, no matter how untethered from reality they are. Just because an actor expresses a similar dynamic range in a performance doesn’t make those emotions any less realistic.

Ambrose uses the outer edges of human expression to give Dorothy a spectrum of emotions that surprisingly exist in real life, even if we are not accustomed to seeing them on screen. It’s what makes her performance feel dripping with camp, the kind with teeth like those bared by Bette Davis in What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. She’s not so campy that you can’t imagine this person living in the real world, though. That’s what makes her performance all the more riveting: we’ve all known someone like Dorothy Turner at some point in our lives.

People say that losing a child is the single greatest pain someone can feel. The emotional toll must be unbearable, and I can’t fathom how hard it is to build back after such a tragedy. Servant shows us a portrait of how harrowing, and messy, that process can be. But the central conceit would never have worked if it didn’t have an actress willing to leave everything on the screen as Ambrose does as Dorothy.

She’s the character our hearts break for the most, and Ambrose plays Dorothy’s psychology with such a beguiling sense of curiosity that it turns what could be a deeply somber performance into something that’s unbelievably entertaining to watch. You can’t help but cheer for Ambrose as Dorothy, excited to see what surprises the actress has in store for us as her character spirals deeper into an emotional abyss. It’s the kind of performance that leaves you winded but also exhilarated, like Gena Rowland in A Woman Under the Influence or Nicolas Cage in Leaving Las Vegas.

Ambrose delivers a singular performance as Dorothy Turner that truly must be seen to be believed. She infuses this fractured character with a sense of danger and a streak of dark humor that we’ve never really seen before from the actress. If you want a masterclass in building a character that straddles the line between realism and bold decision-making, then you need to watch Lauren Ambrose in Servant.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)