‘The Changeling,’ Episode 5 Recap: Emma’s vindication

Written by on September 22, 2023

The Changeling episode 5 recap, Clark Backo, theGrio.com
Clark Backo as Emma in “The Changeling.” (Courtesy of Apple TV+)

Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.

Episode five finally offers up Emma’s side of the story. Instead of a baby-killing mother, as she’s been portrayed from Apollo’s perspective for the past three episodes, we learn that Emma’s actions were all rooted in the genuine protection of her child, Brian. 

The episode begins with a flashback to Emma (Clark Backo) in Brazil. “The Changeling” author Victor LaValle offers up narration and a Swahili quote that roughly translates to, “Whoever doesn’t learn from the mother will learn from the world.” This is either referring to Emma not having a mother from a young age or learning from her mother how to attempt child murder. But since this episode is mainly vindicating Emma, I’m betting on the first interpretation and Emma’s motherlessness leading to her having to learn lessons the hard way.

As we learned in the pilot episode, Emma was moving recklessly while in Brazil. She goes to see a witch that all the locals told her to leave alone. She grabs fruit from a tree and gets cut. A Norwegian photographer she meets has to scold her about asking the tree’s permission before just taking what she wants. Folks, we’re officially in the Upside Down.

But Brazil is also an empowering place for her. While the Norwegian photographer hounds her relentlessly to let him take her picture, she refuses him. It’s only when he steps away to pee in the forest that she takes his camera, sets the timer, strips nude and takes the self-portrait Michelle (Rasheda Crockett) told Apollo (LaKeith Stanfield) about back in the pilot episode. She indeed looks like a sorceress in the portrait. But what exactly is she conjuring? And while she took her own picture, the white guy still owns it, so where is the power in that? 

Not only did he own it, he sold the photo and a giant-sized print of it now hangs in a Norwegian gallery. There’s no mention of her getting any profit or recognition for the self-portrait. I guess this is yet another in a long list of lessons the world will have to teach her in the absence of a mother. 

Unfortunately, we don’t stay with Emma’s perspective for very long. After the opening credits, we’re back in Apollo’s perspective. For some reason, a quote from the book Apollo’s father used to read to him is engraved on the walls of the cell where he’s being held next to William on North Brother Island. When Cal returns to speak to Apollo, William interrupts, running down a laundry list of Cal’s personal life from her criminal record to her high school mascot, proving he’s done his research on her. Cal retorts that she was going to douse him with gasoline and light him on fire, but she’s going to let his wife, Gretta, do the honors. She also accuses William of being the one to kill his daughter, not Gretta. This shakes Apollo.

He agrees to go with Cal and leaves William in the cell; William reminds Apollo that if he doesn’t bring Gretta to William, everyone on the island will die. Apollo is fully confused now. William seems like a completely different person than the sweet guy he met who just wanted to buy a beautiful gift for his wife. Perhaps if Apollo’s father hadn’t disappeared, he could’ve taught Apollo not to trust in the presumed innocence of mild-mannered white men. There was absolutely zero evidence that William was anything other than a creep. Why Apollo decided to trust him at all is about as bizarre as Emma hitching a ride with a random white man in Brazil and trusting him with her nudes. 

Apollo tries to get answers from Cal about where Emma is, and Cal says there are things he has to understand before he can go where she is. “Cloak and dagger bullshit; where is she?” Apollo yells, and honestly, I’m with him! Let’s get back to Emma. 

The Changeling episdoe 5 recap, LaKeith Stanfield, theGrio.com
LaKeith Stanfield as Apollo in “The Changeling.” (Courtesy of Apple TV+)

The story flashes back to Emma confessing to baby Brian that she wishes she could love him unconditionally and she’s scared for them. She still thinks Brian is her baby but something is off, and she blames herself and believes in postpartum depression. She reaches out to The Wise Moms Facebook group for help, and Cal messages her, confirming that Emma isn’t crazy to think someone is sending her disappearing text messages. Cal says she can help and at the same moment, the mysterious texter is taunting her and telling her not to talk to witches. Things get increasingly toxic for Emma at home as the CGI baby is literally snickering like an evil creature and jabbing at her. “I will not let you gaslight me!” Emma says to the baby, and it is hilarious but also very sad and scary! “I love my baby,” Emma says, “And I’ll give up anything for him. My husband’s life … and yours.” The baby chomps down on her neck like a vampire, and now I’m fully Team Emma. That baby gotta go. 

Back on North Brother Island, Cal informs Apollo that they are, in fact, in a magical place that doesn’t abide by the rules of the natural world — not the island listed on the Wikipedia page for Typhoid Mary. She also continues William’s rant about the danger of posting your kids on social media. At this point, I want to know which parents so intensely annoyed LaValle by clogging his social media feeds with their lil bundles of joy that compelled LaValle to write this story. 

Back in Emma’s flashback; she tries to set an appointment with a priest to baptize the baby in hopes that she doesn’t have to kill it. But, like much of the series to this point, we don’t stay long enough in Emma’s perspective. Instead, we’re back to Apollo receiving through Cal’s exposition about what Emma was doing on the island over the past three months. 

Apparently, she returned to New York weekly to steal books from the library where she worked so that the kids and moms on the island could have a fully stocked library. Odd priorities for a mom wanted for murder! And an absolutely baffling choice not to show her time on the island rather than telling us about it through Apollo and Cal. 

Using the fairy tale book Apollo’s dad used to read to him as a child, Cal explains what happened to Brian, that fairies stole their baby and replaced him with a changeling. Apollo has to understand that. It’s also apparent that William is Emma’s mysterious texter. Gretta confirms he did murder their daughter, stole $70K from her to buy the book from Apollo and then defaced it. The “true” name of the legion that has taken over William is Kinder Garten, the demonic presence that’s been stalking Emma, Apollo and Brian from the start.

Brooke Obie is an award-winning critic, screenwriter and author of the historical novel “Book of Addis: Cradled Embers.”

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