‘The Changeling,’ Episode 7 Recap: The departure episode

Adina Porter as Lillian 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.

If there was ever a time to give Adina Porter her flowers, it’s now. Porter has been on the periphery of the Apple TV+ series “The Changeling” all season as Apollo’s (LaKeith Stanfield) present-day mother Lillian, making powerful use of her scant screen time as a single mother still trying to raise and care for her adult son during the biggest catastrophe that he can recall — the murder of his baby, Brian, by his wife, Emma (Clark Backo). Still, there’s more to his story than Lillian has been able to share. 

When she finally does share with Apollo that his beloved father Brian, after whom he’d named his only child, had come back for Apollo when he was just 4, and Lillian had prevented his father from taking him, Apollo meets Lillian with rage and hatred. He blames her for not allowing his father to be in his life. Little did he know. 

In a standout, penultimate episode of the season — a departure episode, if you will — directed by Michael Francis Williams, Lillian finally reveals the truth about Brian West. At 58 minutes, it’s the longest episode of the season, though it does little to move the plot forward. Yet, it may be the best episode in the entire season. The revelation of Apollo’s vanishing father centers Lillian’s story in a way that is so intimate and insular that it feels more like a one-woman play. 

It begins with Lillian walking through a red-light district in New York. She leaves a message on Apollo’s cellphone that she’s been trying to reach him to no avail for three weeks. It’s meant to show how much time has passed since she and Apollo argued, but with peep shows available for 25 cents in the background, it feels impossible to be sure where in time she is. 

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She enters the Elk Hotel — what narrator Victor LaValle calls “the shittiest hotel in the world” — and says to no one in particular, “I’m here to unmake a deal.” It’s the same hotel from a receipt Brian West kept in a box that Apollo found as a teenager. Mysteriously, while standing in the lobby, her cheek starts to bleed. “He got you good,” a woman in the lobby remarks. The hotel is 100 years old, but the decor seems stuck in a not-too-distant past, with a rotary dial TV playing the news in the background. The anchor is talking about a lost Mozart symphony that was found in the Bavaria State Library. That happened in 1982, so that’s presumably where Lillian’s mind is.

“I remember this,” Lillian says, and it’s clear now that she’s existing in two timeframes at once. She books room 205 at the hourly hotel for the whole night. She watches as the feet of a soaking wet, fully clothed woman walks upstairs. She follows to find men in the hallway watching TV on the second floor and a white man lying ill in a room with the door open. The sick man reaches for her, but the men in the hallway warn her not to touch him because he is contagious. She walks past the room and follows the soaking wet woman, who turns out to be a phantom of herself, Young Lillian (Alexis Louder) into room 205. LaValle narrates that she’s looking for self-forgiveness, and it’s inside that room.

The story flashes back to 1981. Young Lillian arrives home after working a Saturday and leaving 4-year-old Apollo alone. It’s the scene we’ve seen many times; she comes home and there’s smoke or fog or steam pouring out from under the door. In the present, Lillian’s whole life is flashing before her eyes beginning with fleeing Uganda after soldiers murdered her cousin in front of her. She wonders if everything that’s happened to her family is her fault for leaving; if she had stayed, she would have been wiped out by a dictator like the rest of her family. The thought causes her to discard her faith in a loving God who would allow these things. She rips off her cross necklace and disavows God. Then she begins recording her story on tape for Apollo — how she fled Uganda, how she loved his father, how she put the weight of her happiness onto him.

LaValle mentioned in the beginning of the episode that a trans woman in a gold dress had been murdered in that hotel, and in Lillian’s memory, she sees a trans woman in a gold dress handing her the red suitcase we’ve seen Young Lillian sink to the bottom of the ocean in episode four. She opens the suitcase and the gold dress is inside, with a pair of gold heels.

The Changeling, LaKeith Stanfield, theGrio.com
Alexis Louder as Young Lillian in “The Changeling.” (Courtesy of Apple TV+).

Lillian continues telling her story into the tape recorder that Brian West was deeply wounded by parents who hated him. She says, as she tries on the gold dress, that she ignored the red flags about him because she knew he would be a good father. He was emotionally abusive and threatened physical violence, she shares. Then the electricity at the hotel goes out. The hotel manager leaves candles at her door. When she opens it to retrieve them, she hears the moans of the sick man down the hall. She goes to him. The man has wounds all over his body. He tells her, “I’m going to die tonight,” and she says, “Me too.”

The man looks like Brian, is Brian, in Lillian’s mind, but the story of how he ended up dying in that hotel room doesn’t match Brian’s story. He’s dying of AIDS, his boyfriend has a wife and abandoned him two months ago when he realized the man was sick. They were supposed to go to a show together to hear Lena Horne sing “Stormy Weather,” but that wasn’t ever going to happen. 

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As a comfort, Lillian in her gold dress and wig sings “Stormy Weather” for him as he dies. She switches back and forth between Young Lillian and her singing on a stage. Lillian wraps him in a white sheet, a final act of compassion for Brian West. The body vanishes.

Back in her room, she finishes recording her story to Apollo, not that his father didn’t want him, but that he wanted him too much. We see Brian and Young Lillian on a picnic, but the tone is not romantic; he’s reminding Lillian that she’s alone in the world and he’s a police officer. He could have her committed, he could do anything to her and no one would know because she has no other family. My episode one theory that this show is about the horror of having a man control a woman’s life continues to bear out. 

Brian finds a receipt from the Elk Hotel and starts to accuse Lillian of having an affair. But she’d filed for divorce, they weren’t together and she swears she’d never been there. He’s out of his mind, but he’s the American, she’s an immigrant and he has all the power. He’s threatening to “finish her” and vows no other man would raise his son. She comes home that Saturday and sees Brian drowning Apollo in the tub. She kills Brian.

Young Lillian goes to the Elk Hotel, her white dress covered in blood, and contemplates jumping out of the window, but decides against leaving Apollo alone in the world. She makes a deal with God, that she’d do anything if God would let her get away with murder. This is the deal present-day Lillian is here to unmake. 

Young Lillian puts the 1980s tape recorder where she made the confession into the red suitcase that she ends up throwing off the dock. Victor LaValle’s novel, “The Changeling,” gives no insight into how Lillian managed to dispose of Brian West’s body, but the show insinuates she somehow got him to the Elk Hotel, put Brian West’s body in a gold sequined dress and stuffed him under the bed where he went undiscovered for weeks. She’d kept her promise to be the best mother she could be to Apollo, and she believed it was her actions that had caused all the pain in Apollo’s life. 

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But the truth is, Brian West was a danger to both of them. He was so absorbed in his own pain of being abandoned and of seeing himself as a good husband and father that he could accept no other narrative about himself. He’d rather kill Apollo and Lillian and himself than accept that his actions made him dangerous. He passed this on to his son. Apollo, too, is so self-absorbed in the idea of being a good father that he doesn’t even notice his baby has been gone for months. He would parent a monster before he considered the concerns of his wife as the concerns of a good mother. Men and the stories they tell themselves about who they are have life-threatening consequences. Lillian knew that and so did Emma. 

And so does writer and showrunner Kelly Marcel. This episode is stretched from a short confessional phone conversation that Lillian and Apollo have in the book. To make it an entire episode where Porter gets to be centered shows an understanding on Marcel’s part of how integral to this storytelling the mothers’ perspectives are — a treat that we’re getting far too late in the series. 

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

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