In a messy, visceral jumble of storytelling from every angle, “Chapter 4” of American Horror Story: Roanoke spills its guts. We know the history of the house and its murders, how Tomasyn became The Butcher, and how her people are tied to this plot of land, and to her, for eternity. This episode even reveals a connection to American Horror Story: Freak Show. But when the storytelling is this disjointed, who cares?
Professor Elias Cunningham is back. He looks calmer, cleaner, and less wild-eyed than in the videotapes Matt and Shelby found in their root cellar, and he saves them from the pig-headed intruder chasing them through the long halls of their home. But Denis O’Hare manages to make this tidy, capable man as unsettling as the unhinged ranter he once was, starting with his entrance. After he banishes their attacker with a single command—“Croatoan”—Elias warns, “He’ll be back.” The grin he flashes as he says it doesn’t bolster their confidence, and his lavishness with their liquor doesn’t help either.
Elias, who reveals himself as the house’s most recent owner and self-appointed “guardian,” shows the Millers his research, listing off deaths and disappearances:
Oct 3rd, 1952: Three hunters are staying in the house. Something caused them to turn their rifles on each other. Oct 19th, 1973: The Chens are discovered missing. Oct 29th, 1989: The sisters are found to have abandoned the house. Different years, but every death, every missing person, takes place during the same lunar cycle in October. Native Americans called it “the dying grass moon.”
The cases go back hundreds of years, all the way to Edward Phillippe Mott, who built the house in 1782… and was the first to disappear from it. But only in October, during the six days from the new moon to the blood moon. The spirits can haunt the house anytime, tormenting the living, “but this is when they can kill you.”
In a talking-head segment, Matt doubts Elias. “At this point, I didn’t know what to believe… or what his angle was.” I’m with you, Matt. Like the pig man leaping from every doorway, or Elias leading the Millers through the tall grass of their property, “Chapter 4” is all over the place. First Shelby listens, wide-eyed, until Matt tries to strong-arm Elias out of the house. Then Shelby decides Elias is trying to scam them out of the house, but Matt proclaims, “I trusted him. He knew things.” While the Millers flipflop, Elias comes up with a blanket explanation for any gaps in his knowledge: “I know what I know.”
There are reasons to believe Elias, or at least to believe he knows something. But there’s not a lot of reason to care. This is American Horror Story’s most reliable feature, and its greatest failure. “Chapter 4” establishes a whole ensemble of former residents and current ghosts, but as always, American Horror Story doesn’t need more digressions. It needs fewer. Knowing the show’s history of throwing characters and tangents and splashy grotesqueries up on the screen, then abandoning them, makes it hard to invest emotionally in anyone or anything. (And I’ll just quote myself here, also speaking about AHS: “Let me be clear: invest emotionally in is critic-speak for give a single damn about.”) That’s doubly true when the press surrounding this season promises a big switcheroo partway through.
Elias leads Matt and Shelby to Lady Gaga’s witch of the wilderness, who draws Shelby further into the countryside. There, they spot Flora playing blind man’s bluff with a gaggle of ghosts. (Or are they?) Elias dies there (or does he?), pierced by arrows from the Roanoke colonists’ bows. The Millers return home to find Cricket waiting, and it’s easy to get swept up in the fabulous story Cricket’s telling them without considering its position in the narrative.
Again, AHS: Roanoke is presenting a reenactment within a reenactment, relayed by Shelby and Matt, to whom Cricket told it. But most of Cricket’s story is just that: story. This string of sequences in “Chapter 4” reminds me in equal parts of The Usual Suspects, which relies entirely on a retold story, and Wait Until Dark, which is a series of entrances and exits made to look like more. They see him leave, and they see him return, and Shelby says, “When he came back, one look at his face and there was no doubt that he’d been through something hellish.” That’s a lot of faith to have in the man who shook down Matt’s distraught sister for $25,000. It’s hard to understand why Matt and Shelby trust anything about Cricket, including the sight of a colonial mob apparently disemboweling him.
“There was nothing we could do,” Shelby laments. “There was nothing we could do” could be emblazoned on Matt and Shelby’s family crest. They’re strangely passive, swayed by the actions of others but without any inner motivating force of their own. They’re drawn into exploring their new home not by natural curiosity or even caution over the attacks, but by spectral guides. They see their missing niece and do nothing, contact no one. They don’t even call Lee, still in police custody, to tell her they’ve seen Flora, or that their pet psychic says her life force is strong. (Hello, Poltergeist.)
Someone they each trust, if fleetingly, tells them that the spirits occupying their home can only kill them during the same six-day lunar cycle each year. But even after their niece is safely returned to them, they don’t bother to pack up and leave. Matt is a traveling salesman. Doesn’t he have a bundle of hotel rewards they could cash in to spend the five remaining of the “six blood-soaked days” sitting around a pool and enjoying a modest continental breakfast a few towns away?
They see Elias felled by arrows and they never think to call the police. Of course they don’t, and not just because AHS: Roanoke is portraying the hellishly real fear of the police that so many Americans have learned to feel. They don’t think of it because the Millers aren’t in the habit of thinking anything except what other characters tell them to think, and sometimes not even that. Elias walks right into their house to save their lives, and Cricket greets them from their own doorway, because—even though Cricket suggested it in his first appearance—they haven’t thought to start locking their doors. If their passivity is explored and exploited cleverly by the promised twist, that will be a stroke of genius. But given American Horror Story’s track record, it’s hard to gin up any faith in that possibility.
- Kathy Bates’ accent is a little clumsy and a little broad, but Wes Bentley’s just makes me sorry for him. As long as Ambrose’s dire glares and the occasional line, but in the longer speeches of “Chapter 4,” the wooden quality of his accent seems to exhaust him. It certainly exhausts me.
- Was it necessary for the first act of this episode to remind us that Shelby had seen the pig man before, and to revisit the scene of his burning? That’s not the kind of thing viewers forget… although Shelby seems to have forgotten some of the searing horror of it, since she’s so shocked by Cricket’s stories of human sacrifice.
- “It’s too dangerous! I need to do this!” Elias tells Shelby seconds before he’s shot through with arrows, and I snorted with laughter. But his eagerness makes me skeptical of his motives, and of his apparent death.
- plot twist corner: So, what’s the big twist? I can spin a half-dozen possibilities off the top of my head, from a big con designed to drive the Millers off the property to the framing narrative being revealed as a Billie Dean Howard interview with the dead. But in my heart of hearts, I want Matt—Matt, who keeps disappearing outside to boff a woodland witch, who urges Shelby to sleep only to wander off, who offered to burn their house down—to be gaslighting and terrorizing Shelby for twisted reasons of his own. I know you have your own wild theories and secret hopes, and that’s what comment sections are made for.