(Adina Porter) (Screenshot: FX)

The finale of American Horror Story: Roanoke is simultaneously a rip-roaring hour of television and a disappointment. The sleek, sedate trailer for the final chapter promised a change of pace from the choppy, often winking distance of the season to date, with Lee Harris granting a coveted one-on-one interview to one of the few people who might understand her. In the preview, AHS: Asylum’s Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson’s third role of the season) promises the return of a woman as intense and assured as Lee, and as capable of maneuvering people into doing and saying what she wants.

The few minutes they have together are riveting. Lana, who rose to fame as Bloody Face’s captive—and his killer—has a reputation just as sensational as Lee’s, and nearly as notorious. After a lifetime asking pointed questions at the perfect moment, Lana expects to finesse Lee into revealing herself. Instead, she’s finessed by her. In the brief interview, Adina Porter shifts moods with seeming ease: startled pleasure at Lana’s greeting, guarded grace as Lee speaks of her daughter, measured anger when Lana calls Flora a liar. Most striking of all, when speaking of their similarities, what seems like naked vulnerability turns cutthroat as Lee pinpoints what similarity she means: “I mean, Jesus, you killed your own son.”

“I did what I had to do,” Lana says. “Exactly,” echoes Lee.

Watching these two poised, polished, fiercely intelligent women with nerves of steel facing off under the pressure of a full-length live interview would be more than a respite from the shaky-cam look of the season or the ever-expanding cast and its necessarily diminishing effect on the emotional impact of the show’s many deaths. It would have been a tour de force, a chance for two remarkable actors to build tension with just expression and intonation.

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Instead, Lot Polk (Frederick Koehler) puts a premature end to the interview, and “Chapter 10” delivers more of AHS’s usual: ironic distance, slapstick death, and an empty parade of ghosts.

Bradley Buecker, who directed the season premiere that promised unreliability right from the beginning, brings the same fluent command of reality-show tempos and tones to the finale. Series creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk, who wrote the this episode, give each segment an air of verisimilitude and a flicker of wicked wit. Each individual element is well-crafted. But the overall effect of “Chapter 10” is slight, if only because it’s so familiar despite a crop of new characters.

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The Paley Center My Roanoke Nightmare panel flashback serves little narrative purpose, but it’s gratifying to see Lee, who talks of being reviled after the series, embraced by the audience. The rest of the show is cobbled together from note-perfect facsimiles of news reports, courtroom footage, fan footage, and the last episode of a doomed ghost-hunter show.

A true-crime series neatly summarizes events since “Chapter 9.” Lee’s first murder trial boasts a defense (hallucinations from “magic pot,” trauma-induced paranoia) that’s both hilarious and weirdly credible. In her second trial, for Mason’s murder, the only witness is Flora (Jessica Pressley), whose testimony is called into doubt when she also reports spending that night with a colonial-era ghost. The format is a tidy way to establish Lee’s acquittal, her deepening estrangement from her daughter, and Lana Winters’ likely questions (and areas of attack). But none of it has the charged energy of those scant minutes of connection and conflict generated by Paulson and Porter.

It’s clever to cast one of the Spirit Chasers, with his narrow face and quick grin, as a Sidney James in training, but the three ghost-hunters aren’t written as characters, but devices. Their lives and their deaths have no weight because they’re just a lazy mechanism to get Lee back on camera. The reveal of three victims pierced by arrows is presented as a punchline, and it is one. They’re just more camera fodder, more bodies to spill blood and fill time.

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The thermal captures, the audio files of chittering spirits, the cameos by the house’s murderous ghosts, the slaughtering of Ashley Gilbert (Leslie Jordan as the actor who played Cricket) and the Spirit Chasers: It’s all a lot of noise. American Horror Story has always been known for bravura performances, and AHS: Roanoke is Adina Porter’s showcase. In the finale, every scene without her feels like biding time.

Last week, I said Lee Harris’s savvy and determination let her do what it takes to survive, “whatever survival means under the sway of that cursed land.” This week, Lana Winters describes Lee—and herself—as “singular of thought.” “When we latch onto something,” she expands, “it becomes our destiny, and we will do anything to see it through.” Throughout this season, survival was simply what Lee had to do if she ever hoped to get Flora back. And in “Chapter 10,” Lee will sacrifice anything, including her own survival, for Flora’s.

“You have to live your life, with or without me,” Lee tells Flora as they huddle in the house, not yet realizing how true that is. Minutes later, she offers to die in her daughter’s place, to stay forever bound to the property so she, not Flora, can take care of Priscilla. Knowing Flora despises her for killing Mason, in her last words, Lee doesn’t beg for forgiveness. Instead, she says only, “In time, you may feel differently about me.” Lee’s words are simple, appropriate for a mother trying to talk her small daughter out of a tragic decision. And Adina Porter gives every word, every look, the weight it deserves. Lee gives her life to save her daughter’s, and she gives up a life with her daughter in hopes of winning back her daughter’s love.

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After a season striving to clear her name, Lee no longer cares if the news outlets spin a story of her as a murderer, a kidnapper, an unhinged mother holding her own daughter hostage against the SWAT team… because clearing her name was just one step in reclaiming custody of Flora. “It’s always been about Flora,” Lana Winters tells a vapid news anchor. Everything else is a distraction. Under the jump scares and pig heads and murderous nurses, behind the infidelities and addictions, the central story of AHS: Roanoke is Lee’s love for Flora, and what she’ll give up to win a chance of happiness for her child. In Porter’s hands, it becomes a sensitive, subtle, sometimes biting portrayal of parental love.

Stray observations

  • Lana Winters can immediately ID the sound of an assault weapon from a distance.
  • I expected the story of Lee’s first daughter, Emily, to play a part in this episode, and tacitly maybe she does. The disappearance of Emily makes Lee even more fiercely determined not to lose Flora, too.
  • Even before she understands Flora’s plan—to die in the house and join her ghostly friend for eternity—Lee talks around the margins of her real questions. “What did you eat, out there in the woods?” she asks, never mentioning hearts, but clearly thinking of them.
  • With its rich racial subtext, this season of American Horror Story has been unexpectedly meaningful and unexpectedly rewarding to cover. But the scheduling always makes AHS a tough gig. Like my editors before me, I’ve decided to hand over coverage to another critic when the show returns for its seventh installment. It’s been a great two and a half seasons, and thank you for reading!

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