Trust American Horror Story to build the house, then worry about what it rests on. When Edward Phillippe Mott (Evan Peters), an enviably rich man even by the standard of his plantation-owning peers, hauls another clutch of precious art to his nearly completed house—the very house Matt and Shelby Miller have learned to fear—he learns that the crew is still working “day and night” on the extensive basement and tunnel system underneath.
Audiences split on this, but for me, Peters’ absurdly arch performance was one of the highlights of last season, so it could be fun to see him dig his teeth into Mott’s 18th century fop. But a hefty portion of its charm came from its sheer unexpectedness; what was audacious last season is dangerously close to repetition now.
On the flip side, it’s… “refreshing” is the wrong word for a performance as repulsive as this one. It’s novel to see Frances Conroy, who often plays precise, even precious characters, dig into the grubbiness and pragmatism Mama Polk embodies. But Mama’s ability to keep the mortally wounded Elias alive, whether through folk medicine or “magic,” isn’t the most striking thing about her. Nor is the inevitable revelation that the “fresh jerky” she’s fetched from the curing shed for her guests is made from Elias’ leg. (She isn’t trying to cure him; she’s trying cure him.)
No, Mama Polk’s unplumbed abilities, her cannibalism, even her family’s deal with The Butcher aren’t much of a surprise. The biggest jolt—really, the only jolt— Mama Polk delivers is her repeated glances breaking the illusion of reality the reenactments strive to create. Over and over again, she spikes the camera, looking straight out at the audience. This isn’t reality, and Mama Polk isn’t afraid to remind us.
It’s little glimpses like this that keep me watching, keep me hoping, because this episode is another mess. Plenty happens, it’s lavish and loud and well-performed, but none of it is particularly compelling. Flora’s safe! That’s nice, I guess! Flora’s in danger again! That’s bad, I guess! Saniyya Sidney has a winning affect, which is fortunate since the writers haven’t yet bothered to give Lee’s daughter any semblance of a character. She’s a MacGuffin, a Maltese Falcon with built-in emotional weight. Flora was brought into this story as a dramatic pawn to be dragged in and out of danger. If she isn’t back in peril by the end of “Chapter Six,” I’ll be shocked.
Five episodes in, that’s the nature of AHS: Roanoke. It loops around and around, hitting the same emotional beats. Details—insofar as the show bothers to specify—change, but the action repeats: Intruders appear, the Millers run, the mob assembles, the pyre burns for a sacrifice. The Butcher raises her cleaver and drones about sacrifice and blood consecration. Piggy man squeals and looms, our protagonists quail, then escape. New people appear until the show is fairly drowning in characters and caricatures. (Who got a good glimpse of that J-horror-style creature that snatched Flora off the staircase? No one? That sounds about right.)
“What now? We’re trapped,” Shelby asks as they retreat to the cellar, and also summarizes the season to date. Ryan Murphy keeps promising one big twist after another, but a twist—or two, or three–in the future isn’t entertaining now. Any show needs to sustain interest before the twist.
One way to do that is to establish characters, not plot devices. Characters, not mere mannered performances, anchored Evan Peters’ James Patrick March and Mare Winningham’s Miss Evers. Another way is to flesh out the repetitive action with specificity. Instead, “Chapter Five” explicitly states that it’s not interested in specificity, putting the words in Shelby’s mouth as they realize Mott is the dead original owner: “As many questions as that raised, we didn’t have time for any more details.” Rather than building meaningful characters or situations, this season relies on more gruesome details: long, lingering, repeated shots of impalement, disemboweling, or the aftermath of amputation; the seedy glee with which it reveals the Polk’s cannibalism; the delight of showing a little girl we barely know dragged toward a pyre. This isn’t audacious; it’s dull, and not only through repetition.
That’s not to say AHS: Roanoke has entirely run out of audacity.
I don’t think I’ve laughed harder or more appreciatively at any of AHS’s conceits than at “Chapter Five” introducing Doris Kearns Goodwin to relate the lurid early history of the Sappony Road house. Yes, that Doris Kearns Goodwin: Pulitzer Prize-winner, PBS Newshour commentator. If you want to add a glimmer of concrete reality to your phony (and increasingly disjointed) reality show, you can’t do better than to recruit the writer New York Magazine dubbed “America’s historian-in-chief.”
Not all of AHS: Roanoke’s interest in history is textual. “Chapter Five” reinforces the most powerful motif of AHS: Roanoke so far, the barely submerged narrative about black Americans’ experiences in a world that’s often hostile by default. Matt frantically tries to protect his wife and niece from the hicks holding them at shotgun-point, then shields them from a torch-wielding mob as they crouch in the glare of a pickup’s headlights. But the most potent, horrific reminder of black history in the U.S. comes when Matt, trying to appease Mama, promises he won’t run again. She agrees that he won’t… and smashes a blade into Shelby’s ankle, hobbling her as effectively and brutally as any runaway slave—and tethering her husband, and therefore his niece, to her side. Cuba Gooding, Jr. plays Matt’s shifting emotions with fluidity and quiet intensity, making his resignation both palpable and plausible. Mixing desperation and sweetness, he lies beside Shelby in the bed of the truck and simply kisses her as they hurtle toward doom.
But impassioned performances, a tragically timely subtext, and a respected historian can’t burnish this episode into something polished. Like Mott’s cavernous escape route, the work that goes into AHS is always impressive, but too often it’s a meandering mess, crawling with pests, leading right back to the same squalid scene we thought we’d left blessedly behind. Most of all, it’s empty.
- The original version of this review identified Matt, not Shelby, as the character whose ankle is hacked by Mama. The error has been corrected.
- Given the looks Shelby keeps shooting at Lee and Flora, I won’t be surprised if she’s the cause of Flora’s next misadventure.
- The Daphne Du Maurier quote Doris Kerns Goodwin reads is from Myself When Young, a memoir based on Du Maurier’s early diaries. The next sentence reads, “We are all ghosts of yesterday, and the phantom of tomorrow awaits us alike in shadow or light, dimly perceived at times, never entirely lost.”
- Doris Kearns Goodwin must be making the rounds this week. She was on The Simpsons on Sunday.
- Ambrose peeks through that door panel Jack Torrance-style.
- After more exposure to Wes Bentley’s accent (“The bluud muun is uupon uus”), I humbly suggest that for season seven, the writers make his character mute. Or just very, very conversationally shy.
- I’ll say this much for “Chapter Five”’s characterization: Writer Aleka Cooper gives Edward Phillippe Mott a convincing motive to lead the Millers and Flora out of the house, leading to the most effective surprise of the series so far: He’s not trying to save their lives, but merely to assure they die outside his, um, old haunt.