“We rolling? The camera never stops, no matter what,” reality-show creator/producer Sidney Aaron James (Cheyenne Jackson) tells his crew. “Even if I tell you stop, keep rolling.” It’s a relief that American Horror Story: Roanoke has finally started playing its much-promised second reel, and an even bigger relief that once the episode starts rolling, it never stops, no matter what. “Chapter 6” isn’t just the best episode of the season so far; technically speaking, it ranks with the best-executed episodes of American Horror Story, period.

“Chapter 6” covers a lot of territory, introducing Sidney (the voice behind the scenes in all those talking-head segments, and the mind behind My Roanoke Nightmare) and the actors who recreated the lives of Matt and Shelby Miller and Lee Harris. It travels from L.A. to North Carolina, from studio to set. It reveals the conflicts that hid behind the separate stories and sanitized blank sets occupied by the real Matt, Shelby, and Lee. It sets up Sidney’s planned sequel to that unexpected smash hit, then reveals that this isn’t the intended 13-episode reality show, but a version cut together from in-house footage and the participants’ camera phones after they all died. Except for one.

Trying to capture this many perspectives could make a mishmash of an action-packed episode. Instead, Angela Bassett’s direction of Ned Martel’s script weaves together those ever-shifting angles and views into fluid, vivid scenes punctuated by patient long takes. It’s an effective marriage of horror and reality conventions, portraying the winces and awkward pauses of social friction along with occasional scares, and doing it all with admirable command and clarity. Even the jump scares, never a strong suit for a show called American Horror Story, are surprisingly effective. (The pigman rearing up from Diana’s back seat got me to yelp a tiny bit, and Mason’s glare into the camera is more dreadful than scary.)

“Chapter 6” reveals the real villain of AHS: Roanoke. Sidney will say anything to get his subjects on board, and he’ll subject them to anything to build drama. Putting a suspected murderer into closed quarters with those she most resents under volatile conditions, he only worries over the production company’s potential liability if she kills “again.” Told there’s more risk he’ll be sued for supplying a recovering alcoholic with booze, he doubles their insurance. He evokes the darkest impulses of Agnes Mary Winstead (Kathy Bates), who identifies with her role of The Butcher to a dangerous degree, then forbids her from the set, not-so-secretly hoping to draw her in. When trusted producer Diana (Shannon Lucio) takes off in a panic, he immediately turns to ask the camera, “Did you get that?”

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Cheyenne Jackson inhabits this manipulative character with an ease and energy that makes Sidney as persuasive and commanding as he is repulsive. With network suits, he streams out a practiced patter of confident exploitation; with hesitant underlings, he veers off into occasional flights of high-mindedness. “I’m not interested in doing another horror show,” he reassures Diana. “I’m interested in using horror to find justice.” She should know better. Sidney’s all empty promises, false sympathy, and gleeful machinations. His excitement at the building tension and gruesome surprises is contagious, and he gives the season a much-needed comic jolt.

Audrey and Rory, turned sideways (Sarah Paulson, Evan Peters) (Screenshot: FX)

But this episode offers more than a jokey twist. AHS: Roanoke delivers on the season premiere’s promise of unreliability by turning the reality of the show sideways. Return To Roanoke: Three Days In Hell puts the real Matt, Shelby, and Lee in the isolated house with their fictional counterparts during the blood moon, then seeds the set with manufactured hauntings and horrors to heighten the drama. As Sidney tells the executives, “Reality is what we make of it.”

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(André Holland) (Screenshot: FX)

The script provides everyone with plausible reasons for returning… everyone but Matt. The actors, who filmed there only during the harmless summer season, have no reason to fear the house. (This doesn’t quite jibe with Elias’ research establishing that the ghosts appear year-round but are only able to kill during the blood moon.) Lee, indicted in the court of public opinion, wants a chance to defend herself. Shelby will risk anything if it means a chance to win back Matt after her desperate fling with Dominic Banks (Cuba Gooding, Jr.), the actor who played him. (Sidney promised Dominic won’t be in the new series. Sidney lied. Sidney lies a lot.) Shelby tries to reassure Matt that the crowded house and the cameras will keep them safe, but he seems resigned to the danger. “It will happen again,” he tells her. “I don’t know if we’ll survive this time.”

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Leading off his pitch to the network, Sidney promises, “It’s familiar, but it’s different,” and that’s the real brilliance of “Chapter 6.” Throwing together these now-familiar faces in unfamiliar configurations lets AHS: Roanoke create eerie mirrors of the characters it’s presented so far. Again, the way these actors move around the set, coming together or splitting apart, speaks volumes about the relationships and schisms developing. A once-happy couple destroyed by this house watch another couple embrace on the staircase. Across the massive kitchen table, Adina Porter and Angela Bassett face off as Lee Harris and Monet Tumusiime, two women with little in common but a drinking problem. Monet blames Lee for her alcoholism; Lee blames Monet for portraying her as a killer.

After so many episodes of Matt’s measured calm as he recounts the past to the camera, it’s unsettlingly effective to see André Holland plunged into emotion and action. His first confessional plays with the possibilities of this format by preceding the scene of Matt and Dominic’s fight with Matt’s panting, bleeding smile to the camera. His silent view of the bloody letters on the wall—and his steady hand as he films them—quietly reinforces the season’s subtext about larger social horrors facing black Americans and the ever-growing documentation of them.

Simpler dynamics are just as powerful. After so many episodes with Lee and Matt separated, speaking to a single camera in a sterile studio, it’s both jolting and welcome to see them enter together as siblings, to see them communicate with a glance, to see her clean up his bruises after a fist fight.

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This episode functions remarkably well both narratively and emotionally, moving the story forward while expanding the characters and anchoring the audience’s investment in them. But even the reframing in “Chapter Six,” and the refreshing perspective it offers, can’t wipe away the repetition and occasional drudgery of earlier episodes. From the beginning, AHS: Roanoke was clearly heading into the heady territory of confronting its own unreliability, and it took its (not always sweet) time getting there.

But “Chapter 6” is an episode to be proud of, for its writer and especially for an inexperienced director. It bends earlier story elements without breaking them. It’s audacious, challenging, and emotionally compelling, even with characters we’ve just met. It’s fun and funny, but never at the story’s expense. This is everything American Horror Story aspires to be at its best, and everything it rarely achieves. “Chapter 1” made a big promise, then the season bogged down in repetition. “Chapter 6” gets tensions rising and the story rolling. Let’s hope it doesn’t stop, no matter what.

Stray observations

  • Agnes has a Funko Pop-style figurine of The Butcher. Oh, American Horror Story, I can’t stay mad at you.
  • Nobody stands on a breezeway and screams like Kathy Bates. Agnes’ accent has improved since My Roanoke Nightmare wrapped, too.
  • I was willing to be impressed with “Chapter 6” from the start, but Cheyenne Jackson’s Leslie Jordan imitation (“That’s a callback to Cricket’s seance”) is when this episode anchored my affections.
  • Angela Bassett’s mugging to the camera as she records the first altercation of Return To Roanoke, even before everyone’s claimed their rooms or unpacked their bags, is a great foil to the glowering solemnity of Monet’s portrayal of Lee.
  • Is Diana’s (fatal) flight from the set an allusion to Rachel’s series-jumpstarting escape on UnREAL, or is peeling out in a panic just a reality-show staple?
  • Hey, the nurses completed their word! Good job!
  • Poor Rory, whose idea of a vow is “I promise to eternally and forever love the shit out of you.” And he did, in his way, ’til death did them part. Knowing AHS’s penchant for keeping the dead around, he might keep loving the shit out of Audrey right through the season finale.
  • As Shelby stands by Matt’s bed in the basement, the angle of the static camera cuts her head out of frame. That can’t be good.

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