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American Horror Story: “Burn, Witch, Burn”

Illustration for article titled American Horror Story: “Burn, Witch, Burn”
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This is the reason you star in American Horror Story if you are Jessica Lange:

Yes, you get to play a character with more sides and shades than most of the characters you are likely offered in the film industry, but that might be just as much a function of the short-attention span of the writers as much as anything else. Tying together a bunch of disparate pieces that don’t necessarily add up to a whole can be a fun challenge for an actor for a while, but there are few who want to do that all of the time. And the longer Lange stays with the show, the more the characters that are written for her just seem to be riffs on “things Jessica Lange does well,” which is all well and good but isn’t exactly a huge challenge. That Asylum character, now that was a figure who ended up being surprisingly layered and complex. Fiona in this season? She’s just kind of a vamp on some of those ideas, a loose riff played with the right hand while the left hand tries to find the bass line.


But if you are Jessica Lange, you will keep coming back to American Horror Story for as long as Ryan Murphy wants to keep you coming back, because you occasionally get these scenes of stark beauty and power that arise out of nowhere and settle back down into camouflaged hiding as soon as they’re over. Tonight, that scene is one in which Fiona wanders a hospital—having taken a big handful of pills with a swig of alcohol for some reason—and comes upon a woman whose baby girl was stillborn. She’s still grieving and weeping, and for some reason, the nurses and doctors have left the baby’s corpse in the room. Fiona picks it up and places it in the mother’s hands, then all but forces her to speak sweet and loving words to this cold, dead child, and something in the middle of all of this—of Fiona’s grief over her own daughter’s maiming and the unnamed mother’s pure love for a dead child—sparks the baby’s resurrection.

If you’re an actor, it’s a meal of a scene. There are so many complicated layers playing against each other, from Fiona being not quite in her right mind to the way that she’s obviously talking about her own relationship with Cordelia. Nobody would call any of this terribly complex, but this is a show that has always thrived on taking all of that overly obvious text and making it bounce up against other overly obvious text. Scenes like this turn into a kind of lovely, unexpected respite from all of the zombies and dead girls in trunks and chainsaws ripping through the skulls of the undead. The scene has basically nothing to do with the ongoing plot, but it ends up being my favorite part of the season so far, this nice little oasis of something other than the series’ frantic pushing of more, more, more into its story.

This is the reason you star in American Horror Story if you are Kathy Bates:

I say this with all the affection in the world, and I completely mean it as a compliment. Kathy Bates, as Madame LaLaurie, is giving the greatest community theatre performance in the history of Topeka, Kansas. While Lange always seems intent on imbuing her campier moments with an element of melancholy and Sarah Paulson’s greatest strength is being able to play all of this shit mostly straight, Bates has just gone all in on the ridiculousness, on having a big, over-the-top accent and on delivering delicious line readings that become the fun in and of themselves. She is not playing a character with any real depth or nuance, so she’s going to cling to what’s fun about LaLaurie and ride that particular rocketship to an Earthlike planet in another galaxy.


Yet she’s also more than capable of playing the more “emotional” moments in the midst of everything, as when she’s confronted with the zombie version of her daughter Borquita, resurrected by Marie Laveau in an attempt to strike back at the coven. The episode was loosely structured around stories about mothers and daughters reconnecting after being separated—until it wasn’t anymore—and this particular bit ended, as all good reunions between estranged parents and children must, with zombie Borquita lifting her mother into the air around the throat. Good times. Yet Bates found a mote of tenderness in the middle of that that was surprisingly charming, even if this whole zombie thing was ultimately kind of pointless, except for…

This is the reason you star in American Horror Story if you are Taissa Farmiga:

You get to wield a chainsaw!

No, seriously, the image of Farmiga with a chainsaw was the most glorious thing I’ve seen in a while, a perfect example of how the show’s commitment to just outright thieving from horror classics can be a really good time. Zoe going all Evil Dead franchise on those undead suckers was great, and she’s also, as pretty much everybody guessed, the new Supreme, given that she’s able to dispel one of them by abruptly whispering some words she didn’t even know she knew. Angela Bassett, just dropping by this week to float up into the air all white-eyed, is even knocked out of the air by what Zoe can do, and Farmiga fits much more easily into the role of leader than confused newbie. (Her chainsaw wielding also made me realize that if Bates Motel could just become a season of American Horror Story, it would probably be the best show on TV. Can you imagine Vera Farmiga and Jessica Lange sharing the screen?)


I say all of this because “Burn, Witch, Burn!” while undeniably entertaining to those of us who love the whack-ass symphony that is this show, also made me wonder just what the fuck this season is supposed to be about. And I’m not talking on a thematic or character level here. I am asking what the basic plot is supposed to be. The show has some interesting thematic—aging, mothers and daughters, subjugation of minorities—and character—the slow realization we’re having that Fiona may be the Big Bad here—arcs going, but it also seems to discard those as soon as it tires of them. So far, the plot mostly consists of a bunch of people circling each other, endlessly, and I’m not yet engaged with the show on that level. Last season, episode five was the magnificent conclusion of the Anne Frank two-parter. The first season had already firmly entrenched the story as one about a family moving into a haunted house, for better or worse. But this season? Outside of hints of conflict here and there, I don’t think I could tell you what the story is supposed to be. More than ever, this is a collection of scenes that don’t really add up to anything else.

But does that really matter when the scenes are as daftly enjoyable as Jessica Lange wandering the hospital, or as weird and borderline troubling as Myrtle being burned at the stake (a real thing people used to and still do to women accused of witchcraft that is too often treated as goofy fun in modern entertainment) to the tune of Dr. John’s “Right Place, Wrong Time,” as if Ryan Murphy wanted to prove that he, too, spent his summer catching up on Scandal? I don’t really know that it does—yet. The episodes have all been packed with incident, with crazy moments and crazy twists, but there’s not yet a center, and without a center, things cannot, well… you know.


Grade: A++++++++++++++ for Taissa Farmiga gets a chainsaw

Actual grade: B+, I guess. Who knows?

Stray observations:

  • Lange’s reading of “I doubt it. You are after all, the maid,” made my night. Then Kathy Bates’ expression of confusion and horror.
  • Spalding keeping Madison’s body in a trunk while dancing around in a nightgown is pinging a little too close to Jame Gumb for me, as if Murphy is trying to cordon off the territory around Silence Of The Lambs before Bryan Fuller can get to it.
  • Fiona using Queenie to frame Myrtle is interesting, for sure, though I half thought she was going to kill Queenie in that moment and this whole season was just going to devolve into Fiona working her way through the supporting cast.
  • So does Cordelia have second sight now or what? And while I’m sure Fiona took all those pills to numb the pain, I like to imagine it was so the show could have her wander around that hallway with all those flickering lights for longer than was strictly necessary.
  • Misty Day hooking up with the burned up husk of Myrtle strikes me as a very promising development. Also, real talk: I’m betting on Misty ending up the Supreme, with Zoe as her second in command or something. (Surrogate) Mothers and daughters.
  • That scene between Fiona and Hank could have arrived straight out of a season five episode of Dynasty it was so overripe.
  • You probably saw this already, but this show will be back for a fourth season. While I’m all but certain that season will have something to do with werewolves, I am hoping that my dream of American Horror Story: Squatchin’ sees its time in the sun.

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