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American Horror Story: “Halloween, Part 1”

Illustration for article titled iAmerican Horror Story/i: “Halloween, Part 1”
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I think American Horror Story would be a much better show if it just got rid of Vivien and Ben Harmon.

The storyline about the marriage of the two is the thing that’s really holding this show back, ultimately, because the two don’t behave like real characters so much as consistent plot devices. Vivien has a thing she wants. Ben has a thing he wants. They state their points-of-view over and over and over. Then the unborn baby does something, and they freak out. They also seem to be the only people on the show who are completely ignorant of the fact that they live in a whacked-out haunted house that appears to be a conduit for all of the evil that’s happened ever, a sort of scrapbook of American darkness that’s being assembled in real time by a cackling Jessica Lange. Even their daughter seems sort of cool with the idea that she lives in a demon-infested hellhole! The Ben and Vivien scenes are a snooze, and, worse, they seem to be what the folks behind the show are really invested in.


Using a horror story to tell the story of a disintegrating marriage isn’t a new idea, of course, but it’s a potent enough one that there should be more fuel for the story here than just, “Don’t lie to me!” “I love you, and I’m sorry about my indiscretion!” There’s been exactly one moment that felt like it was a well-observed glimpse into a marriage in trouble in the whole series—when the two said “I love you” to each other after Vivien had just had ghost sex with Mr. Gimp—and since then, every argument between the two has been a real drag and a boring visit to cliché-town. Even the thing the two are arguing about—his affair with a younger woman—hasn’t done anything terribly interesting.

Here’s a good case in point: Tonight, Vivien feels her baby start to kick while the two have just gotten done with yet another argument about Hayden. Naturally, since the baby is just two months old, this is of concern to the both of them, so they race off to the hospital, leaving Violet behind to stay inside and keep the door locked. (But it’s Halloween!) When they get there, the sonogram tech is all, “Hey, you’re just two months along, and that shouldn’t be happening.” So she fires up the Baby Picture Machine, and then she frowns as she zeroes in on the fetus, saying it looks further along than… concentrate… squint… and faint to the floor. Ben races off to find help. Vivien mostly stares. Eventually, Violet calls and says, “Hey, there’s a crazy guy outside yelling about money,” and the two of them have to return home. It sort of makes sense that the two would stop thinking about their monster baby to go save their child from the Burned Face Man, but their actions before that beggar belief. They don’t talk about any of this, so obsessed with how symbolic their marriage is are they.

And this is the problem: The House is all that anybody other than Ben and Vivien wants to talk about. Sure, we’ll get a few scenes where Tate and Violet make stabs at having cute little “we’re teens in love” talk, but for the most part, all anybody wants to talk about is the haunted house in the neighborhood. And the material about the house—the mythology and the back-story—is often kind of fun. But the Harmons don’t seem to ever notice or care about how crazy the House is until it’s rubbing its craziness in their faces. But once that’s over? They just kind of stare at each other and get back to their own, small-minded conflicts. And maybe that’s a commentary on how solipsistic most of us are or how most of us are only interested in our own bullshit, but, c’mon. It’s a show about a haunted house. Nobody wants to philosophize. We want the crazy bullshit.

Because in the last two minutes of this episode, American Horror Story finally hits the crazy-ass tone I’ve been hoping it would hit for quite a while. As Larry is pounding at the door, and Violet is stumbling away, and the Black Version of the Greendale Human Being is lurking in the kitchen (after we’ve become aware that he was the one who killed the House’s prior tenants), the whole thing attains a kind of crazy mix of comedy and horror that is all at once propulsive and irresistible. I haven’t been this show’s biggest fan, but as soon as I saw that cliffhanger on my screener, I had pretty much no choice to go and see what happened next because, well, just look at it! Even the stuff after Vivien and Ben return to their vandalized house—with two skeletons violating each other, apparently—is pretty good, as it keeps the propulsiveness going and concludes with Hayden (or her ghost) lurching its way into the house. After all, the dead can walk among the living.


And the more I think about it the more I realize I could more or less stand everything in the episode that didn’t involve the marriage of the Harmons. The flashback to the marriage of Charles and Nora was yet another poorly motivated infodump, but at least the actors in the past are a lot of fun, and the show’s writers have had fun mixing together horror tropes by the boatload. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping bumps up against Frankenstein here, and it’s way more fun than anything involving the Harmon marriage. Similarly, the flashbacks to the gay couple that owned the house before the Harmons were also enjoyable. And—bonus!—these two definitely felt like an actual couple, rather than two concepts who’d been mashed together into some weird attempt to understand—robot voice—“How do the hu-mans love?” Sure, the exposition was hamhanded, but the two projected a sense of two men who really loved each other but saw their relationship circling the drain. And all in less than five minutes!

And then we have the episode’s other main thrusts, involving Constance and Moira, still the best things about the show. Moira’s visit to her mother in the nursing home was oddly touching, mostly because Frances Conroy is awesome, and I liked how it played around with the established rule about the dead walking the Earth. But the real highlight here is—surprisingly—the Constance and Addy plot, which involves Addy’s desire to go out for trick-or-treating not as Snoopy but as a “pretty girl.” There would have been every chance for this storyline to go wrong—and it takes several disastrously stupid steps here and there—but it somehow rights itself in the end, when Addy’s hit by a car and apparently dies in the middle of the street. (She didn’t want to be a ghost, and she’s hopefully avoided that by not dying in the house or anything.) It’s a storyline that’s at once very strange, oddly touching, occasionally funny, and slightly creepy. That’s the mix of tones I’d like American Horror Story to hit more often, and I’m hoping it follows this episode’s example. (And ditches the boring married couple at its center.)


Stray observations:

  • Yes, next week’s episode—scripted by Tim Minear, who will apparently finally work on a show that gets to season two—is good. I daresay I’d almost recommend it, and I think it’s the best episode yet for figuring out what could work about this show.
  • Favorite inexplicable character behavior of the week: Addy’s hiding under Violet’s bed. She grabs Violet’s ankle, and after Violet jumps she’s completely ready to give her a makeover to look like a pretty girl. (Yeah, I get why Violet’s nice to Addy, but she doesn’t seem all that upset or even fazed to find her hanging out under her bed.)
  • Favorite awesome character behavior of the week: Larry punting a plastic Jack o’ lantern off the porch. Hilarious.
  • Favorite subtly creepy moment of the week: The prior tenants arrive to be the Harmons’ “fluffers,” who will make the house look amazing for Halloween. But, of course, they’re ghosts. I like the subtle tension this gives the scenes involving them.
  • Poor Moira. I hope she gets to move on someday. So Frances Conroy can be on a better show.
  • Stupid, stupid scene that's trying too hard of the week: That whole thing where Ben smiles and cries about his "fierce little girl" and remembers her dressing up as the world's most morose child vampire.
  • Was Mrs. Coach plowed by a Black Version of the Greendale Human Being alert: No.

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