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American Horror Story: “Head”

Illustration for article titled iAmerican Horror Story/i: “Head”
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“Head” alternates between scenes meant to make us feel bad about and/or for characters we barely know and scenes that feel like a new pilot for the season, as if all involved want a do-over on the basic idea of conflict and are going all in on the witch-hunter idea. That said, at least Papa Witch Hunter is played by Michael Cristofer, and it’s always nice to see him pop up on TV. So I was prepared to almost completely like “Head” on that level (and on the level of the show coming to its senses and letting Patti LuPone sing), because I’m taking what I can get this season. Until the last five minutes or so, when Queenie’s lessons in the history of race relations in the United States for LaLaurie boiled over into a musical montage that involved Hank turning his guns, not on the boarding school, but on everybody at Cornrow City, as a mournful spiritual played on the soundtrack. It was, at least, something happening (about which more in a bit), but the execution was horrific and, worse, schlocky. The show wants desperately to have a conversation about race, but it only understands the black experience thanks to movies and other TV shows.

In and of itself, this isn’t really a bad thing. Fiction is certainly the best window I have into the experiences of people of other races, and there’s certainly more than enough material to be mined from the African-American experience—even on a purely superficial level!—to power a million horror movies. Nobody was going to give Ryan Murphy an award for the representation of black people on this show prior to the last few episodes, but I wasn’t too bothered by it because Angela Bassett was around, and the show only wanted to play at that superficial level. The problem has been that the series has wanted to go deeper, but there’s nothing there, other than Bassett’s ferocious performance. So it’s been reduced to pointless savagery and misery porn. Honestly, I think I’m more offended by the ending because it’s just needlessly miserable, no matter the interesting storylines it sets up for the final handful of episodes.


Honestly, I can’t decide if the reveal of the witch hunters at this late stage of the game as the real threat is brilliant or desperate. Now, we’ve known about the witch hunters for quite a while, because we’ve known Hank was one, but we didn’t know that they were all dudes and backed by what appears to be a major corporation based out of Atlanta. The series appears to be going all in on the idea I floated last week that the characters’ internecine squabbles were distracting them from the real enemy, which turns out to be a bunch of guys, mostly white, in suits. And one of them is played by Michael Cristofer, vaguely in character as Rubicon’s Truxton Spangler, so… awesome.

On the one hand, I like this because it’s the best way to make thematic sense of a season that’s been pretty messy. I complained last week about how the show’s notions of empowerment are fairly shallow, and this, at least, gives the witches and the still-living Laveau someone to fight back against who has power equal to them, though not derived from magic. The opening scene where a young Hank and his dad go out witch hunting was the first time I felt like the season had legitimate dramatic stakes, no matter the execution, and I enjoyed the stuff with the witch hunters as setting up a bad guy worthy of being taken down in the final episodes. So, thematically, this works, and it suggests I shouldn’t have been so quick to assume the series was incapable of taking on a subject as weighty as petty squabbles between interest groups defeating the political will to take on the real juggernaut.


But! There’s a definite whiff of desperation to the proceedings. Because this season has had so many elements, it’s been difficult to know just how much to care about the witch hunters, despite the fact that their job description is, y’know, hunting witches. There’s so much stuff swirling around the edges of the story that the attack on Cornrow City diminishes, even as the episode tries to play it as a horrific tragedy. Don’t get me wrong: That attack is a horrific tragedy in the abstract, but it has no dramatic weight, because the only character we care about who dies (I think) is Queenie. Goosing the proceedings with a racially tinged massacre so that the series can finally get Marie and Fiona working together against a common enemy just seems like the show hoping desperately to make a conflict stick. (This is to say nothing of how the many, many scenes of the characters being angry with each other in prior episodes continue to have absolutely nothing in the way of meaning or history behind them.)

That we’re talking about “Head” almost entirely through the prism of a handful of scenes critiques the episode better than I could at this point, honestly, because the rest of the episode was just a bunch of scenes meant to play off our feelings or affinity for characters we barely know. There’s a major plot about Luke learning his mother killed his father with a bee, and there’s nothing to it because a) who cares about these two? and b) we were supposed to be wondering what happened to Luke’s father? American Horror Story sometimes likes to engage in vignette storytelling, where a storyline is reduced to a single scene or sometimes a single image, and that can work very well—as when Fiona restored that baby’s life in the hospital all those episodes ago—but it requires the audience to have an emotional investment in at least one of the characters in the scene, which, needless to say, doesn’t really apply to Luke and his mom.


Much of the rest of the episode—or, at least, the stuff not devoted to Queenie bantering with the head of LaLaurie, which, sigh—is devoted to propping up Hank as a character, so his concluding actions will feel at once organic and tragic. But that’s sort of the show’s racial storytelling problem in a nutshell, as I outlined last week: By investing so much time in characters like Hank and LaLaurie, to the detriment of characters like Marie and Queenie, the show turns the latter into poorly drawn symbols of racial oppression, which hurts everything as a whole, because it turns into all I can think about. Then it turns into the old Glee problem where the cast is “diverse,” because the producers want to show how progressive they are, but the non-white characters are never as invested with agency or forward momentum as much as the white characters are.

There’s a lot of “Head” that sort of feels like it works, particularly in the closing passages, where the episode almost manages that American Horror Story thing where a bunch of disparate elements the series has been building all season come together in a giant gumbo of wackadoo. Kyle becoming the house’s new guard dog and suddenly having much of his intelligence back thanks to Fiona is a bit of a narrative cheat, but it at least feels like one with purpose and motivation. And as borderline offensive as I found the attack on Cornrow City, at least it was something pushing the narrative forward, instead of characters standing around in rooms and talking about how the real threat is out there somewhere. (There was a fair amount of that in this episode, too.) But then I look at the episode and the season as a whole, and I’m just exhausted by it, and not in a good way. I’m glad Coven has finally knitted all of its storylines together, but it’s long past the point where I might care about it.


Grade: C- for Cornrow City Farewell

Stray observations:

  • There’s a reason people who have a lot of magic in their fiction often advise young writers to not write fantasy or, if they must, to put strict rules on said magic. Magic has a bad habit of robbing stories of consequence, as we’re finding out this season. Now, Cordelia has her eyesight back. Hurrah?
  • That said, Misty and Cordelia are my new favorite character pairing, and maybe the show should just retool itself to be about them.
  • I do hope the series gets Bassett and Cristofer together in a room for a “sharply pronounced consonants” showdown.
  • Two other things I just don’t care about: The other Council members were the ones who framed Myrtle, and Delphi ordered the attack on Cordelia. Neither of these reveals was satisfying in the least, though we did get to see a blood-spattered Myrtle playing with severed limbs. Which is something, I guess.
  • There were some nice bits of dialogue here and there in the episode. I particularly liked the way that Cordelia asked people to stop moving things because some of the house’s occupants are blind.
  • Zoe was barely in this episode, but she did get to wear another ridiculous hat. The hat symbolizes magic!
  • That’s all for now. We’ll be back in January to close this season out, and I’ll bet all of the season’s issues will rectify themselves!

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