Picturing the AHS writers’ room, I envision a huge corkboard, split in two. One one side are index cards, all neatly aligned and bearing phrases like:
- huge fright wig
- killer vagina
- incestuous abusive mom (“Let’s make it two? Why not?—RM”)
- minotaur sex slave
- minotaur rape sex (distinct from previous)
- The Axeman
- infant voodoo sacrifice
- undead teen threesome
- burned at stake
- Papa Legba
- forced Clorox enema
- forced bleach drinking
- Stevie Nicks (as herself, and a witch)
- rattlesnake semen incense
And on the other, a list of every distinguished actor creator Ryan Murphy can convince to appear on American Horror Story. Winners and nominees from the Oscars, Emmys, Tonys, even the Grammys—a collection of talents that have collectively EGOT-ed several times over, all doing their damnedest to make it all seem believable.
And beside the board, a huge mug full of darts. And a blindfold.
Lance Reddick in red contacts and full voodoo garb snorting cocaine and cradling an infant? Why not? The severed head of Kathy Bates as notorious racist serial killer Madame LaLaurie weeping while watching a tape of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech? Bullseye. Girl with killer vagina revenge-screwing a rapist fratboy to death in his hospital bed? I don’t see why not. Broadway legend Patti Lupone singing at the bedside of the comatose son she’s recently given the aforementioned Clorox enema? Wait, didn’t we do that one already? No? Well, then let’s shoot that fucker!
Maybe it’s not a dartboard, but a tangled web of different colored yarn connecting plot points and guest stars like the lair of an obsessed conspiracy theorist or, you know, a serial killer. Knotted, intersecting narratives, some running parallel, some hanging limply and forgotten, some ending in an impossible snarl. And while I’d like to think that Murphy and company can see order in the madness, I’m simply not getting that vibe. It’s possible, I suppose, that Murphy’s laid a single, unifying cord throughout that, when finally pulled will—like magic—reshape all that’s come before into a gloriously unified whole, settling gently into the shape of a pentagram, or Angela Bassett’s profile. Or, hell, a killer vagina—something. But as the show plows ahead, adding new characters, giving old characters new powers, killing characters off only to raise them from the dead by hitherto unmentioned, entirely random methods, it becomes inescapably clear that no one is driving the broomstick here.
American Horror Story is a freakshow. A giddily self-referential exercise in camp. A lurid, over-the-top, season-long distillation of the ethos, “throw it all at the wall and see what sticks.” (It’s usually blood.) And I’m not complaining—not really. Broadcast television could stand to be a good measure weirder and more outrageous, especially when affording some of the country’s greatest actresses (actresses “of a certain age” no less) a chance to really go for it in prime time. But when said outrageousness exists alongside the actresses’ often straighfaced approach to the ludicrous melodrama, the tonal vibrations produced are downright disorienting. Unsettling, even. Especially when this season has trucked so heavily in horrific historical racial injustice, as evidenced by tonight’s episode, where Bates’ LaLaurie flashes back to the beginnings of her slave-torturing spree.
Opening the episode in narrated reminiscence of her first human kill (coming soon after her first chicken kill), LaLaurie’s inner monologue runs through the events. Which is not to say that the episode maintains that conceit, but she does get to open things and has more inner life and agency, now that she has her head reattached. Oh wait, did I forget to mention that? Well so does the show, really, as we see Queenie leading the re-embodied LaLaurie on a leash at poor Nan’s funeral. How did that happen, since last we last saw Queenie put a bullet in her brain to kill the rampaging Hank while, you know, LaLaurie’s head was sitting on a shelf? Queenie put her back together, of course, because she can do that now. Oh, and she’s alive herself because, as she tosses off, “Turns out I got some new powers.” Thanks, show.
Anyway, since it’s Bates’ turn in the spotlight, we’re treated to a pair of racially charged torture scenes, with first a flashback slave and then a chloroformed gardener falling prey to Madame LaLaurie’s penchant for pointy things and disembowelment. As has been the case all season, these Grand Guignol gross-outs exist in queasy disharmony with the fictional reality of black men being graphically tortured by a gleeful white racist, a running motif that’s objectionable more on aesthetic grounds than anything else. (And what happened to LaLaurie’s hinted-at growing racial enlightenment?) It’s a cheap shock without any context other than “watch this!,” a trait shared with the show’s approach to gender issues. A series with more strong female leads than any other show on TV right now is certainly welcome, even though the characters gain their agency only by either 1.) being born with special powers or 2.) selling their souls to the devil. The only non-magical women on the show are both creepy, incestuous monsters. Oh, and there’s a killer vagina.
It’s all the more frustrating as, despite her set up at center stage, Bates quickly cedes the spotlight to the various goings-on at the mansion. As Todd pointed out last week, Marie and Fiona’s assault on the witch hunters provided some much-needed focus to the show—why, there was almost a coherent through-line as the series' two most formidable witches (and its most powerful actresses) teamed up against a common enemy. And while the denouement to the war against Delphi played out to a delicious boardroom massacre scene tonight (I could watch Angela Bassett and Jessica Lange do dramatic irony all day), it’s also an anticlimax and a logical weak spot. If the witches could have taken out their century-long tormentors so easily, why wait ‘til now? And while the subtle reveal of Danny Huston’s presence in the boardroom was well-handled, why did the two most wicked witches in the South need a guy there to whip hatchets into bad guys, Daniel Day-Lewis-style?
It’s of a piece with everything that happens in the mansion (is it still a boarding school?), both tonight and in general. There’s a serious lack of urgency, even though everyone is plotting to be the Supreme or to outright kill each other, with co-conspirators, mortal enemies, tongueless ghost butlers, a minotaur, and Stevie Nicks among others generally chilling out until the plot machine kicks to life and someone gets drowned in a bathtub. There’s still precious little definite about this Supreme business, right? She becomes head of the coven and presumably the most powerful, but Fiona’s been Supreme all along, and she’s stuck in neutral, plotting alongside the rest. (And heir apparent Misty was taken out last week with a simple head-conk and a locked coffin, so…) Even though the contest for Supreme-acy is reaching the boiling point, Fiona spends most of her time this week getting pedicures and drinking cocktails with Marie, or smokily boning the Axeman. And poor Cordelia, who does take some pretty drastic action this episode, epitomizes this housebound narrative languor more than anyone—she’s gone from drippy do-gooder to dupe to victim to crazy lady wandering the house and whispering spells into the blender to, as Myrtle claims to Fiona post-de-eyeing, “a hero.” It’s a great speech (and Frances Conroy continues to knock her lines into orbit), but we’re going to have to take her word for it, as Cordelia doesn’t appear again. Nothing against Sarah Paulson, who’s a terrific actress, but I’ll believe this hero business when the show convinces me Cordelia is anything but a plaything of fate (and the writers).
- While the interplay between evil maid and evil butler was entertaining (nice to have Denis O’Hare delivering lines again), I question Spalding’s plan, which seems to rely on the old, reliable head-conk to take out Marie. Again, couldn’t he have done that any time?
- Speaking of, did the Delphi boys know how effective the head-conk is against even the most powerful witches?
- Two words: Poop soup. Two more: Thanks show!
- Fiona’s delivery of the line, “We must say goodbye to Nan…who fell in the tub” is a great illustration of how aware the writers are of what kind of show this is. As Myrtle says to her later, “Shame on you, Fiona. I deserve better lies than that.”
- The languorous lovemaking scene between Danny Huston and Jessica Lange seems like they decided to pretend they’re in a Tennessee Williams play…which I would watch, by the way.
- Conroy keeps killing me—“In the fall the rotting leaves smell like an Olympian’s ejaculate.”
- In what I can only assume is a Misery reference, Kathy Bates just can’t stop torturing captive men’s feet.
- Two more indications of how damned convoluted the plotting on AHS is: Bates asking the suddenly-speaking Spalding, “I thought you were tongueless…” and Queenie’s incredulous, “And why is your mortal enemy in the guest bedroom smoking a hookah. Things about here change fast, but damn!” Right there with you, Queenie.
- Oh, and to the bulletin board list, tonight we can take down “self-blinding with garden shears,” “undead butler in bonnet and nightgown cradling kidnapped infant,” and “Epcot.” Kind of a slow week, really.
- Oh, and Zoe and Franken-Kyle take Myrtle’s advice and hop a bus to Florida. No offense, but let’s hope it’s a long trip.
- A note on tonight’s grade: In keeping with the index card idea, I threw darts. So, B-plus for everyone!
- Todd will be back week so you all can tell him what I did wrong!