“I wasn’t imagining things, Matt,” the imaginary Shelby Miller (Sarah Paulson) says to her imaginary husband (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) halfway through the premiere of American Horror Story: Roanoke. “I wasn’t. Do you think I’m lying to you?”

“Shelby. Absolutely not. No, I believe you 100%. I’m sorry.” He kneels at her side, crooning, “I believe you, I believe you.”

The real Shelby (Lily Rabe) cuts in: “I felt so guilty, because I couldn’t tell Matt the truth.”

AHS: Roanoke’s documentary framing device is more than a fun diversion from previous seasons. It’s an invitation to unreliability. From the beginning, we’re presented with two sets of characters telling overlapping stories. And what they’re saying doesn’t always add up.

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(Sarah Paulson, Cuba Gooding, Jr.)

Early in the dramatic re-enactment that is the bulk of My Roanoke Nightmare, the real Shelby and Matt (André Holland) describe how they ended up buying an abandoned North Carolina mansion. The blissfully happy couple—or so Shelby says—walks down a Los Angeles street, celebrating: Matt’s landed a big promotion the same day they learn Shelby’s pregnant. They stroll along, smiling, kissing. Out of nowhere, a young man brutally attacks Matt, knocking him to the ground. A gang initiation, talking-head Matt says, a freak random assault.

“If I’m with him, he’ll wake up. I know it,” Shelby tells Matt’s ER doctor. And he does, just as easy as that—because this isn’t just a story, it’s a story within a story, prodded into shape by participants and producers alike. It’s a life experience being forged into legend.

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“I was right,” the real Shelby says. “As soon as we touched, he started to wake up. That’s just the kind of connection we have.” But there’s a vivid lack of connection here, and not only because the real Millers are telling their stories separately, straight to the camera. In the hospital scene, Shelby sits alone near the edge of the frame, a broad, blank expanse of wall behind her. From another perspective, she’s seen through an interior window. Even when the doctor appears with an update, she’s closed off, isolated.

Shelby miscarries as she sits holding Matt’s hand. Maybe it’s from the shock of the assault or the violence of being pushed to the ground herself; maybe it’s a contrivance, the kind of compressed narrative that happens in reconstructed stories. But in the moment, it feels as if their eagerly awaited pregnancy is the price they pay for his recovery… or as if the connection that draws him back to consciousness cleaves her to the core.

After he recovers, they flee the city for the peace of Matt’s home state, where they find a bargain of a house… and more togetherness than they’re accustomed to. “To tell you the truth,” Shelby confides to the camera, which she’s supposed to be telling nothing but the truth, “I was looking forward to some alone time.” She opens the episode boasting about the perfect marriage that leaves friends squabbling with envy; now she finds her husband’s concern “suffocating.” Matt’s keeping his own secrets. He doesn’t tell Shelby about the bloody pig he found on their doorstep, or that he buried it not far from their home.

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“Does your wife imbibe?” a police officer asks after Shelby reports being assaulted by pitchfork- and torch-wielding strangers in old-fashioned garb. And she does, oh, she does. Shelby’s fondness for wine is prominently on display throughout the re-enactment. She pours glass after glass, sips, and swirls—only when her husband is away.

Watching Shelby splash wine into a glass already rimmed with lip-prints, the fictional Lee (Angela Bassett) asks, “Can I be real with you?” By definition, she can’t. The real Lee (Adina Porter) has a no-nonsense air, but she’s soft-spoken, even gentle. The re-enacted character of Lee is all tough talk and swagger. Lee’s backstory is just a mess: The shooting gallery, the wailing baby, the serial rapist who blows his head off with a smile are all throwaway grotesqueries designed to showcase Lee as a tough cookie who’s seen it all. But Angela Bassett doesn’t need this flashback within a flashback; she has the depth, range, and assurance to project “tough cookie who’s seen it all” without a lot of sensationalistic background.

Everyone in this episode thinks everyone else is lying, or seeing things, or playing tricks. Lee and Shelby fight over Shelby’s novice cooking, over a mysteriously misplaced knife, over a wine bottle that rolls into Lee’s room, taunting her tenuous sobriety. When a noise interrupts their quarrel, Lee leads the way downstairs, where she and Shelby are drawn together in the shared light of a grainy home video playing in the cellar. (The video connects AHS: Roanoke to one of AHS: Murder House’s most nonsensical tangents, the tale of Piggy Man.)

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Matt watches the video, too, but later, after the electricity is restored and the police secure the house. He doesn’t share the eerie intimacy of standing in a dark cellar, wondering what intruder left the video running and where they escaped to. He can’t know the horror of finding the grand staircase festooned with stick dolls reminiscent of the figures from The Blair Witch Project. Alone together in the cellar, the two women are united; when they return with Matt, they’re as separate as three people in the same room can be.

(Sarah Paulson, Angela Bassett, Cuba Gooding, Jr.)

Whatever else American Horror Story’s reputation, its reliable stable of actors delivers. It’s just plain fun, and potentially revealing, to observe the documentary’s gaps and overlaps between person and character, and to spot the inconsistencies in their statements and their actions. “We had run away once and we weren’t going to be victims again,” Shelby tells the camera in one segment. In another, she blusters, “At the time, it made perfect sense. Humans respond to fear in two simple ways: fight or flight. There’s no shame in getting the hell out of the way.” She tactfully omits the part where she fled without warning her husband.

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The first episode, directed by Bradley Buecker, is full of showy flourishes. Two conspicuous aerial shots have a perverse symmetry. In the first, Shelby stretches out in the dark circle of the hot tub. Later, Matt finds a slaughtered hog stretched on the porch, just below the dark circle of a porch light. The sequence of Matt setting up the surveillance system is both jaunty and voyeuristic. An otherwise plodding conversation between Matt and the local cop is intensified by lurid lighting as the cruiser’s flashers splash the yard with blue and red, blue and red.

AHS’s direction can be so eloquent that it’s easy to overlook how little the story is saying. Right now, the entirety of AHS: Roanoke’s success rests not on its loose collection of haunted-house and historic-ghosts tropes—we’ve been there, and there, before—but on the ambiguity and unreliability conjured up between reality and retelling. It’s possible that in the mockumentary, creators (and writers of this episode) Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have hit on a format where AHS’s famous vagaries of plot and character are a virtue, not a liability. At least in the premiere, the extra layer of pretense paradoxically strips away the arch artifice that is the show’s signature. I can’t tell yet if that’s a welcome change or a dire mistake.

Stray observations

  • It takes a lot of nerve for Shelby to answer Lee’s “We look out for each other” with “Yeah, except for you! You take and you take and you take!” when Lee has arrived on short notice at her brother’s request to keep his frightened wife company.
  • “Where were you when Matt was lying in that hospital bed, unconscious, fighting for his life?” is a meaningful question, and it would bode well for the season if AHS: Roanoke has a meaningful answer. If it’s just one more empty accusation made in the heat of anger, that’s a lot less interesting.
  • Matt drinks alone, too, and it’s just as conspicuously presented. A mini-bar bottle of vodka glug-glugs into a chunky glass center-screen as he laughs at the hotel TV.
  • Matt’s sentiment—“I was in a complete panic. My family was in danger and all I could do was watch”—rings true for anyone who’s sat by helplessly in a disaster. But there’s a more sinister subtext to those words for black Americans, one echoed by Matt’s practical preoccupation with filming the mysterious, unmotivated assaults and intrusions on his home, and by his certainty that the police won’t help.
  • “They just want to freak us out so that we’ll leave.” “Well, it’s working!”
  • “Lee judged my yoga, and my gluten allergy, and my two years of college.” It’s not the attributes, but her smug asperity: Lily Rabe has faultlessly reproduced the person I discreetly avoid at a party.

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