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American Horror Story: Roanoke turns subtext into powerful text

(clockwise from left: André Holland, Lily Rabe, Cuba Gooding, Jr., Sarah Paulson, Adina Porter, Angela Bassett) (Screenshot: FX)
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“Why the hell is she filming herself?” Dominic asks as Agnes stands outside, threatening the house’s inhabitants with her cleaver and her torch. “Why is he filming this? Are you working for Sidney?” Lee asks the Polks as they strap her to a chair. “What art thou doing?” Agnes asks as Shelby feebly holds up her phone to film her attacker. “I’m not filming this, you psychopath!” Monet rebukes Lee after they discover Rory’s corpse strung up in a tree… but seconds later, Monet has resumed filming. “Chapter 7,” credited to long-time American Horror Story script coordinator, story editor, and staff writer Crystal Liu, does something too few found-footage fictions manage: It questions why the characters continue filming, even in fury or panic, and it justifies their choice.


Sidney keeps rolling even after he hears a scream just outside just outside the production trailer, because that’s what Sidney does. He keeps filming no matter what, and the more screaming, the better. Seeing his PA bleeding out on the ground, his first concern—before asking if she’s okay (she’s really, really not), before calling 911, even before his own safety—is footage. “Get the camera, get the camera, get the camera,” he yells before running back out into the night.

Agnes films her exploits for the same reason she stalks her former colleagues: to get on camera, to stay on camera. Poor, mad Agnes slips in and out of character, weaving together her own resentments with The Butcher’s. But Butcher or actor, she keeps rolling for a reason. “It was my destiny,” she tells herself in the accents of The Butcher, then slides into her own voice. “They chose me. I was the fan favorite.” In Agnes’ tortured imagination, The Butcher’s supposed right to her land parallels Agnes’ claim to fame. “I just wanted to be on the show,” she whines to Shelby, “but he won’t let me.” Her last words, an abject apology to the true Butcher, are simply, “I’m sorry. I just wanted to be on TV.”


At first, the actors returning to the house for the sequel are filming because it’s part of their contract—and maybe to feed their egos. Dominic films his co-residents not just because he’s well compensated, but because he believes he has an edge over the others. “Sid’s got me wired and ready to ruin these people’s lives and record every moment of it,” he tells the camera with a smile. After all, “the bad guy’s always the lead,” he gloats, asking, “What’s more important than screen time?”

Dominic’s body cam doesn’t give him control, only the illusion of it. In a confessional, he brags about his star status, not seeming to realize that if the program proceeded as planned—if the participants weren’t destined to be slaughtered—his savvy gamesmanship would almost certainly end up on the cutting room floor. Even as Dominic tells Shelby she can’t hide the circumstances of Matt’s death, he forgets that the same cameras that condemn her reveal his inaction. “I tried to stop you,” he says, but anyone watching the footage will see Dominic standing by in horror as his one-time lover reduces her husband’s head to pulp. He steps in only after Shelby’s gone full Negan.


Audrey, who’s already had a trying night before “Chapter 7” begins, spills her guts to the camera under the influence of drink (what Sidney calls alcohol “the secret sauce” of reality shows), fear, and heartache. Monet seems to be filming for fun and as a way to pass the three days, but she continues filming even as she flees the house with Audrey and Lee, collecting footage to use “as proof when I slay asses.” By the time Lee, Audrey, and Monet are pointing their cameras at each other over the corpses of their producers, their filming seems both reflexive and obsessive.


But Lee’s rationale for filming everything, everything, is the most resonant, both for her character and for the metaphor lurking under this season’s haunted-house framework. When Audrey reminds her there are cameras in every room, Lee shoots back, “That they control and edit to tell their story. This camera is my story. People are going to know I did not lie.”

Between Sidney’s construction of a compelling narrative and Monet’s construction of an indelible character, Lee’s become a notorious figure, a villain convicted in the court of public opinion. She’s signed up for Sidney’s sequel and returned to the cursed house for the chance to clear her name and keep custody of her daughter. But this time, she’s not letting anyone else control her story.


In this episode, Lee makes this season’s strongest subtext into text. From the very first episode, AHS: Roanoke has alluded to horrors haunting black Americans, conjuring up images of longstanding injustices that increasing access to video technology has made ever more visible to the wider populace. “Chapter 7” is more than a knowing nod to those horrors; it’s a wail of righteous fury that so many still insist on denying the seemingly undeniable. “How many times do I have to tell you this is real?” Lee yells at Monet and Audrey after they flee from the undead Mott in the tunnels under the house. “Do you believe us now, or do you want to deny what you’ve seen with your own eyes?”


Previous chapters hint at the idea of filming brutality, but “Chapter 7” presents it frankly, over and over. In scene after scene, characters stand over a pool of blood or a corpse, or cringe from an attacker, always holding a camera phone to document the event. At the height of Agnes’ attack, Shelby echoes Lee’s desperation—to have her story told, to make sure others see it with their own eyes. As Agnes sinks her blade into Shelby’s shoulder, driving her to the ground, Shelby uses her draining strength to hold up her camera phone (reduced by the production crew to just a camera) to film the assault. “I know I’m about to die,” she weeps, “and I want the world to know who’s responsible.”

“Chapter 7” purports to be raw footage, and the visuals constantly reinforce that conceit. Footage from studio cameras is framed with shutter, exposure, and time codes. Videos from the participants’ disabled phones are distinguished by their lower resolution. But there’s some trickery here that extends well beyond an editor piecing together overlapping coverage. When Agnes disappears after her attack in the bedroom, neither Shelby nor Dominic see where she’s gone. The many cameras Sidney had installed would have captured her escape, but the editing only cuts together shots of the room after she’s left.


Similarly, the Polks’ grow operation seems conspicuously well-equipped for filming. Sure, one of the sons “is only good for two things,” growing weed and taking pictures, and he takes sadistic delight in filming their captives with their own phones. But that doesn’t explain why their lair has several high-resolution cameras positioned to capture Lee’s torture from a variety of angles.

In an otherwise well-paced episode, the scenes with the Polks drag terribly. These segments introduce the counterparts to the fictionalized cannibal neighbors, but they don’t move the story forward or further define characters, and they’re disproportionately long for their meager narrative value. They’re the kind of exhausting, pointless grotesquerie that typifies AHS at its worst.


But I can’t ding this episode too badly even for those lingering, dull, self-consciously gruesome scenes. Between Lui’s script and direction by Elodie Keene (who’s been delivering well-constructed episodes since her days on L.A. Law), “Chapter 7” clips along quickly, tells its multiple stories with admirable narrative and visual coherency, balances a sense of humor with a sense of horror, and even creates some suspense, which is too often lacking in the series. (Matt’s blank-eyed walk down to the cellar is particularly affecting in its simplicity.) Most remarkably, this episode turns one of American Horror Story’s weakest traits—its eagerness to turn subtext into text—into a strength.

Stray observations

(Kathy Bates) (Screenshot: FX)
  • As Agnes plunges her pliers into the purifying fire, the angle of the root cellar’s lipstick camera makes it look as if she’s reaching out not to the torch, but to the camera she’s brought with her.
  • “I liked her. She always made sure I had a cooling ten-minute massage.”
  • “Chapter 7” adds a piece of motivation that I remarked was missing from “Chapter 6”: Matt’s reason for returning to the house that cost him so much. Being bewitched is a compelling reason, all right.
  • Shelby swings that crowbar without hesitation, and with surprising vigor considering she recently took a cleaver to the shoulder.
  • So far, this season of AHS seems to be breaking the tiresome tradition of killing off characters, then bringing them back in undead form. And for the first time, I’m a tiny bit disappointed, if only because Cheyenne Jackson makes the thoroughly amoral, manipulative Sidney such a blast to watch. At every debasing turn, his eyes light up with sleazy, exploitative glee.

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