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American Horror Story: “Smoldering Children”

Illustration for article titled iAmerican Horror Story/i: “Smoldering Children”
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You guys, I might be losing my mind, but I really liked that American Horror Story. Like. A lot. And my wife, whom you might know has some issues with the show, liked it, too. It was an episode that sidelined the Harmons, focused on Constance and Larry (America’s sweethearts), and gave us a really great reveal in the Tate/Violet storyline. It was suspenseful, witty, and exciting. It felt, in short, like what American Horror Story could be if it was its own best self. I found it sort of exhilarating, and I hope it means that we’re pressing forward with developing a mythology for the show that’s sturdy enough to support—God help me—several seasons.

Let’s start with that reveal. Now, enough of you had been talking about Violet being dead this whole time in comments that as soon as the episode started and we were spending time with her, I thought, oh, this will be the episode where we find out Violet is dead. And as things progressed—with Ben trying to figure out a way to get Violet to go to school and considering sending her off to a boarding school—it got even more brutally obvious where we were heading. The final straw was when exterminator Dan Dority—whom I hope is now in the House’s possession, just so next season, Constance can tell him, “Don’t forget to kill Tim”—came across something shocking in the space beneath the house and screamed. (Incidentally, don’t you think Ben Harmon would realize some guy climbed beneath his house and then never came out? Wouldn’t his car still be in the driveway? Never mind. I came to praise!)


At the same time, I really liked this idea. It felt bold and brutal and exciting, in a way the show has felt too rarely. So I was secretly hoping the show would pull the trigger on this twist, but I was pretty sure it would never happen. What network would let the showrunners have the mopey teenage daughter commit suicide around the season’s midpoint, then not bother to tell anyone? And what showrunners would try to portray this weird affair between said mopey teenage daughter and her sociopathic boyfriend as some sort of doomed romance? I’ll have to admit that when Tate put on his Rubber Man suit—still not entirely happy about that reveal, but let’s ignore that for now—to take out Ben just long enough to allow Violet to commit suicide, I groaned. Was the show really going to back out? Now? But then Tate started saying he’d take the pills, too, and things got weird.

Now, here’s the thing: It’s one thing to have a twist that lots of people see coming. Dexter had that this season, and it’s happened plenty of times in the history of this medium. One of the things that Internet discussion makes impossible is having a twist that nobody will guess. (If you’ll recall, there was a commenter here who not only pegged the final twist in this season of Breaking Bad but pinpointed both the moment, method, and motive behind that twist—before the finale even aired.) The Internet breeds a lot of things, but it doesn’t breed a good environment for surprise. Everybody’s going to guess your cool twist, and they’re going to roll their eyes and say, “God, that was so obvious” once you break it out.


But here’s where episode writer James Wong and episode director Michael Lehmann did something really right, I think. Unlike on Dexter, where the twist was revealed in the most prosaic way possible, then confirmed in thudding voiceover, Violet’s true status as a ghost is revealed here almost entirely through visuals. She breaks from Tate to draw a bath, but she’s actually going to find her dad, to tell him that Tate is trying to get her to kill herself. It seems as if she’s finally broken from his influence—as we all know she must—but Tate pursues her, and she has no choice to run out of the house. She races down the path outside and… comes right back in the house, into the kitchen. (It’s here that the subtle work laying out the geography of the house really pays off.) That can’t be right. She tries again. Back in the kitchen. She tries to ask what’s happening, then has to try for herself. Here, the camera sits in a static position at one end of the long hallway linking the front and back doors. She races out of one, and we watch her. The camera pivots back to take it in as she runs in the other door. Back and forth. Back and forth.

Even if you hadn’t guessed—or been told—that Violet was dead, this sequence would make you reach that conclusion on your own. And, thus, Tate’s confirmation that, yeah, Violet’s dead works as a final explosion after the drum-roll. For those of you who figured this out weeks ago, here’s a fun little way to confirm you were right. For those of you who didn’t, here’s an exciting way to put it together yourself before Tate confirms it. It’s not treated as an absolute shock (it doesn’t even end the episode!); it’s treated as another crazy plot point in this crazy show. For once, the show just trusts the audience and gets out of the way of telling the story as cleverly as it can figure out, and it works like gangbusters. (Not even the later sequences, which dull the impact just a bit by having Tate take Violet down to see her own body and having him more or less explain what’s going on yet again, can rob this one of how terrifically it plays. Plus, I loved Taissa Farmiga’s acting in the scene where she views her dead body and starts to process what’s happened to her. Kid’s got some chops.)


I’ve focused perhaps too much on this, since I’d guess—just by screentime—that Constance’s attempts to beat the murder rap for Travis (dubbed the Boy Dahlia) made up the A-story. But I didn’t hate these scenes either. Jessica Lange remains a hoot as this character—though I’m not sure the casual racism adds anything other than a constant attempt to seem edgy and un-PC—and having her share story time with Larry, the Burn-Faced Man has ended up bringing out the best in both characters. I’m sad that Larry’s apparently headed off to Illinois to perform for the theatrical company of the state penitentiary system (I don’t know if I can bear the last two episodes without him), but I thought this was a pretty fun way to kill time without detracting from the fun stuff going on back at the house. It was certainly a much better use of time than hanging out with the boring ol’ Harmons. (Vivien was only in one scene this week, and Ben was his usual oblivious self, but he, fortunately, got knocked out quickly enough and was mostly amusing up until that point.) All it was was an excuse to give Lange an Emmy tape, but, hey, I’m fond of scenery chewing, and if it was going to waste an actor opposite her, at least it was the great Charles S. Dutton. (Come to think of it, this episode had lots of fun actors relegated to bizarre bit parts.)

Wong wrote the first part of the solid Halloween two-parter earlier in the season (with Tim Minear contributing the second part, which would have been my pick for best episode before this one), and it’s clear that he’s got a great sense of how to build suspense. (That earlier episode ended with the legitimately scary final sequence where Violet was—ohmigod—in the house with Rubber Man.) But we can’t just give credit to him. The writers planted this whole thing long ago, and paid it off in the most fun and enthralling way possible. My A grade for this episode doesn’t mean it was perfect—I could make a number of complaints if pressed, since there were the usual dumb moments, character beats, and lines of dialogue—but it does indicate that this was awesomely pulpy genre fun, and I love me some awesomely pulpy genre fun, particularly when it comes with with a sheer sense of all-encompassing momentum, as this episode did. This is what I’d love American Horror Story to be, and I hope sometime between seasons one and two, Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk screen this one for their writers and say, “More like this, please.”


Stray observations:

  • Travis makes the best ghost ever. He hangs out with Larry’s dead family and decides to take up scrapbooking. I’d love to watch a show where Travis and the girls try to ignore the horrifying things going on upstairs.
  • Okay, if we’re going to complain, I’m not sure I needed Tate to be responsible for Larry’s injuries. It’s not so much that I want him to be super good (since Murphy seems to think that’s the case for fans disgruntled with him being Rubber Man), but it’s ridiculous to make him responsible for all of the bad things that happen to anyone who sets foot in the house, just as the house is apparently responsible for the worldwide economic crash and other bad things. Plus, he was wandering around an office building with a gasoline canister? Huh?
  • I must admit that when Tate finally knocked out Ben, I feared he might cross the final name off his Harmon sexy-times list.
  • Constance feeding her dead husband to her dogs was just the right kind of gross-out gag for me. For you?
  • So, since we’re clearly into the end game of the season here with two episodes left and the show’s biggest twist out there, let’s play out season two. I have no idea what happens to everybody else, I must admit, but I’m thrilled to think that Violet might break with Tate—I think we’re heading in that direction (or, at least, that’s where most stories in this vein would head)—and join forces with Travis and some of the other nicer ghosts to become sort of the Jacobs to Tate’s Man In Black. I need a little Lost in my life again, and this show—if it followed up with more episodes like this one—could do nicely.

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