Early in tonight’s episode, Shelby tries to lead Dominic to safety through the tunnels under the house. But before long, the two former lovers retreat to the bathroom where they holed up in “Chapter 7.” Laughing hysterically, Shelby says, “We’re back where we started.” After two remarkably clear episodes packed with power, the show is right back where it started, too. “Chapter 8” (credited to AHS script coordinator/staff writer Todd Kubrak) has little to say, and it says that little in the grisliest way it can.

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(Cuba Gooding, Jr., Lily Rabe) (Screenshot: FX)

Last week, I called the scenes of the Polks delighting in torture “the kind of exhausting, pointless grotesquerie that typifies AHS at its worst.” This week, those scenes make up the bulk of the episode. It’s not enough that they strap Lee into a chair and cut her up a piece at a time; Mama Polk also subjects her to dehumanizing speeches and a lesson on their family’s cannibal tradition. In another shed (a lucrative grow operation requires a lot of barns, basements, and outbuildings, apparently), Audrey and Monet cringe from the attentions of Mama’s boys, who get the bright idea to acquire more teeth for their magic charms by prying them out of Monet’s and Audrey’s mouths.

My complaint isn’t that these scenes are brutal—despite ample blood and pleading, much of the violence occurs with the victims discreetly facing away from the camera—but that they don’t add much but running time. We know the Polks are cannibals. We know they take pleasure in frightening and feasting upon the helpless. Lingering scenes of torture don’t do anything to move the story along. This episode feels like padding, and gruesome, repetitive padding at that.

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That’s not to say this padding isn’t well-crafted in its own way. The grimness of “Chapter 8” is leavened by flickers of tenderness, some of it from unexpected quarters. Despite Mama Polk’s reminders that their prisoners are livestock, not people, when he’s left alone with Lee, Jether Polk (Finn Wittrock in his least glamorous AHS role to date) can’t help but connect with her. He dutifully finishes his mother’s prompt of “If you ain’t Polk…” with “You ain’t people,” but when Mama leaves the room, Jether talks to Lee with the enthusiasm of a child making a new friend. Between slicing off bits of her, he rambles about Christmas, about TV, about his obsession with “taking pictures”—and, crucially, about the Polk family pecking order that leaves him out of both “cuddles” and incestuous sex.

Lee, whose stoic bearing in her talking-head segments contrasts with Monet’s fiery portrayal, shows her emotional side in these conversations with Jether, and Adina Porter brings effortless depth to situations that could feel shallow. But Lee isn’t just emotionally vulnerable here. She’s also uncannily good at manipulating others by intuiting their needs and their fears. Begging Jether to show her the picture of Flora in her pocket, she’s not only pleading for a last glimpse of her daughter. She’s also playing on Jether’s need for maternal love. It nearly works. He’s willing to approach her, and to film her last words to Flora. But most tellingly, first he spontaneously covers her wounds so her daughter won’t witness them. That simple gesture, and the gentle pat he punctuates it with, went straight to my heart.

For a torturously long stretch, none of Lee’s overtures quite succeed. When her maternity fails to capture his sympathy, she switches seamlessly to tempting him with fame. “You help me, I’ll get you on TV,” she says, but her promise to make him more famous than the notorious Kincaid Polk, the notorious Piggyman, enrages him instead. She listens to his stories, encourages him to talk, tells him about herself and her daughter. But when Jether brags to his new friend that “next time it’ll be my turn” to lead the slaughter, they both pause to absorb the implication, and Lee realizes she’ll never save herself by appealing to their shared humanity.

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In desperation, Lee seizes on a different kind of tenderness to bait the achingly lonely Jether. Coaxing him closer, she tells him to touch her, to let her touch him, to loosen her bonds so she can “make you feel good.” It’s an old trick, and the maneuver initially feels both tired and debasing. But Adina Porter makes her character’s determination gleam through all the layers of her performance, and her fluent command of Lee’s ever-shifting emotional intelligence is as impressive as Lee’s continual switching of stratagems. After Lee’s emotional vulnerability in the scenes leading up to this moment and her many attempts to talk her way out of her bonds, her swift dispatch of Jether feels well-earned.

I can’t say the same of the prolonged scenes in which first Monet, then Audrey, are threatened with barnyard dentistry. Any scene that calls for not one but two sets of pliers and not one but two victims with their mouths forced open had better have some narrative impact, but the entire impact of this one seems to be “Ew, gross!” It’s gruesome, it’s gratuitous, and phew, does it go on.

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Even in these scenes, though, there are unexpected acts of tenderness. Monet doesn’t flee when she’s freed from her chair. Instead, she returns hoping to untie Audrey. When Mama’s arrival chases her off, she promises, “I’ll come back.” Audrey greets Lee’s rescue with a near-prayer of gratitude: “Thank God for you, thank God for you, thank God for you.” As Audrey helps Lee back to the house, she keeps up a steady patter of encouragement. “Put your weight on me,” she keeps saying, and “lean on me.” When they find Matt’s corpse in the cellar, Audrey—who’s recently found her husband’s corpse—urges Lee on with gentle compassion. “Like you said, it’s done. Lift up, lift up” she says, echoing Lee’s words in the video for Flora: “Rise up.”

(Adina Porter, Sarah Paulson) (Screenshot: FX)

But the most touching moment between these two women comes as they rest in the bedroom. Seeing Lee sobbing, Audrey dabs away her tears with a tissue, and Lee rises to return the favor, blotting blood from Audrey’s face. It’s a near-silent communion of grief.

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The empathy on display in that bedroom scene—Audrey sacrificing her Burberry to cushion Lee’s bleeding head, doling out her oxycodone with cheerful generosity, the two women consoling each other for their losses—contrasts brutally with their sudden condemnation of Dominic. Finding him in the bathroom with Shelby’s corpse, they cast him out of the relative safety of the bedroom. First he points out that the footage will back up his story, then he pleads, “If you want to live, we have to stick together.” (His immediate death at the hands of Piggyman proves his point.)

The empathy between the two women doesn’t prevent Lee from using her emotional intelligence as a tool. When Audrey wakes, grateful to have made it through the night, Lee immediately tells her they have to retrieve the video feed from the Polks’ farm. “If the wrong people get their hands on that footage, the only thing the world will see is the image of you caving in an old woman’s head,” she warns Audrey. But what Lee really needs to retrieve is her last message to Flora, in which she confesses to murdering Mason. The brilliance of Adina Porter’s performance lies in how she portrays Lee’s real emotions along with her emotional calculations, and how she makes those calculations not just logical, but relatable.

Stray observations

  • Today I happened to revisit Adina Porter’s first-season AHS appearance. Even as a punchline of a character, she’s centered and strong, funny and grave, all at once.
  • Trapped in that bathroom, Dominic asks Shelby to “Think! It’s the blood moon, there’s got to be some rules or mumbo-jumbo we can use!” She tells him, “There’s nothing. There’s nothing.” Does that mean Croatoan was a fiction fabricated for the reenactments, or just that Shelby’s despair is so deep, she won’t bother to invoke it?
  • I’ve never liked Shelby more than in the moments just before she slashes her own throat. Dominic assures her they’ll survive to achieve the dreams that seem so paltry in the face of mortality: “I’m going to get my spin-off, and you’re going to get your yoga studio.” Even in the depths of her misery, she spends one of her last breaths saying with heartbreaking gentleness, “You’re a good actor.”

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