In “Chapter 3” of American Horror Story: Roanoke, Kathy Bates is here to kick ass and eat still-beating hearts. And she’s all out of hearts.
Lots of people in this episode talk about how done they are taking shit—in Matt’s words, “this Cirque Du Soleil bullshit”; in Mason’s words, “this FBI, grieving-mother bullshit.” But no one is as done taking shit as Kathy Bates’ Tomasyn White.
Before she becomes The Butcher, who haunts this land with her cleaver and her pyres, the wife of Roanoke’s Governor White struggles to keep the starving colony together while her husband strikes out for more supplies. The men of Roanoke, including her son Ambrose (Wes Bentley), repay her leadership by locking a spiked cage around her head, restraining her hands to make it impossible to feed or defend herself, and banishing her to die in the wilderness. No wonder she readily accepts a still-beating heart from an unnamed woman (Lady Gaga) who urges her to “Eat… surrender thy soul to me.” Even freshly shaken from sleep to be bound and banished, she has the expression of someone who is taking no more shit.
When maybe psychic, definitely exploitative child-finder Cricket Marlowe (Leslie Jordan) tells Lee the cause of her daughter’s disappearance, it’s not the first time American Horror Story has invoked the mystery of Roanoke’s lost settlement. “In 1590, on the coast of what we now know as North Carolina, the entire colony of Roanoke—all 117 men, women, and children—died inexplicably,” Billie Dean Howard tells Violet Harmon in AHS: Murder House’s “Birth.” That’s not an accurate recounting of the murky history of Roanoke, and it’s not the story Lee rattles off for Cricket: “One hundred and sixteen settlers disappeared without a trace. No bodies. Not a single thing was ever found.”
One legend tells of death, another of disappearance. That’s no accident. “There is no fear like the fear of losing a child,” Lee says in the opening of AHS: Roanoke’s third episode. “It is primal and it’s wrenching.” There’s a gap here. Unlike the audience, or even the fictionalized Lee of the reconstruction played by Angela Bassett, the real Lee saying these words already knows the outcome. She knows whether Flora is alive or dead, or simply never to be found.
“Chapter 3” is full of these tantalizing gaps between the story the participants are telling and the story as it unfolds onscreen. My Roanoke Nightmare is a tell-all reality show, but even the chief participants aren’t prepared to tell all, or to face reality. “I had thought the uncertainty, the not knowing, was the worst feeling in the world,” Lee tells the camera, “but I was wrong.” Sometimes, they aren’t even sure what is reality. “I couldn’t explain it,” Matt says, bewildered even now by the explosive end to Cricket’s seance. “I… couldn’t explain it.” AHS: Roanoke is a bit of a mess, but other than its remarkable stable of actors, who make sense from nonsense, uncertainty is its best quality.
“Chapter 3” contains the most blatant nods yet to the framing and fictionalizing that any supposed recreation of reality entails. As Matt orders Cricket out of the house, the little man stops and whispers to Lee—and for the first time, the interviewer conducting the talking-head segments speaks onscreen. “What did he say to her?”
“I don’t know. Something about Flora, I suppose,” Lily Rabe’s Shelby says. When he asks Lee, she claims not to remember Cricket speaking to her. Driving home the unreliability of its format, the show revisits the moment, creating a re-enactment within a re-enactment. From a few unintelligible, unremembered words, My Roanoke Nightmare creates an entire conversation: “Emily says hello,” Cricket whispers to Lee. “She wonders why you weren’t looking for her all those years ago.”
Lee—the Lee being interviewed after the fact, not the Lee mired in fear and uncertainty—first asks, then screams, for the cameras to be turned off. Like another James Wong episode) “Chapter 3” gets a lot of mileage from actors who wring emotion from few words; Porter’s raised chin and steady gaze say as much as her reluctant words as she tells the audience about Emily, who vanished when she was 4 and Lee was 21.
It’s a promising glimpse of the ambiguity and contradiction this format allows. Unfortunately, that promise is undermined by the muddle of the episode. The repeated searches for Flora bleed together. Shelby and Matt are still vacillating over whether they should leave this house or stay put. The story of The Butcher is gruesome, but not particularly affecting, because we know so little about her. Ultimately, she vacillates even more than the Millers: She’s banished rather than agree to move the colony, but after wreaking her vengeance, she immediately decides to move the settlement inland.
Jennifer Lynch’s direction can be striking, as it is during Cricket’s introduction and the seance, or unfocused, as it is throughout most of the dark, jumbled outdoor scenes. The action in the woods—and there’s so much action in the woods, whether it’s Tomasyn praying, unseen animals squealing, the beams of flashlights searching for Flora, or a (possibly imagined) sexual tryst—is too dark and obscure to pack much power.
This season does have one powerful undercurrent so far. Discussing the premiere, I mention how Matt’s preoccupation with filming hints at a “sinister subtext for black Americans,” and “Chapter 3” doubles down on that imagery. The Millers framed between tree and ladder as Flora’s bright yellow hoodie drops into frame is a horribly cheery echo of a lynching. Mason (Charles Malik Whitfield) retreats from the kitchen, hands up in surrender, a posture mirrored by Lee as she disrupts her interview. Any one of these images alone would mean little, but together, they create a clear motif that’s clinched by the conclusion, where Shelby, reneging on a tacit promise to her husband, calls the police to arrest her sister-in-law. Pushed into the back of the cruiser as the flashers bathe everything in lurid red and blue, Lee is trapped in a real American nightmare.
- There’s a neat parallel between Shelby, acting as an owner of the house, giving Cricket her permission to invite spirits in and Matt giving Lee his permission to burn the house down. It’s almost as neat as the parallel between Ambrose White telling his mother to “pray for a reprieve” at the hands of her usurpers and Tomasyn telling him to “pray for a reprieve” from her wrath.
- André Holland’s measured thoughtfulness and Gooding’s assured confidence combine to make Matt a calming, commanding presence, which makes the blank mindlessness of his forest rutting (with the same woodland entity that fed Tomasyn a pulsing heart) even more jolting.
- Cricket twice invites Priscilla to speak to him, and twice he gets The Butcher instead. Maybe stop invoking spirits, little guy.
- Did I say this episode was overstuffed? Almost twelve hundred words and I didn’t even get to the pig boys!