After weeks of pointing out Scream Queens’ aggressively mean-spirited nature and confused tone, this week’s episode, “Seven Minutes In Hell,” finally feels like a strong piece of course correction for the show. At least until the next writer change, that is. It isn’t a particularly scary episode, but it finds its strength in the comedy aspects. Surprisingly, it’s the one episode of the bunch written by Ryan Murphy, who has been the default face of blame for any and all of the show’s problems.
But how can you really hate an episode that opens with Nu Shooz’s eternally catchy “I Can’t Wait”? Especially when it continues with the plot-appropriate inclusion of Chumbawamba’s “Tubthumping” (which sort of makes a musical pattern for the episode, with the lyrics “I get knocked down”) as the main jam from Chad Radwell’s “Douche” playlist, and closes it all up with Modern English’s “I Melt With You.”
Chanel: (to Hester) “Screw that, Evil Harrington.”
“Seven Minutes In Hell” is the first episode of Scream Queens that really nails the idea of laughing at Chanel Oberlin instead of supposedly with her, and given Murphy’s constant choice to hire Emma Roberts, it makes sense that he can write for her the best. Chanel just works this episode, from the very moment she throws her over-the-top tantrum during the presidential tie. Her barbs are mostly pointed at the increasingly disconnected-from-the-universe Jennifer and her close “friends” this week, which helps, but they’re also not all so intensely racist, homophobic, or every other -ist or -phobic she’s been. Chanel’s default setting for mocking Grace in this episode—“Thank you for making that announcement that no one cared about”—is a reminder of a dynamic that hasn’t been important since the series premiere, not just a reason to be vile. She’s actually fun, and Ryan Murphy’s script gives the character some much needed self-awareness; I’m not just talking about the Nancy Drew line.
If a soft reset like that is all it takes for the character to be more enjoyable from now on, then so be it—even if she makes it clear that her change in attitude is a tactic to shift the killers’ sights to the new head Kappa. By the end, with Chanel saying that she actually kind of likes Zayday (who she, understandably, calls “Zayday something” earlier in the same episode), it comes across as one of the most honest, non-Chad Radwell-related moments of the episode.
Meanwhile, Grace (who is totally ready to pack it all up when this episode begins) has yet to really stick out as a character or even as a Final Girl worth rooting for. In fact, this episode sort of confirms a theory that’s only really backed up in the show’s performances and presentation, not its credits: Grace is barely more than a sidekick to Zayday, the true protagonist and Final Girl of this story. It’s not even just the fact that Zayday is more proactive or the object of one of the Red Devil’s affections; she’s also the best foil to Chanel, and that should be the enough of an argument for who the two leads really are. Zayday is the one who most challenges Chanel—despite Hester’s schemes—not only posing a threat to the way things are at Kappa Kappa Tau now and how the house will carry on, but also posing a threat to the entire awful legacy of KKT.
And Grace is a threat to… the local hat store? Supposedly, Grace and her father have a direct connection to the 1995 timeline, and while there’s a little intrigue there, Grace and Pete (who is absent from this episode) trying to solve the mystery has never been more entertaining than Grace and Zayday doing the same thing.
Pete’s not the only one missing this week: The episode is missing the incomparable Denise Hemphill and Gigi, but as a show with a big character likability problem (or even just in terms of making the characters compelling) in its core sorority world, this episode is kind of necessary. As much fun as it would be to have Denise Hemphill accuse Zayday yet again of being the murderer—or simply finding a way to have some alone time with Chad Radwell—she would be a distraction for “Seven Minutes In Hell.” Plus, since the Red Devil goes around the KKT house with an axe instead of a chainsaw this time around, her accusations wouldn’t be as strong, now would they?
The episode might be missing two forces like Niecy Nash and Nasim Pedrad (and also features minimal Jamie Lee Curtis and Oliver Hudson), but at least gives us more Chad Radwell, hero and the last honest Truth or Dare player. That’s a fair enough trade.
Distractions are a staple of Ryan Murphy shows (and as always, that includes Brad Falchuk and Ian Brennan—they’re not immune), and that’s been a big problem with the previous episodes of Scream Queens. The fact that it’s Ryan Murphy himself who course corrects that problem with a semi-bottle episode is quite a shock, given his “ooh, shiny” track record, but it’s a good shock. Ian Brennan’s Scream Queens is extremely wacky and gave us moments like Coney’s death and “Backstreet’s Back,” and Brad Falchuk’s Scream Queens changes what it is at any given moment. But Murphy’s version of the show might be the one that actually cares about the whole Greek life aspect of the show and the humor and horror to come from that.
Roger: “I thought you said Chanel had all the windows bomb-proofed so that we can’t break them?”
Chad Radwell: “Yeah. Downstairs windows, dude. Why would you bomb-proof upstair windows? For like, what? A flying bomb?”
Caulfield: “A flying bomb would be a missile, Chad.”
Chad Radwell: “Honestly, where’s the Red Devil gonna get a missile? Don’t be an idiot.”
But—because of course there’s a but—there’s still a major problem in this episode, and that’s symptomatic of the show and the current TV slasher and horror genre as a whole. That would be Scream Queens’ hesitance to kill its darlings, and the fact that the show acknowledges that (“cannon fodder”) doesn’t make it any better. The slasher genre on television can work, but the assumption from showrunners is that these shows can’t lose their regular cast members from week-to-week. However, losing regular cast members from week-to-week is honestly the draw for the audience. When an audience is told that someone will be killed every week, the hope and assumption are that it won’t be the cannon fodder. There’s no “OMG” moment in either Roger or Dodger dying. That “anyone can die” decree that you hear about in interviews for Scream Queens or even MTV’s Scream intentionally ignores the fact that that’s just not true—any guest or recurring character can die, but no series regular can.
So far, Scream Queens is actually sort of worse than Scream in those regards, because even that show killed off at least a couple of its series regulars. Here, we’re losing Sam (who at least fulfills the horror trope of finding out the killer before reaching her untimely demise), Dickie Dollar Scholar Caulfield, and Roger, twin brother of Dodger. On the plus side, Sam was one of the weaker characters (and one of the weakest-acted) on the cast, and Chanel No. 3 really carried most of the humor and emotional weight in their relationship. On every other side, who really cares about the deaths of Sam, Caulfield, and Roger? Besides maybe Chanel No. 5, since Chanel No. 3 mourned enough in this episode?
On a smaller level, I don’t really need to ask if Ryan Murphy has really ever met a woman, but I do need to address his possible problem with lesbians. The last time Murphy really treated a bi-curious female situation with any weight or care was in the first season of Popular with Lily—back in 1999—but since then or at least since Nip/Tuck, his work has constantly come across as him having some kind of a grudge against lesbians. A grudge that even Jack McFarland—since we have to go back that far in TV in the first place—would say feels like too much. The slumber party is a good idea from Grace and Zayday, but at the same time, it instantly sets up a “joke” about slumber parties being gateways to lesbian experiments. Sure, there’s also Chanel and Chanel No. 5’s reactions to Chanel No. 3/Sam, but at least those are the characters you expect it from.
What really makes the case is the characterization of Sam in the first place. For the umpteenth time, I understand perfectly well the characters being stereotypes and pretty broadly drawn, but Sam’s entire character—and answered-to nickname in the form of “Predatory Lez”—is completely based on a tired “joke” about her being a lesbian who only rushed KKT in order to perv on all the girls. On the one positive note, it makes the fact that No. 3 gets the romance plot to work at all pretty impressive.
However, despite Ryan Murphy’s fundamental understanding of women being mostly relegated to the existence of tampons, this is actually the first episode with something akin to actual sisterhood—and not just between Grace and Zayday. And as it turns out, that’s one of the best things that can happen to Scream Queens. Yes, it’s manufactured sisterhood, born fully out of a killer or two coming after all of the KKTs and also out of power plays. But killer or not, sororities are manufactured sisterhoods in the first place; same with fraternities and brotherhood. “Seven Minutes In Hell” just allows it to finally be part of the narrative, and it does it without a bizarre, uncharacteristic feminist tirade or a freeze frame fist pump.
Actually, there sort of is a freeze frame fist pump (“KAPPA!”), but the episode’s version—with Hester and the raised nun-chucks—immediately leads to a zoom-in on the Red Devil to end the episode. Before that, especially Zayday’s own choice way of ending the slumber party with a dance party, the ending is almost too “kumbaya”/“we are family”… But that’s the point. Look at it all: “I Melt With You” plays as Hester calls out how “random” this dance party is, Chanel makes sure to push Chanel No. 5 (who is especially on Chanel’s shitlist this week) aside, and Chanel No. 3 points out the very, very obvious. “What a great way to pretend all these people we know weren’t brutally murdered,” she says. Think of it like a more direct version of the final scene of A Deadly Adoption.
I’ve said before that Scream Queens often feels like an outlet for the showrunners to throw their own past work under the bus, but this episode just so happens to find the happy medium between that and simply sending it up. Like I said before: It’s actually fun.
- Scream Queen Of The Week: It can’t be Chad Radwell every week, and I’m sorry. I think it might be Chanel No. 3, who now has an origin story for her earmuffs and also may have killed an ex/her father’s friend with a golf cart. She also points out that Wes is an “awful parent,” which is very true.
- Thanks again to Genevieve Valentine for filling in for me last week. What’s not to love about an outsider’s point of view?
- Jennifer believes that the autism spectrum is a money scam and that she’s really more of a Zooey Deschanel. I’ll give her the last part of that.
- “I had to develop some acting skills to have sex with Chad.” What exactly is Chad Radwell’s proficiency in bed? He obviously loves to have sex/bone/pork, but the only person who has really given him high marks in bed is Denise Hemphill. Munsch supposedly knows what she’s doing in bed, so what went wrong there? And is it “super weird that [he sleeps] with so many old people?”
- Sophisticated Earl Grey is the DDS brother who suggests the panty raid. That’s more proof he’s a Red Devil, right? Who am I kidding? They’re all a Red Devil!
- Hester: “You taste like wax.”
Jennifer: “You taste good too.” Candle Girl Jennifer’s death is going to be especially gruesome, isn’t it? Just wax on wax on wax…
- Sam: “I’m practicing looking disinterested.”
No. 3: “You do that too?”
- Roger: “And Dodger.”
Chad Radwell: “Will you stop whining about Dodger?!? Everybody agrees: That dude was holding you back. Nobody misses him.”
- Chad Radwell: “Yes! Bathtub naps! This is getting good.”
- My favorite sight gag of the episode is when it goes back to showing everyone dancing to “Tumbthunking,” and even though there’s no close-up, you can see Grace still sitting in a chair, absolutely miserable, and waiting to get back to Truth or Dare.
- Do not—I repeat, do not—get in the way of Chad Radwell and a game of Truth or Dare. By the way, before Jennifer starts it up, my thought was exactly one of how they could guarantee honesty. But Chad Radwell is right: “It’s not Truth or Dare or Lie.”
- Sam: “Hello? If anyone’s down here, please don’t jump out at me. I have a thing about that.” On the horror front, the Red Devil is now not only an expert axe twirler, he/she likes to drag their axes against the wall like they’re Freddy Krueger’s claws. The killer also likes to turn people into “pre-packaged meat from the supermarket” or Pinhead. Also, of course, this is our Slumber Party Massacre.