One of the things that initially got me interested in American Horror Story—no matter what I thought of Ryan Murphy or Dylan McDermott or anybody else working on the show—was the title. It was so damn generic! It could have meant anything, and it promised everything, from the sort of weird horror movie mash-up we got to something more existential and brooding. Even more than that, it promised freedom. In my heart of hearts, what I thought might happen was that the show would tackle a new “American horror story” every season. Season one would be the haunted house tale. Season two would feature some folks who get stranded in the middle of nowhere and encounter some… odd locals. Season three would be about a hunting expedition gone very wrong. Season four could be about a frontier family encountering ghosts. And so on. On one level, I knew this sort of blend between the miniseries and the anthology drama would never happen. On another level, I really wanted to see what was behind the door of that title.
Somewhere around the midpoint of the finale, this hope for what might happen on the show reared its head again, and I allowed myself to—just for a moment—get really excited about this idea and the potential behind it and the possibility that next year would be like nothing I’d ever seen before. The rhythms of the episode were nicely off kilter. Ben Harmon had been stupid enough to get himself killed, after uttering one of the greatest Ben Harmon’s Line Of The Week candidates in memory (“Yeah, you did,” said to a daughter who pointed out that she’d saved him the money he would have shelled out for college by killing herself and delivered almost as if he was sort of glad about it). He’d gone to get the baby, to take him out of the house, and he was stopped on the stairway by Hayden, who asked if he thought he was really going to just get away like that. Hayden and her home invasion crew strung him up from the ceiling—in a gruesome set-piece that used the House’s architecture very well—and dropped him there to die.
My first thought—as he swung there, kicking for his life—was that the show might contrive a way to save him. But nope. He died. Constance took the baby (her grandson) to raise as her own. Ben was greeted in the afterlife by his wife and daughter, their family happy and healthy and whole at last. Hell, along the way, they’d pick up Moira as an adjunct family member, as well as the stillborn baby from last week’s birth episode, the one that was handed off to Nora Montgomery. His name, perhaps, would be Jeffrey. Aw.
What I responded to here was the unexpectedness of the rhythms. Ryan Murphy’s shows are often fairly predictable, but they circumnavigate that fact by tossing story turns you know are coming at you at unexpected times. For instance, it seemed pretty obvious a few weeks ago that all of the Harmons were going to die—if Violet wasn’t dead already—but the show took them out at points where I wasn’t quite expecting them to go. For instance, I figured this episode would be some sort of battle royale between Ben and the forces of the house, one where his deceased wife and daughter would try to clear the way for him to ride off into the sunset, Antichrist beside him, cooing in his car-seat. Barring that, I figured he’d fight and end up dying, claimed by the House, while Constance took in the young boy to raise him. While option two happened, I didn’t expect it to happen in the first 15 minutes, and I liked the way this all made me feel like I wasn’t quite sure where I was. I was at sea.
It was what came next that made me think that not only was I enjoying the finale but that I’d sorely underestimated the show. The section with the new family moving in, much as it seemed to just be a way to redo the pilot in five minutes or less, promised something sort of new and daring. We were going to see the Harmons re-adjusting to life as ghosts, to sharing the house with its many angry spirits, to learning to cope with the living. After all, as Moira tells Violet late in the episode, ancient doesn’t have much of a meaning when you live in an eternal present. Here, I thought, was the meat of the episode, a long string of home owners, some joining the dead, some escaping with their lives. Next door, the little boy grows up into the evil man he’ll become. And all the while, the Harmons begin to understand just how long eternity really is. (In general, this show has been pretty good at conveying how it feels to be a ghost.) I liked the shift to character work, even if it was sort of abrupt. The moments where Ben thought about killing himself early on were nicely done, and the scene where Tate admitted to his misdeeds would have been weirdly powerful if not for the fact that his little speech opened with “In 1994, I set my mom’s boyfriend on fire.” There was a real attempt to get into the psychology of being a new ghost here, and I hoped it would take up the bulk of the episode, before moving us to some sort of conclusion.
Instead, we got the following:
- The Harmons, with the help of the House’s “good” ghosts (the ones who are trapped there through no fault of their own), stage an intervention to get the new family out of the house, one that concludes with Vivien ripping Ben open with a knife and pulling out his viscera, then Ben shooting her in the head. The two sat up, grinned at the family, then said, “This is what happens!” like they were in the world’s worst PSA aimed at warning people about domestic abuse.
- Tate gave his little speech about what he’d done, after Ben told him he was a psychopath who could ask for sorry but could never accept responsibility. After this speech, Ben said he wasn’t Tate’s priest. He couldn’t “absolve” him. Tate suggested they might hang out, and I thought, “Oh, good. Now they’re going to be bros.”
- Taissa Farmiga again proved she’s awesome with a little eye roll to make new teenage boy Gabriel flee the kid who’d just tried to murder him and was now kissing her, rather than standing there and gawking at them. (Earlier, this kid had skateboarded around the house, like a bad version of those live-action Simpsons credits that were all the rage a few years back.)
- Vivien found her baby, wandered around with it for a while, then asked Moira if she’d like to be the godmother, which was likely preferable to constantly cleaning the damn place.
- The ghosts celebrated Christmas, while Tate and Hayden vengefully looked on. (No. Seriously. The ghosts celebrated Christmas.)
It’s not like all of this was bad. Like I said above, I didn’t mind the Tate speech, and I had fun with the mass-scale haunting designed to push the family out of the house. But I suddenly knew where I was again. I was back in the boring domestic drama that had made up too much of the season’s weakest parts, and the pleasantly off-kilter feel evaporated in a long string of ooey-gooey scenes where, well, ghosts celebrated Christmas and made googly eyes at babies. We were back in the realm of the straightforward, and even if it occasionally diverged from the path to explore some of the interesting territory the show had gotten involved in—like what it feels like to be a ghost—it robbed the earlier passages of their power.
Let me explain that a bit more. That opening teaser set us up for a situation where we found the ultimate tragedy of what happened in the House. Ben finds the place online. He talks Vivien into staying with him, but the House ultimately rips them apart. We cut to Ben wandering the house, his wife and daughter dead, crying out their names, begging them to come visit him. It’s kind of a nice nod to what it would be like to live in a haunted house where you knew your most loved ones were on some other plane, just a dimension away (but, oh, that dimension’s a bitch). The show hasn’t been bad when it comes to some of these sorts of emotions—think of Zachary Quinto realizing he was stuck forever with a man who didn’t really love him—and I liked the fatalism of this whole thing, the sense that the House, as soon as Ben saw it, was inescapable.
So then the next occupants moved in, and I thought we were headed for a story about how that house and its occupants wreak that havoc in life after life, how the Harmons become almost oblivious to it, in a way. Instead, we ended up trapped in a family togetherness narrative that got stitched together with a story about the Antichrist as a child (I kept expecting the Pope to burst into the room with his Pope box). There’s nothing wrong with any of this, but, again, I knew the territory I was standing on. Suddenly, the future of the show became clearer, and that made me a little sad. Where I was hoping we were heading for uncharted territory, I instead got tossed into an Omen remake. And that’s fine, I guess, but it’s not something that’s going to have me clamoring for season two. The show had a chance to do something really bold and unprecedented and opted for option B.
Part of the fun of those early episodes—even when I really didn’t like them—was that you never quite had a good sense of what the hell kind of show you were watching. The finale sticks us into what seems to be a pretty basic setup for season two. More people will move into the neighborhood. Constance will try to keep the little killer in her house a secret. The Harmons will pop up from time to time to scare everybody off. Where the show briefly seemed wild and filled with possibility, it now feels like it’s unnecessarily limiting itself. I think we all know that American Horror Story couldn’t sustain the tone of the first half of its season indefinitely, and I, in theory, welcome the shift to a character-driven story in the last few episodes. But did it have to feel like it was closing out something unpredictable and hard to pin down with a whimper?
Grade as an actual piece of television: First half—A. Gradual sense that it wasn’t the show I thought it was in the first half—D. Second half—C+.
Grade as an entertaining piece of claptrap: What is this? Characters? Where the fuck is the pope? Or the brain-eating? Or the random murders of Hollywood actors of long ago? Oh, at least Murder tour guy is there—C-
Jessica Lange grade: B+ for shouting.
Official grade: C for C’mon. We’re getting more Ben Harmon?
Dylan McDermott grade (season-long average): A+++
Season grade: NEP for Not Enough Pope