What exactly do you think Ben Harmon thinks when he’s confronted by his vengeful ex-girlfriend, seemingly returned from the dead and spitting up bloody masses like it wasn’t all that big a deal? Does he say to himself, “Oh, hey, there’s Hayden again. She must have clawed through that gazebo I put up in 30 minutes so I could always remember where she was buried”? Does he start to wonder if maybe his house isn’t haunted? Or does he just go about his business afterward, think that maybe someday he and the wife will laugh about the time his dead ex-girlfriend invaded their home and showed how good she was at timing tomatoes to blow up in the microwave at just the right second?
Yes, folks, it’s time for another deeply preposterous episode of American Horror Story, but this one just might be the most gosh-darn fun yet. The episode didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but at some point, I just gave up on anything making coherent sense. This is a series that’s about trying to give you as strange and bumpy a ride as possible and a series about trying to make that experience fun. Plus, it’s a series that’s at its best when it’s more or less ignoring its main characters, and even though the storytelling spine of the two-part Halloween episode involved the Harmon marriage dissolving even further (until you have to wonder just how Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy are going to destroy it even more in weeks to come), the Harmons were curiously non-central to everything that was going on. These were two episodes of American Horror Story that were much more interested in the haunted house’s ghosts, and that made them more enjoyable than some of the earlier ones.
In particular, I thought the story of Tate was very well done in this episode. It’s not as though the “twist” here is super shocking. I think all of us had figured out Tate was probably a ghost, kept alive by the influence of the House, and most of us were way ahead of the show when it came to his mom being Constance. But I still liked the way this information was relayed, which ended up being almost matter-of-fact about the whole deal. “Yeah,” Jessica Lange says, “my son’s the ghost boy next door. No biggie.” And Violet nods her approval because, well, who’s going to say no to a two-time Oscar winner? Certainly not Violet.
Anyway, it was the business with all of the kids Tate killed in the high school massacre we’ve seen him fantasizing about before that most caught my interest here. I’m guessing plenty of you had put together that Tate’s visions of a massacre weren’t actually his fantasies but repressed memories of something he did right before he became a ghost in thrall to the house, but I was impressed by the whole turn. Granted, as soon as the bloodied kids showed up jabbering about what he’d done to them, it was pretty obvious what Tate had been up to, but the story was helped by some strong acting, including a guest turn from Awkward’s Ashley Rickards, and a genuine sense of the emotions at play here. Sometimes, the emotional beats on this show can feel a little hollow, but I really did feel the teen ghosts’ pain over having to wander the Earth for all of eternity because Tate was a homicidal maniac who’s had that wallpapered over by whatever his mother did to him. (I also liked Taissa Farmiga’s “oh shit” face, as Violet put together what was going on, though the show gave her a plausible enough reason to remain in denial, I guess.)
I’ve been appreciating the series’ way of mixing together classic horror fiction and film tropes with actual horrific crimes from American history, and the way the show played the most famous motifs of Columbine—Tate targeting the jocks, the girl who said she believed in God and got shot—right up against its visual quoting of Twisted Nerve/Kill Bill is probably the best example of the show using these tricks yet. It deliberately skirts the edge of good taste, all but daring the audience to sit up and be repulsed by what’s happening, but it somehow stays right on the edge of something that doesn’t tip over into the offensive. (It’s here that I’ll note that tonight’s episode featured a script credited to TV super-producer Tim Minear, who’s always had a fondness for stories that take place in the past and present simultaneously, making him a curiously good fit for this show.) This was the culmination of a bunch of hints dropped so far in the season, and it all paid off in a way that both respected the audience and gave us a suitable payoff.
The business with Constance—who’s busy mourning Addie—worked similarly well, particularly when Violet showed up. Jessica Lange, who’s spent most of this series chewing the very fabric of the series’ fictional reality, finally got a chance to play a quieter, smaller moment, and of course, she did a great job with it. I could have done without the attempts to play the fact that Tate is her son up as a huge surprise, but, hey, I’m sure that it was a surprise to some of the audience, and it’s not like the show belabored the twist too much. (For an example of a show belaboring twists all over the place, check out this season of Dexter.) I also liked the moment where a creepy hand reached out at Violet from beneath her bed. It sure seems like Constance didn’t get Addie’s body over the house’s property line in time to resurrect her, but who else would be hiding under the bed. (Let’s pause for a moment here to recognize just how observant the House is of local zoning restrictions.)
And even as the Harmons remain the least interesting part of the series, at least they had better material this week, what with crazy ol’ Kate Mara wandering their basement and spouting gibberish or with Larry the Burn-Faced Man whacking Ben in the head with a shovel. The show was unable to get scares from the idea of yet another home invasion, this time one carried out by a ghost, so it mostly just went crazy with scenes where people were yelling at each other. And while I don’t know that that’s what I want to see the show doing going forward, I thought it mostly worked here because, well, everything else was clicking along so well. (If we’re being honest, though, the worst part of this is Morris Chestnut as a security guard frequently called into the Harmon home when bad stuff’s going down. He gets nothing to do, and, worse, the stuff he does get to do is a real drag, but he exists solely to remind you that he—and the security company he works for—are all wrapped up in this crazy-ass shit.)
But, hey, I’m okay with some lackluster Harmon antics if the rest of the episode cracks along like this one did. I’m still no closer to recommending American Horror Story without reservation, but I do think there’s a lot of fun to be had watching this show and trying to figure out just what the hell it’s doing half the time. One of you compared the series to a dream a few weeks ago, and I think that’s more or less accurate, only I’d expand upon it: American Horror Story is more interested in evoking tropes than creating solid characters because it’s a nightmare show, a series that takes place inside of an endlessly rotating swirl of America’s worst dreams. And things rarely make sense inside of nightmares.
- Favorite teen makeup job: that kid who couldn’t speak because he was missing the lower portion of his face. Nice touch with him constantly spitting the blood up.
- So the House apparently has big plans for the unborn child in Vivien’s womb. Tell us something we don’t know, show!
- I’m sure you noticed, but the series got a second season this week. You were probably incredibly tense about whether it would happen or not, yet here we are, ready to celebrate even more frights in… well, whatever new format the show takes on in season two. (I’m hoping for a mockumentary on competitive ostrich racing.)