In tonight’s episode of American Horror Story, Connie Britton thoughtfully eats a brain.
You probably think I’m kidding, but I’m not. It’s a raw brain—presumably from an animal (if Moira said which animal, my screener was too muffled to make it out at that point). And all the while, Britton is sitting there, really giving it her all. “How would Vivien Harmon eat a brain,” you can see her acting brain thinking, “especially if she thought it would be good for her baby?” Is the brain tasty? Does she sort of like it, in spite of herself? Has Moira seasoned the brain well? These are all of the things Connie Britton has to consider because somebody in the American Horror Story writers room, probably at 3 in the morning, when everyone involved in the show was trying to think of the big moment in this episode that everybody would be talking about on the Internet—because there must be 50 in every episode—said, “What if we made Connie Britton eat a brain?” and everybody got excited and nodded and Ryan Murphy got up from his chair and solemnly grabbed a dry-erase marker and walked over to the whiteboard and wrote, in giant green letters, “CONNIE BRITTON EATS A BRAIN!” and then underlined it five, no six, times, while everyone nodded and Brad Falchuk clapped—just once, so as to let everybody know they’d found that golden idea but hadn’t found the answer. They still had a man in a pig head to dream up. (That got two claps.)
And all the while, Britton’s sitting there, pluckily digging into her brain, like it’s no big deal, and the scores bubbling along with that kinda-creepy, kinda-goofy music that lets you know what you’re watching is the fucking craziest thing ever, and all you can think is, “Jesus Christ, I hope the Internet still exists because I need to talk to someone about this.”
That’s the thing about American Horror Story. By all of the “rules” we usually apply to say whether a piece of dramatic television is a success or not, it’s a complete, abject failure. It doesn’t have characters so much as props that the writers can toss into terrariums with ghost lizards and pig-headed men. Most of the time, TV shows have a character who’s obviously the voice of the writers, the voice of the creators. Most of the time, that character’s pretty easy to spot—Dr. Melfi on The Sopranos, Lester Freamon on The Wire, Abed on Community, Kurt and Burt Hummel on Glee. This doesn’t mean that the character is perfect. They’re just as fucked up as everybody else on the show. But if the writers have something they need to say, nine times out of 10, it’ll be coming out of the voice of the writers’ mouthpiece. It’s an old, old technique, and it usually works. The problem with American Horror Story is that the writers’ mouthpiece characters are those two little kids who run around breaking shit and died in the very first scene. If this show were a person and you asked it what it thought about things, it would throw a firecracker at you and yell, "I hate trees!"
I actually got into a mild argument about this show with one of the other TV Club writers over IM the other day, when I said that, objectively, I could absolutely see how this show wasn’t as good as, say, Boardwalk Empire or even Homeland (which has a good shot at making my top five for the year) but when I get the screener for an episode of this, I almost always pop it in before anything else. The reason for that, I think, is simple. I don’t have to think about American Horror Story. I don’t even really have to bother to watch American Horror Story. Indeed, the process of thinking about this show is directly antithetical to enjoying it, because if you start to think about it, the whole edifice falls apart. (The common defense of this from American Horror Story super-fans is that this is true of all horror movies, but, no, it’s not, and as a horror fan, fuck you.) Just as McDonald’s has figured out a way to package food that hits our “fat and salt” pleasure centers directly on the head, American Horror Story is designed solely to pick up your brain and give it a good shake, leaving you dizzy. If you analyze a roller coaster, you just end up hating yourself. At some point with this show, you’re either in the car, or you’re on the side, watching everybody go on the ride. Like no show I can think of, much of the fun of watching American Horror Story is about wondering how people are going to make fun of it once it’s over.
This isn’t a bad thing! Nor is it a bad thing that there are plenty of people who think those of us who are still on the ride are a little nuts! I mean, let’s be honest here. Any time you start to think about this show, it does fall apart. In a lot of ways, it’s indefensible, but it wants that very indefensibility to be a part of its charm. And as my friend points out, this thing is going to be over before we know it. Everybody knows Ryan Murphy shows have short half-lives, and this one’s already tossed so much shit at the wall that we all know the end has to be just around the corner. I predict in two weeks, we’ll be longing for the days when this show was just a crazy bug-fuck collection of pig-headed men and teenage girls who fall in love with dead school shooters because they feel things so intensely. The thing about the roller coaster is that it’s never as exciting every time after that first time.
This is also a big part of the reason why I’m no longer bothering to get all that upset about what seems like pretty awful sexism on the part of the show. If it’s a show that’s impossible to take seriously, why bother when the reaction the show has to every female character seems to be, “Ladies and their vaginas, what the fuck, am I right?” while Murphy comically shrugs and Falchuk makes fart noises with a trombone? Plus, it’s not as if anybody on the show comes off all that well. Arguably, the most sympathetic character in this episode was Tate, and he’s the ghost of a kid who killed over a dozen people at his high school. Yes, the show seems to argue that women will do wholly irrational things for an attractive enough man—and, yes, people of all sexualities will do stupid shit for someone they find attractive, but there’s kind of a limit, too—or that they’ll eat brains if someone says it will be good for their babies (and that the brains are organic), but good God, this is also a show where ghosts just can’t stop sexually propositioning Dylan McDermott. We’re not exactly in the world of earnestly considering the show’s politics.
So what did I think of this episode? I didn’t. Eric Stonestreet got killed by a pig-headed man in his fantasies, then said the Bloody Mary rip-off “here piggy piggy” thing into the mirror and got shot in the head by a robber in a plot that had nothing to do with anything at all, other than making us fear a pig-head man. (And I have to admit that Stonestreet’s earnest invocation of the fake urban legend was pretty great.) The show opened with a sequence depicting the Westfield massacre that was genuinely frightening and suspenseful and tense, one of the most successful horror sequences it’s ever pulled off, but it was also one that was completely incompatible with the rest of the episode on a tonal level, like you showed your kids the last 20 minutes of Elephant and then popped in Kung Fu Panda and tried to pretend they were the same movie (I’m totally going to do this to my kids). Jessica Lange got a chance to have an earnest breakdown over the death of Addie while hanging out with medium Sarah Paulson (who is so obviously another one of her 500 kids). There were vague intimations of doom and a terrible, terrible scene where good ol’ Connie Britton—who’s literally becoming the Charlie Brown of television in how earnestly she keeps trying to do stuff everybody knows can only fail—berated her husband via dialogue completely devoid of nuance, subtext, or intrigue, a scene that was as much a parody of scenes where wives read cheating husbands the riot act as it was an actual scene like that—but nobody involved seemed to realize how funny it was.
The saving grace, sort of, was Violet, who is the first Harmon to figure out that the house is crazy haunted and the first Harmon to behave more or less like a character the audience can invest in. (I completely agree that the Harmons would reject supernatural explanations for why their house was so weird; I don’t really buy that they’d stay in the house after everything that’s happened to them there.) Her genuine struggles with what to do about Tate were interesting, and the scene where she went to Westfield and saw the teacher was good, too. Then she tried to kill herself, and Tate saved her by dragging her into the shower, and the whole thing turned into Twilight with ghosts, and I remembered I was watching a show where everybody’s primary motivation is what will get Ryan Murphy to stand up from his chair and write something in big letters on a dry-erase board.
And I sat back and enjoyed the ride.
Grade as an actual piece of television: D plus-ish
Grade as an entertaining piece of claptrap that has no business being consumed by discerning individuals: A minus-ish
Official grade: C for Connie Britton eats a brain
- I suspect a certain percentage of you will be sad that Rubber Man didn’t make an appearance this evening. And you are probably justified in that! I kind of hope that he and Pig-Head Man hook up by the end of the season, even though Pig-Head Man is, at present, imaginary, which on this show means that he is as real as Silvio Berlusconi tanking the world economy in a fit of spite. (Topical jokes!)
- Things I increasingly like about the show: It is seemingly proposing that all of the world’s ills can be blamed on the house. If we just tear it down, everything will be okay!
- I did actually kind of enjoy the Violet plotline in this episode. (The teenagers are the only characters written with any sort of psychological or emotional acuity for some reason.) When she went down into the basement and met all of the house’s ghosts, it wasn’t hard to imagine her taking up with all of them and season seven being a wacky sitcom called The Ghosts Next Door about her and her dead pals. Also, with Tate’s protection, she’s totally final girl-ing this season.
- I also liked the scene where Violet and her classmate talked about how the devil’s totally real, man, and if you just read the Book of Revelation, you’ll realize that it foretells the house or something.
- While we're on the subject of weird religious mysticism, the woman who passed out when giving Vivien the sonogram just wants her to know her baby has little cloven hooves like the devil, even though we know from Violet's friend the devil is totes hot.
- Todd's crazy theory corner: Stonestreet is scared of a man who will butcher him; Vivien eats offal, the organs that remain after butchering an animal. Vivien eats a brain; Stonestreet is shot... in the brain. (Dun dun dun!)
- Was Mrs. Coach plowed by a black version of the Greendale Human Being alert: No.