For most of “Spilt Milk,” I watched wondering when the other shoe was going to drop. I was half convinced that Kit was going to take Grace into the home they’re now sharing together, get her into bed, then in his moment of perfect happiness, let out an “Alma!” before reverting to his true, evil form. Instead, he just bumped into Alma in the bedroom the two once shared. A long time ago, probably in season one, I compared the show to Ryan Murphy picking up a bunch of beloved childhood toys and smashing them against each other, like kids play with action figures. If that’s really the case, then apparently, we reached the end of the show’s natural conflict last week, and now, we’re just playing out the string, the long aftermath, where you’re still playing, but you don’t really know what to do. “And then, uh, Lana can publish her book and have her baby? And Sister Jude can be locked up for seemingly the entire duration of Lana’s pregnancy? Yeah!”
That weird sense of malaise runs throughout “Spilt Milk,” which has a lot of stuff going on, but not really much in the way of action or forward plot momentum. It’s almost as if the series got to its denouement two episodes early, and now, it’s not sure what to do next. As I said last week, I’ve gotten used to the show saving its fireworks for seemingly every other episode, but this was almost impossibly sedate. It was all I could do to not go and look at other stuff. If there’s one thing American Horror Story can’t be, it’s boring, and “Spilt Milk” treads just a little too close to that line far too often, even if it offers up plenty of candidates for the “Ben Harmon’s Best Line” competition. (My pick: “Every time I think about her, I wanna do things! Bad things!” Only “do things” is shouted at the top of Dylan McDermott’s lungs. Bless you, my son.)
Then I started thinking about what I said last week, about how the characters kept returning to Briarcliff as if the show were trying to suggest that they weren’t just mental patients but television characters, who had no idea of what to do but return to the status quo. And, weirdly, this episode fits in with that theory as well. Once the characters are out of Briarcliff, it’s like they lose their reason for being. Lana leaves Briarcliff, very much a woman on a mission, determined to publish an expose that brings the asylum down. And sure, she exposes Thredson, and sure, the stories hit the papers. But Briarcliff goes on, and nobody seems to care very much what happened to her, even the stuff she can verify. All of the characters seem to turn into shells once outside of Briarcliff. Kit and Grace shack up, only to have Alma pop up to spoil their fun. The Monsignor slides into the role of antagonist because the show has to have one. The characters become interchangeable parts, because that’s what the show requires, just like kids playing with action figures.
Now, I know what’s happening here. I know the show is just calming things down before the storm next week—unless we’re getting a really thorough preamble to the future killings of Bloody Face, Jr., The New Class. Yet it’s still a really odd episode, particularly from Brad Falchuk, who’s usually pretty good about bringing things to a crescendo. Instead, “Spilt Milk” moves in odd and jagged ways. Processes are disassembled, broken down into a series of smaller jump cuts that cut across time but only remove mere seconds of it, then don’t occur in any predictable sort of rhythm. A jump cut will remove a couple of seconds from an action, then there will be no further stutter cuts like this. We’ll dive between the past and the present, seemingly without any motivation whatsoever. Whole months will be removed in the course of an edit that could just as easily remove only a second or two of time. It’s as if Falchuk is showing how these people’s lives have been shattered into pieces by her experience at Briarcliff, how they’re mostly able to put them back together, but they’re still missing little chips here and there, the full picture never quite coming together.
Notice how this stutter-step editing mostly applies to the Lana and Kit parts of the episode (and doesn’t really enter the picture when Lana is doing something big, like forcing herself to breast feed her son or confronting Thredson about his crimes). For the most part, Sister Jude’s story proceeds in smooth, fluid movements of the camera, she herself the focal point, even as the image changes behind her. It’s like she’s a constant now, like being removed from her own sanity has given her a kind of constant awareness that would be deadly if she weren’t so easily locked up. (Again, the elevation of the Monsignor to her new nemesis feels dreadfully arbitrary.) If there’s a “story” now, it’s about Jude seeking some form of redemption, but that’s less of a peg to hang the show on, now that the serial killer, demon-possessed nun, Nazi doctor, and mutants are all dead, and the aliens seem to have ceased to be a going concern.
So even though I appreciate some of the filmmaking choices in this episode—and found two shots (Lana walking out of the crypt; her view of the cross above her as she gave her baby sustenance but refused to look at him) very beautiful—I couldn’t quite get on board with the thing as a whole. It just felt too odd and lugubrious, too insistent on taking the journeys of the characters more seriously than the show is really capable of doing. I appreciated what it was trying to do, but I also found myself almost wholly resistant to it, outside of a few really good scenes here and there. If the show is going to spend its last three episodes depicting the aftermath of being imprisoned in Briarcliff, that could be interesting, but it’s also going to need to realize that it doesn’t have a viable story engine, particularly when it’s skipping past so much stuff. It’s as if the whole season went from a grand Guignol piece, skipped over to a weird workplace drama, made a stop in soap opera town, then landed in an art film. And I’m not sure that evolution makes any sense.
In the end, it all comes back to place. On American Horror Story, certain places are infected with dark rot, with all of the sins of a big country full of dark evils. The Murder House in season one seemed to embody all of the hopes and dreams of people whose American dreams went awry, while Briarcliff in season two is a haven for the oppressed, a place where those who wield their power too heavily cut down those who are powerless, until those who are powerless find a way to fight back. And yet it echoes out through the years anyway. A mother refuses to give her baby milk until the very end, and if you believe him later, it’s this very act that causes him to embark upon a life of murder. (If, in fact, you believe Bloody Face, Jr., to be Lana’s baby, which this episode at least casts some doubt upon.) She won’t give him milk because of whose son he is and because of an experience she’s trying to put behind her. When we treat each other poorly, we reflect that darkness back out into the world, but when we treat each other with evil in our hearts, the evil becomes migratory.
Grade: B- for Boobies (minus)
- Man-ass alert!: I don’t believe we had any man-ass, but we did get some woman-ass, which is what all of you came here for, right?
- In the list of people Lana says have mysteriously disappeared is Pepper, which is really too bad. I’m going to miss that angelic protector of alien babies. (As to why I called her Peppa last week, I thought it would be sort of funny if I wrote everybody’s names as Sister Jude said them, then abruptly realized it didn’t make a lot of sense and never changed that one back for some reason. I still think it could be funny, dammit.)
- I hope we hear more about the apparently magical healing properties of that jukebox. Maybe that’s what was powering the Island on Lost?
- I like that in the same week that Parenthood, a sweet, gentle show suitable for viewing by the whole family, came down firmly in favor of women exercising their right to an abortion, even though it understood this was a serious decision, made with careful thought, American Horror Story, which is so not a sweet, gentle show suitable for family viewing, decided to become firmly pro-life by having Lana say that she wanted “no more death” when she asked the abortionist not to perform the procedure. (And though it was a different actress, didn’t she sort of sound like Frances Conroy? Tricky!)
- I somehow got sucked into some Entertainment Weekly comments on an article about this show, and they seemed pretty uniformly certain that this season of the series is much worse than the first season, which was an opinion that surprised me. (That’s also something that’s reflected in the ratings, which have been a touch behind season one’s lowest-rated episode over the last five episodes.) So I took that thought to Twitter, after which a couple of people wrote to me to say they shared that opinion. The complaint I’ve seen most often about this season is that it’s “torture porn,” which I find sort of difficult to wrap my head around, since the show doesn’t seem to fetishize the sorts of acts performed on its characters like torture porn would require. Indeed, it often seems to be a fairly straightforward depiction of some pretty awful things. What I think is going on here is that the tone of season two has been less willing to excuse the awfulness of what happens to these people with camp, and that’s forcing viewers to confront the horrors of rape and murder in a way that season one just didn’t. It’s no longer as grandly goofy, and some of those who were in it for the easy shocks and thrills aren’t quite as in anymore. (Then again, somebody told me season two has a better story but season one was more scary, so I don’t know what to think anymore, because that season wasn’t scary at all!)
- As someone who is adopted and almost certainly was not breast fed, I thank you, show, for your implications.
- All right, everybody. What do we think these last two episodes are going to be about? I, for one, have next to no idea, and I’m sort of hoping that it’s just a long series of Jessica Lange monologues and/or dance numbers and/or fights with Joseph Fiennes.