Deadwood was dead: to begin with. There is no doubt whatever about that. The register of its burial was signed by the clergyman, Paramount, HBO, and the critics who mourned it. VanDerWerff signed it: and VanDerWerff’s name was good upon ‘Change, for anything he chose to put his hand to. Old Deadwood was as dead as a door-nail.
And so it was that VanDerWerff locked himself in his office one night, the better to write a review of an episode of American Horror Story, one with a Murder Santa. He looked upon it and saw it starred Ian McShane and was reminded of all the times Al Swearengen had brought him solace with a well-placed “Cocksucker!” or a monologue to the head of a dead Native American chief. VanDerWerff was lacking in the television spirit, refusing to give his employees the holidays off, the better to make sure they covered every single TLC reality show on the dial. “They’ll review five episodes of 600 Pound Mom before I give them Christmas charity!” he said. “All who go about singing of it should be buried with a sprig of holly through their heart!”
This night, he was in an especially rancorous mood. He had liked this season of American Horror Story, yet “Unholy Night” saw fit to test him. It was by far the most season-one-esque episode of the season so far, with little unifying material to tie it together and a bunch of storylines that didn’t join together so much as just travel parallel to each other until they simply stopped. The episode also turned far too often to the threat of sexual violence for his tastes. The season had already had so much of this, and now it aimed to present a murdering, raping Santa Claus. This was no good. This was no good at all. He sat down at his computer with a flourish of his fingers and prepared to write an excoriating review.
A thump came from the hallway, followed by a low, treacherous groan. VanDerWerff, shivering, turned toward the door. “What was that?”
He became aware of a presence in his midst, a ghost from his television past. Why, it was his old friend Al Swearengen! Only he was dressed as Santa Claus!
“Al!” said VanDerWerff.
“Cocksucker!” said Al, for that is all anyone remembers anyone saying on Deadwood.
“It’s so good to see you, old friend,” said VanDerWerff. “I have missed you so. The current television landscape is full of horrors, real and imagined. You have to see this American Horror Story program. It’s insane and disjointed and even when I like it, a big part of me hates it.”
Al curled up his lip, his heavy boots thudding on the floor as he walked toward VanDerWerff, dragging the chains he forged in cancellation behind him. “You critics and your senses of decorum!” he sneered. “You act as if there is only one way to make good television, as if only a certain kind of serialized dramatic storytelling can exist.”
VanDerWerff, who was not expecting Al to say this at all, shivered in his chair. “W… well, it’s like the season built to its climax in episode five, and now, nobody knows what to do with it. I mean, tonight’s episode was basically a procedural about an insane murderous Santa Claus…”
“Ho, ho, ho!” boomed Al with great majesty.
“Y… yes. It was about the murder Santa, until it wasn’t, and then all of the plots from the season so far came to a head for no apparent reason. Also, a Santa who breaks into people’s houses and threatens to rape them before shooting them? And an origin myth that involves prison rape? And saying the only difference between that Santa and the real one is that the real Santa only comes once per year? Really?”
“You laughed at that!” Al said.
“I did,” VanDerWerff said, and he hid his face in shame, unaware that the protagonist of his favorite television show of all time had been watching him laugh at such puerile humor.
“Just admit how much enjoyment you get from this and stop being such a coward about it,” Al said, sneering in VanDerWerff’s face. “I’m the murder Santa now, and that’s the God’s honest truth.”
He cuffed VanDerwerff about the cheeks. “Now I’m here to tell you something, so you listen, and you listen good. You will be visited by three showrunners…”
VanDerWerff, seeing where this was going, felt his lower lip tremble. “I don’t think you can precisely describe Tim Minear as a showrunner just yet. He’s certainly an EP, but…”
Al slapped him. “Nobody cares about your writers’ room obsessions or your structural theories, VanDerWerff. They just care about what’s on screen. Now. You will be visited by three showrunners. Pay heed to what they say.”
“The definition of my job is to ignore what they say and report what I thought, and…”
Al sighed. “Just go with this, okay? We’re already trapped in this damn gimmick, and you only have 40 minutes left to get this review done.”
VanDerWerff whimpered. “I will be visited by three showrunners.”
“Good. Here’s the first.”
Al stepped aside and opened the door. Ryan Murphy raced in. He was riding a unicycle and juggling 15 flaming pies. Around his neck, he wore a boa constrictor that had been festooned with Christmas lights. His cowboy boots were outfitted with miniature speakers that played a variety of VanDerWerff’s favorite Christmas hits, and he wore a look of cold calculation in his eyes.
“Remember me?” Ryan Murphy said.
VanDerWerff screamed, for he did, and he’d seen that Glee Christmas episode, and it had nearly broken him.
Murphy spoke to him of many things. He spoke to him of producing something that was constantly exciting and engaging, and VanDerWerff had to admit he was right about that. He was never bored watching a Ryan Murphy show, even when his mouth was hanging open at how awful it was. He spoke to him of the ambitions of the second season of American Horror Story. He spoke to him of how the season had managed to develop characters, where the first season had not, how it had managed to develop a handful of thematic concerns, where the first season had not. He also spoke to him of aliens and mutants and teenagers singing showtunes and the magical Yetis who will be the main villains in season three. (Was that a spoiler? Should that spoiler have not just been in there?)
“I want to believe, Ryan Murphy,” said VanDerWerff, “but I lack the ability. I’ve lived so long believing in consistency, believing that a certain level of narrative coherence and proficiency is necessary to good television. You’re asking me to turn my back on all of that, Ryan Murphy! I can’t. I won’t!”
“Didn’t you defend that episode of Homeland?” asked Ryan Murphy, and VanDerWerff had to admit he had a point. (But, seriously, you guys. Let’s just give it a few weeks and see if it can… right. Review.)
“I entertain you like no other,” said Ryan Murphy, and already, his candle was going out, because there was a draft that was blowing out the candle, and he had to go work on The New Normal.
“Is it all right if I still don’t like The New Normal?” VanDerWerff asked, but Ryan Murphy had disappeared, and didn’t hear what he had said. If he had heard, he might have planned a Christmas episode for 2013 that would have burned off VanDerWerff’s toenails, for he possessed such a dark hold over VanDerWerff’s soul.
Murder Santa Al Swearengen stepped aside and admitted the next visitor, the always enjoyable Brad Falchuk. He had his head down, looking at a script, brow furrowed.
“Falchuk!” said VanDerWerff. “You I feel like I can speak to.”
“Mmmm,” said Brad Falchuk.
“I had some structural problems with tonight’s episode, even as I loved the hell out of it, even as it completely repulsed me. What the hell is wrong with me?”
“Did you notice the way we subtly built to a climax that crescendoed, pulling in all of the assorted storylines and confrontations, then cross-cutting between them freely. It’s like visual jazz,” Brad Falchuk said, and then he made some jazz hands.
VanDerWerff was powerless to join him, and he threw in a rough shuffle step as well. “Well, I don’t know about subtly. And so much of the episode hinges on the conflict between Jude and Emerson…”
Everyone looked confused, until Al smacked himself in the forehead. “Oh, right. That’s me. I think you mean Murder Santa, VanDerWerff.”
“So much of the episode hinges on the conflict between Jude and Murder Santa, and that’s something you’ve just introduced, and… and…”
“So?” Brad Falchuk asked, and he seemed genuinely puzzled. “Were you entertained?”
“I mean, it’s Ian McShane, and he’s leaning down and looking through the little portcullis and grinning madly, and, yeah, watching Jessica Lange face off with him is fun, at least until he threatens to rape her, which really did kind of disgust me…”
“There need to be stakes!” Brad Falchuk said.
“He’s already threatening to kill her,” VanDerWerff said, emphatically, which you can tell because he totally used italics just then. “Isn’t that the ultimate set of stakes?”
“Death isn’t a set of stakes for Sister Jude. She just thinks she’ll ascend to Heaven. She needs to be broken.”
“But Murder Santa giving a pretty great case for why God doesn’t exist and then concluding it with, ‘There is no God, but there is a Santa Claus,’ which was awesome, by the by, seems like it would already have accomplished the trick…”
Brad Falchuk gave him a skeptical glance. VanDerWerff sighed. He supposed sexual assault was just becoming another trick in the toolkit, and he hoped it would be taken more seriously going forward in the series, but, hey, this show seemed to live for pushing buttons, so he was probably not going to get his wish at all.
“That said,” VanDerWerff stumbled forward, as Falchuk eyed him icily, “I did like the way the confrontations built on top of each other, and the way that you believably came up with a reason Lana wouldn’t just kill Thredson. I’m a little unhappy with the way everybody’s back at the asylum now, but I suppose that’s inevitable when you’ve spent all that money on the one set.”
“So expensive,” said Brad Falchuk. “You have no idea.”
Brad Falchuk had to go, then, because he had to go finish an edit on an episode of Glee—“You won’t believe what we do with C.W. McCall’s ‘Convoy’!” he said—and on the way out, he let in an unexpected visitor.
“Do you think I should leave the house?” Vivian Harmon asked.
The final visitor was Tim Minear, who wasn’t exactly a showrunner, but when Al made the angry face at VanDerWerff, VanDerWerff was happy enough to go along with the fiction, if just to bring this thing to a conclusion. VanDerWerff and Tim Minear sat and talked of many things. They talked of how VanDerWerff had always loved the work of Tim Minear and James Wong, who wrote this particular episode. They talked of how he was coming to think that the usual dramatic structure of an antihero making his way through a genre world was increasingly a dead end in terms of serialized TV drama. “How long can we keep copying The Sopranos?” VanDerWerff asked, and Tim Minear smiled and nodded. VanDerWerff even admitted that one of the reasons he thought this season of the series worked better was because of Tim Minear’s increased prominence behind the scenes, plus the fact that the writers had actually had time to plan out a full season.
But Tim Minear shook his head. “You might give me credit for this season’s stronger thematic core, or its ability to tell a somewhat coherent plot, but that’s all of us, VanDerWerff. You know that. We’ve all worked together to bring you this… Christmas gift.”
VanDerWerff laughed, because he had to admit this was an episode of TV he’d want to cover in a future TV Club Advent Calendar, and it was certainly like no other Christmas episode he’d ever seen, and the soundtrack was filled with great old recordings of wonderful carols. And Lily Rabe was just so, so good as the vengeful, demon-possessed Mary Eunice, while James Cromwell dripped venom with every line, and Jessica Lange's work was legitimately amazing.
“I can respect your concerns, VanDerWerff,” said Tim Minear, “but I also know you had a good time. I know you cackled with glee several times, and I know you were on the edge of your seat at the end. You have to express your concerns, because that’s your job, for sure, but you can’t ignore the emotional reaction this provoked, can you?”
VanDerWerff shook his head. He could not. “I guess TV is about that visceral, emotional reaction, at least for me. It’s about the moment where I’m not quite sure what’s going to happen, and even if I look at it afterward and think that, say, the threat of rape was used fairly cheaply, the suspense of the moment is unimpeachable.”
“Now you’re catching on,” said Tim Minear, and VanDerWerff was briefly ashamed for coming up with a gimmick device that let it seem as if the people who made the show itself were coming to lecture him, because that just made him seem weak, even if the showrunners in his head were entirely fictional.
“I like American Horror Story,” VanDerWerff said, tears streaming down his eyes, clapping harder to convince himself of his own emotions. “I do, I do, I do. It was on my year-end top 20 list, and I anxiously devour every new screener. I don’t know what TV crack y’all are putting out, but I want more of it!”
Tim Minear’s eyes twinkled. “Good enough, VanDerWerff. I will see you again next year.” He set a finger alongside of his nose, and then up the chimney he rose. VanDerWerff blinked to find himself in another gimmick review altogether.
“Thank you, Al,” he said. “I don’t feel so bad about liking this show anymore. You’ve really helped me out. It wasn’t a perfect episode, but it was wildly entertaining. I laughed. I gasped. I had a good time. Thank you so much.”
Al stood there. He was holding an ax.
“Uh, Al? You can leave now. You’ve proved your point to me,” VanDerWerff said.
“Oh, I didn’t come here to prove a point to you, VanDerWerff.” Al’s eyes glinted demonically. “I’m the Murder Santa. Haven’t you been reading your own review? It’s not like this is a big twist.”
Murder Santa’s boots thudded heavily as he stomped across the floor. VanDerWerff hurriedly scrawled a grade at the end of the review.
A- for Al “Murder Santa” Swearengen
Then, not sure of what to do, he shut his laptop and cradled it against his chest, to protect it, which he loved most of all.
The ax raised high into the air, and then swung