Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

American Horror Story: “Birth.”

Illustration for article titled American Horror Story: “Birth.”

You know how on most shows, there’s that moment where it seems like someone’s died, because their heart’s stopped beating or they’ve stopped breathing or they’ve been crushed beneath a steamroller? And then you know how one of the characters—usually the tragic but heroic doctor who weeps real man tears—takes a brief break to cry about how he couldn’t save the person, then immediately begins weeping again, yelling, “GODDAMMIT, DON’T YOU DIE ON ME!” and then he pounds on the person’s chest until their heart stops beating/their lungs start working again/their bones magically reassemble and their organs re-inflate? Yeah, American Horror Story is the first show I’ve ever seen where killing somebody off feels like the easy way out because it preserves the status quo. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to complain about this. It’s just the inversion of the usual. Normally, I’m cheering for shows to kill off characters in that situation—particularly if it makes sense for the story—because I’m all about shows making bold storytelling choices. Here, I was yelling, “LIVE, DAMMIT. LIVE! GO ON TO OTHER SHOWS!”

One of the things that attracted me to American Horror Story in the first place was the rumor that each season would feature a brand new cast, stuck in the house and trying to deal with its many weirdnesses. I have nothing against a continuing cast, but it’s usually best if that cast is allowed to evolve. If the producers had decided that, say, they were going to ditch Vivien and Ben after this season and keep around Violet, I would have been cool with that. It sounded like the original idea for the show had a lot of flexibility built into it, and I love it when shows have the flexibility to become whatever they want.

So when Vivien Harmon died, I wasn’t just sad that it meant Connie Britton would be stuck on a show that I don’t think has served her particularly well—though, to be fair, her naturalistic acting style was never a good fit for the Gothic oddness of this show at its best. I was sad that the show had seemingly left that idea behind. We’re losing Larry, the Burn-Faced Man, seemingly, and I can’t imagine anybody ponying up to keep Jessica Lange around for another season (though FX may do it anyway, just because she’s a certain Emmy nominee and probable winner). But now that Vivien’s dead and stuck in the house, the basic core of the show—the Harmons work out their family issues while ghosts rattle around them—looks like it might stay intact. Maybe Ben will escape. But what would we do without Dylan McDermott’s acting face?

Speaking of McDermott, let’s give a little credit where it’s due: He wasn’t half-bad some of the time tonight! We’ve made a lot of fun of him here (both in my reviews and in your comments) because he seems so overwrought even when he’s eating a sandwich, but I thought the material finally sort of matched his performance in the scene where he a.) realized the house was a haunted one, filled with ghosts, and b.) tried to talk his wife through giving birth to the Antichrist, a birth that would surely kill her (and, indeed, did). Don’t get me wrong. I still half expected him to take off his clothes and start weeping while furiously masturbating, but there was something very emotionally pure about the moment where he’s begging Vivien to live, before the camera cuts away to reveal he’s just sitting in a room alone, next to his blood-soaked wife.

This whole sequence—lit by candles and freely cutting between the birth of the Hellzapoppin Twins and the birth of Violet—was surprisingly well done. This is a show that hasn’t nailed the emotional moments—okay, this is a show that has flailed around wildly, fists flying furiously in the air, swinging in the general direction of the emotional moments—but here was one that set its sights high (we’re going to make a Gothic birth scene where pretty much everybody dies, and everybody else is a ghost!) and somehow hit those heights. What’s more, it was somewhat restrained for American Horror Story—restrained meaning that in the midst of the blood-soaked birth, there wasn’t a clown juggling chainsaws in the corner—and it centered on an emotional conflict that was surprisingly well realized, even though it just came up in this episode. Vivien was upset that Violet hadn’t come to visit her in the hospital. Violet finally broke down and told her dad what happened, and something clicked for him. And when Violet appeared by her mom’s bedside to tell her to join her in the afterlife, Vivien finally let go.

It wasn’t the most original storytelling ever, granted, and nothing here had the punch of last week’s big “Violet’s dead!” reveal, but it was surprisingly sturdy. And here I want to posit that there are two American Horror Story versions, both of which are working at cross-purposes. The first is the show Salon’s Matt Zoller Seitz described last week as the show that you keep watching because you want to be there the second everything falls apart. (I really do feel like we’ll be able to pinpoint the moment as it happens on this show; it won’t be a long, slow decline. It’ll be, like, Dylan McDermott blowing up the house, maniacal grin on his face, then watching aghast as it reassembles itself before him.) The second is a fairly sturdy piece of fun genre stuff about a haunted house with mystical powers and a convoluted, silly mythology—Lost with a haunted house, as I posited last week. Some episodes—“Piggy Piggy” say—exist in the first show almost entirely. Some episodes—this one—exist in the second show entirely. The show is best when it blends the two thoroughly, as it did last week, so there’s the semblance of a structure beneath all of the craziness.


I don’t necessarily think the show needs to be one or the other, but I do think this contributes to some of the tonal whiplash. You’ll be watching an episode that’s more or less about the various parties with an interest in Vivien’s babies—vengeful gay ghosts trapped in an unhappy marriage for eternity, vengeful dead doctor’s wives who lost their babies in the Lindbergh kidnapping, vengeful Kate Mara for some reason—jockeying around as Violet fights to figure out a way to keep her mother from dying and figures out just who Tate really is, and then the episode will break into some sort of weird flashback to the Roanoake colony, imbuing the word “Croatoan” with mystical powers. And here’s the thing: That had no bearing on anything else. Sarah Paulson’s method for banishing ghosts turned out to be complete hooey, and if anything worked, it was Violet closing her eyes and shouting “Go away!” (I somehow doubt this got rid of Tate.) When it comes to banishing ghosts from Murder House, 4-year-old me, terrified by night terrors of Slimer from Ghostbusters, has a leg up over super medium Sarah Paulson.

That’s also why the Harmon stuff has often felt so disappointing. They’re starring almost entirely over in show two, which, among other things, offers a hammy examination of a failing marriage. Show two, ridiculous as it may be, attempts to take the characters’ emotions seriously (observe the stuff about the gay ghosts tonight), but show one doesn’t have time for that in between all the tree hating and the random baby faces appearing in the darkness. And yet the two shows—like those twins (and you know the first one isn’t dead)—need each other. In general, I thought “Birth” was basically fine, just my kind of genre hokum/guilty pleasure. But at the same time, it was just a touch too sedate. I didn’t want the clown with the chainsaw to be in the room as Vivien gave birth, but I at least wanted to hear him revving up his motor upstairs somewhere.


Stray observations:

  • Okay, I thought it was a nice moment when Vivien told Violet she already had her baby. Aw.
  • Seriously, that Roanoake flashback was some kinda whacked-out shit. More shows need to incorporate random flashbacks to America’s colonial past. NCIS? 2 Broke Girls? Anyone?
  • Violet sure took finding out her boyfriend killed a bunch of people and raped her mom after being dead in stride. She didn’t even break a sweat when she broke up with him. She’s just too cool for all of this.
  • So, I mean, the dog is dead by now, right?
  • It’s just always nice to see all of the ghosts pop up in the same episode, as they did here, it gives this the feel of a busy workplace drama or something.
  • Not the best episode for Jessica Lange fans, but you can’t have everything. Still, her excitement over her “grandson,” the Antichrist, was something to behold.
  • I really want next week’s two-hour finale to end with the cast sitting together in Ben Harmon’s office in Murder House. Dylan McDermott smiles toward the camera and says, “From all of us at American Horror Story…” followed by Connie Britton saying, “…to all of you out there at home…” and then the whole cast chimes in with, “Merry Christmas.”