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

American Horror Story: “Fearful Pranks Ensue”

Illustration for article titled American Horror Story: “Fearful Pranks Ensue”

What can be said about an episode of American Horror Story in which Denis O’Hare hugged a scarecrow that would more accurately explain everything about it than simply telling you that the producers made sure to take the time to have O’Hare’s character—the mostly silent Spalding, who gets an origin story of sorts tonight—climb a tall ladder to complete said spooky scarecrow, then collapse forward into its embrace? There is nothing I could say. I could literally write the greatest review in the history of television criticism, and it wouldn’t matter. The Golden Corral of terror that is American Horror Story is open for business, and all who attempt to find meaning in it shall be shot.

So let me just apologize for suggesting that Queenie seducing the minotaur was all fun and games last week. As it turns out, she was doing so mostly just because she didn’t want it killing LaLaurie (which we knew about last week), not because she was in love with it or anything (as I thought last week implied). In this week’s episode, we learn that the minotaur raped her, something that has her hovering at death’s door for about 15 minutes and also seems like it might end up being an important story point before the show forgets about it entirely in favor of Jessica Lange and Frances Conroy making faces at each other. There was a time before I learned to let go and let Ryan Murphy where these sorts of jarring tonal shifts centered on the same basic story point would bother me, where having something seem vaguely romantic one week and then having it be an act of sexual assault the next would have unleashed the side of me that would have written about that and only that. Instead, I’ve seen too much of this show, and it’s just another goddamn thing that happened on it.

“Fearful Pranks Ensue” is a Jennifer Salt episode, and while I understand the perils of ascribing any particular aspect of a series to one writer when that series is written by a group of people, I have often felt as if Salt’s episodes were, as mentioned above, one goddamned thing after another. This episode ends not just with Marie Laveau’s zombies closing in on the school but also some unknown assailant throwing what appears to be acid in Cordelia’s face and the reveal that Spalding is keeping the body of Madison around for the tea parties he hosts in his room. Add onto all of that the revelation that Hank is apparently some sort of monstrous killer—he shoots Alexandra Breckenridge in the head after a sexual tryst—and the arrival of the Witches Council (which includes Leslie Jordan), and you have an episode that’s not just overstuffed but basically force-feeding the audience by the time it’s over.

But there’s something about the heedless forward momentum of this that proves to be a lot of fun anyway. I talked a little bit last week about how easy it is for this show to fade into a collection of moments, until the characters and story are almost entirely gone from the memory and all one can think about is the way Conroy pronounces “severed his tongue” (which is really fantastic) or the look on O’Hare’s face when Spalding makes the fateful decision to cut that tongue off. Don’t get me wrong: This episode is a good time. Hell, even my American Horror Story skeptic wife, who was in the room as I watched, chuckled a couple of times at something Lange or Conroy or Kathy Bates said. The show certainly knows how to write a scene where two great actresses sink their metaphorical teeth into each other, and this episode is mostly just that, as well as some business about the next supreme and how, psych, it wasn’t Madison after all because she had a heart murmur. (I have officially checked out of this whole storyline, which is a bad sign, given how much prominence it has.)

Basically, both the best and worst episodes of this show feel like careening down a steep hill in a shopping cart, a busy intersection that’s sometimes free of traffic thanks to stop lights and sometimes completely filled with it awaiting at the bottom. Or, alternately, to review this show is to constantly be running just ahead of a boulder that in a political cartoon would have “LIST OF THINGS THAT HAPPENED” scrawled across it in all capital letters. I think this was the best episode of the season, but I couldn’t possibly tell you where the line is between good and bad on this show or this season anymore. If you want to tell me that this was a cluttered, horrific mess, I’d be hard pressed to disagree with you. And I know that’s generally been the take on the show from the first by just about everybody who covers or comments upon it, but “Fearful Pranks Ensue,” right down to the goddamn title of the goddamn episode seems as if it was arrived at by the writers’ room entirely to drive this point home. What happened in this episode? Everything happened in this episode. Somewhere in there is the key to human life and the future of us as a species.

But let’s see if I can’t come up with a few other things. Kyle escaped his house, and then Zoe went out into the street to see all of the trick or treaters going by and got this worried expression on her face, like she was worried he might kill some of them for no reason (or perhaps because she’s worried he’ll be difficult to find among the costumed hooligans). LaLaurie learns about modern Halloween customs and seems disappointed that we no longer leave out offerings of food for demons and instead just give candy to children. (Bates is still having a hell of a good time with this role, even if her character arc—like her meek acceptance of her status as a maid—makes no fucking sense.) Zombies struck in the teaser and then again at the end, because there’s no horror trope this series doesn’t want to exhaust. (I guess we still have vampires and werewolves, but I think Murphy swore off the former. Maybe season four can be about the Loch Ness Monster.)


And then there was Hank, fucking Hank, who met that nice young lady on an online community of Thomas Kinkade appreciators and seems to be using the little utilized undercurrents of the Internet to hook up with pretty ladies, then shoot them in the head. It feels a little rote to me to have Cordelia be married to such a monster—and to have Fiona know on some instinctual level just who he is—but I have to admit I’m having fun imagining what will happen once the mother and daughter figure out just what a dickmunch he is. I suspect there will be some flaying and punishment, and if “Fearful Pranks Ensue” proved anything, it’s that this show knows what it’s doing when it comes to doling out the over-the-top punishments. I mean, that minotaur’s head ended up in a box. That will send a message.

Grade: B+ for Kathy Bates in the Ryan Murphy Repertory Players rendition of The Walking Dead


Stray observations:

  • In general, the witches council seemed to mostly be an excuse to let Lange and Conroy howl at each other, but I did enjoy Leslie Jordan basically playing Leslie Jordan/Fiona’s biggest supporter within the council.
  • So if Madison wasn’t the supreme, I guess all of you are right, and I gave the show too much credit. Zoe will almost certainly be the supreme, even if she doesn’t seem aware of it yet. She continues to mostly hang around the edges of scenes and watch stuff happen, though I did like her meeting with the council.
  • I can’t believe the man-otaur is dead, you guys. I mean, it’s a pretty effective way to communicate Fiona’s power and set this up as a grand battle between Fiona and Laveau, but he was supposed to be this season’s nice bit of crazy. Instead, he turns out to be a rapist and dead by episode four.
  • I always like when Sarah Paulson and Jessica Lange get to hang out together, and the scene with the two of them at the bar, promising to tell the truth to each other, was a highlight of the episode, though I highly doubt a mother-daughter pair has ever done this.
  • I guess those of you who were insistent Emma Roberts would continue to be on the show because she turns up in the IMDB credits were technically correct for this episode, which reshowed her death, then showed us her corpse again.
  • Spalding appears to be another of the show’s none-too-subtle castigations against men and society for valuing women primarily for how young and virile they can appear. He’s in love with teenage Fiona, and now he’s got a dead Madison to add to his collection. Also: His tea parties seem a little too generically creepy, no?
  • All sexual encounters should end with a “Happy Halloween.”