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

American Horror Story: “The Dead”

Illustration for article titled American Horror Story: “The Dead”

Guys, I think American Horror Story: Coven might be Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s take on Do The Right Thing, and if that’s the case, then I’m really scared for all of us. Like, it’s one thing when Danny Huston is pretending to play the saxophone and talking about how he’s a great yet mysterious lover, or when he’s telling Fiona about how he used to watch over her as a little girl while the camera pushes out the window, like we’re in a Frank Capra movie or something, or, really, anything with Danny Huston in it, because that man is the second coming of Dylan McDermott. But when LaLaurie is, like, “Ha, ha, ha, Queenie! Those other girls will never truly think of you as one of them because you’re black,” and then Marie is all, “Those girls are not your sisters, because you’re black. Come and live with your people!” I desperately want to find a time machine and travel back to probably April of this year (or so) and find my way to the writers’ room for this show and stop any of this from ever happening.

I can’t decide what this show is trying to say about race. I really can’t. If it was trying to say something horribly, irreparably racist, that might be preferable to this, which feels sort of like Murphy tapping his fingers to his lips and saying, “Hm… let’s talk about the subjugation of other races in the United States,” and everybody else getting really excited about that idea and the super-cool oh-my-God-did-you-see-this-video-on-Upworthy-ness of it all, without really thinking about the story beyond, “What if we had some white people and some black people, and they were at war, and there was magic?” It’s obviously the centerpiece of the season on some level, and it’s obviously meant to be saying something, but it usually feels like the show is playing around with tropes and themes it has absolutely no idea how to handle. It’s like a comically fat man on roller skates juggling unstable dynamite when it comes to this stuff—it doesn’t seem to know how to pull out of the spin.

I can get on board with Murphy and Falchuk’s brand of storytelling in most things. I think their particular brand of over-the-top opera can even be an effective way to tell certain stories. But talking about race usually requires some sort of nuance and, I don’t know, understanding, and none of that has been present in this storyline so far. Do I enjoy Angela Bassett’s work as Marie Laveau? Absolutely. Do I enjoy Kathy Bates’ work as Madame LaLaurie? You’d better believe it. But something about the way the show keeps slamming these characters—and Fiona, come to think of it—together has the uncomfortable feeling of kids playing with action figures without really understanding the gravity of the stuff they’re playing around with. “Kids playing with action figures” can be a fun mode for a TV show to operate on, but I’m not sure it’s a great way to do a disquisition on relations between the races in the United States. Queenie switches sides because a couple of people tell her that her fellow schoolmates will never think of her as a sister witch and because LaLaurie—a woman she already knows to be an immortal racist murderer who created a minotaur—once killed a baby. Yeah, I get why she doesn’t want to be forever friends with LaLaurie after that revelation, but turning on everybody else? The show is trying to use race as a central motivation in its “Now, you go here, and you go here” action-figure storytelling, but it just doesn’t work or conform to the characters as we’ve gotten to know them.

It’s too bad that this is what I’m thinking about when it comes to “The Dead”—probably because the episode ends with scenes out of this storyline—because there were some genuinely eerie and even touching moments throughout the hour, especially when it came to the show’s growing cast of not-so-shambling undead residents, as well as the way it increasingly is drawing up battle lines between all of the characters for the witch wars to come. In some ways, the entirety of this season has felt like characters drawing up ever-shifting allegiances that they immediately proceed to obliterate because why not, right? But there’s something sort of head-spinning and fun to the way that just as soon as the show introduces yet another new element—because it’s American Horror Story and that is what it does—that new element has to decide which side (of about 50) it’s going to be fighting on.

At this point, we’ve got Fiona, who is fighting on the side of the crew at Miss Robichaux’s, except she keeps killing them and Cordelia and Zoe are now plotting to kill her. In addition, Marie Laveau is plotting to kill Fiona, who is also plotting to kill Marie, so that’s all straightforward. (Marie also bears an eternal grudge against LaLaurie, but that looks like it’s getting sorted out.) Meanwhile, there’s Spalding, whose enchanted tongue Zoe found in the closet, who’s loyal to Fiona and not particularly to the school, except now he’s dead. And then you have Madison, who’s back from the grave, and apparently, the dead have the most allegiance to each other, because she’s having sex with Kyle. Hank is on the side of Laveau, while Misty Day is on her own side, except she’s also returning Myrtle (who’s against Fiona) to life. And then there’s the Witches Council, which is pro-Fiona, I guess, but only insofar as she hasn’t been proved to be a murderer, to say nothing of the immortal spirit of a saxophone-playing serial killer, who has been loosed on the streets of New Orleans and is in love with Fiona from the time she was 8 (except he loves her like a man now, not like a father). Or something. I am almost positive I am missing something here. Probably Grace Gummer. What was that all about?

My point is that stories have “goals” and “stakes,” and even at their craziest, Murphy and Falchuk have more or less understood that. For as much as we could make fun of Connie Britton saying, “Do you think I should leave the house?” over and over and over in that first season of this show, at least that was a goal, and we knew the stakes, more or less, if she didn’t leave. The second season gave us Lana, whose goal and stakes—all about infiltrating the asylum to prove herself as a journalist—neatly dovetailed and made for a strong central thrust to the season. This season, it feels like everybody’s goal is just to kill everybody else, and while that’s fun and all, it also means that nothing can really happen until they start killing each other, and even when that happens, Misty can just bring them back to life.


I hope the tone of all of the above indicates why I think this season is largely failing at even the most rudimentary tasks of storytelling while remaining an absolute blast to watch (I was laughing so much at every scene where Danny Huston pretended to play the saxophone, because it felt like one of those old McDonald’s Mac Tonight ads). And yet the fact that Murphy and Falchuk keep picking up the live wire of race and not knowing what to do with it just makes me all the more concerned that this is going to explode into something absolutely horrifying sooner or later. That it hasn’t yet is mostly a compliment to their cast—and to the constant ability of these two writers to get away with running massive amounts of electricity into their bodies and just standing there like it’s no big deal—but the closer the show tiptoes to that line, the more I’m convinced it’s going to blow up in the series’ face.

Grade: B for Bed. When you’re tired, say, “Bed” *howling, anguished noises, then much slapping of flashcards out of hands*


Stray observations:

  • Cordelia finds out that Fiona killed Madison in this episode, so at least the story is still moving forward with all the speed and finesse of a drunken rhinoceros galloping at full speed. (Rhinos are very fast. I learned that from the Comics Curmudgeon.) Because of this information, she and Zoe team up together to take on Fiona before Fiona can eliminate another potential Supreme. Also, Taissa Farmiga’s swig from that flask was hilariously unconvincing.
  • Man-ass update: Evan Peters takes one for the team again, as Zoe walks in on him having sex with Madison, and we get a long look at his man-ass. (Is there a hyphen in that term? I’ve never been clear on the rules.)
  • I’m going to miss Denis O’Hare until he’s resurrected via unexpected means (probably something to do with Myrtle having accidentally made his tongue immortal, so now it’s just going to wander around the house, speaking in the actor’s mellifluous tones and performing odd jobs like Thing on The Addams Family, except a tongue). The scene where he struggles against his inability to tell a lie was a goddamned delight.
  • It turns out that Zoe’s killer vagina can’t kill someone who’s already dead, so, hurrah! Threesomes with Kyle and Madison, and she’s probably not going to have time to study up to become the next Supreme at this rate.
  • We got a brief shot of Hank surrounded by superior firepower. How much you want to bet that comes into play in the midseason cliffhanger in two episodes’ time? (Also: So much for Murphy’s wish to not have a lot of gun violence this season because of Newtown, huh?)
  • For just a moment, I hoped that Madame LaLaurie was dining with Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings in her flashback, and I was going to have to proclaim this the greatest episode of television ever, no questions asked. But, alas, it was just a generic character named Sally and LaLaurie’s husband, Mr. LaLaurie.
  • Have you taught your resurrected lover to speak yet? Zoe has some flashcards for you to buy if you are still waiting to do so.
  • I really wish this season had been about Danny Huston. How is he getting jazz gigs at classy clubs already? He surely has lacked for time to practice his scales and arpeggios!
  • No episode next week because of the holiday. I’ll see you all in December! (Also, Hell.)