I adore horror for its silliness, its ability to play in and thwart social mores, its ability to push the limits, to make us feel. So obviously I’ve been watching American Horror Story since the beginning. The first season focused on a haunted house that contained a family full of terrible people, and it dabbled in particularly grotesque sexual horror. The second season, Asylum, was…well (she says, frowning and sipping her coffee because she actually can’t think of a word), completely screwy. There were Nazis, mental patients, lesbians, aliens, important interracial relationships, oppression, hilariously reductive political and social commentary, demons, angels of death…oh right, and a pinhead. And a musical interlude:
Season three is, at the very least, more cohesive. I’ve always been a sucker for movies and TV set in New Orleans, and I love me some witches. So far this season, we’ve had possible vagina dentata, a Frankenstein’s monster boyfriend, multiple instances of necrophilia (one a Ménage à trois and maybe questionable, since the dead aren’t really dead?), incest, an axe murderer ghost dude, a woman who literally rips apart black people because they’re black, multiple witch-burnings, and an acid mutilation. And yet, it almost feels tame in comparison to last season.
In the opening of last night’s episode, “The Sacred Taking,” Queenie (the wonderful Gabby Sidibe) wanders through some hellhole under the highway where trolls should dwell, where homeless sleep and rats squeal. Some dude threatens to carve her up into big thick slices and pound what’s left, so she takes him out with a rusty nail stuck in a board.
Zoe (Taissa Farmiga, a returning cast member from season one) and undead movie star Madison Montgomery (Emma Roberts) followed Queenie. Ostensibly they’re here to beg her back to the coven after she left in favor of Marie LaVeau (Angela Bassett), who assured Queenie those white bitches aren’t your friends. When Zoe indicates she (Zoe) might be the next Supreme, Queenie retorts, “War is coming, and you’re gonna lose.” Throughout this interaction, Queenie is ripping the man’s beating heart from his chest – apparently he is a rapist, though how she knows this is anyone’s guess – and grasping it in her hand, its gentle pumps squishing between her fingers. And here we are at the credits. How do you know it’s American Horror Story? It makes you feel creepy crawly in the first two minutes.
Fiona (Jessica Lange, who has shredded that scenery between her chomping jaws in all three seasons) has Meningeal Carcinomatosis. She’s a vain, murdering, power-hungry Supreme, and to her displeasure she’s starting to look “less Samantha and more Endora every dayLying in bed with the Axe Man (Danny Huston), she puffs on her cigarette and tells him she doesn’t want him watching her decay. I don’t understand this portion of the story – does she know who he is? How/ is he alive again?
Luke, the Boy Next Door, plays love interest to the otherwise rather uninteresting Nan (Jamie Brewer, another returning cast member from season one). Brewer has Down Syndrome, and Murphy frequently uses actors with Down in his shows (think Sue Sylvester’s sister on Glee). I think this is supposed to make a political and social point that folks who suffer from Down are no different from the rest of us, but it’s not very well done. In this scene with Luke’s mom, I couldn’t tell if she used a slur or just called Nan a bitch. Mama’s preparing him an enema, to clean him from the inside out using some terrible chemical that looks like Comet. I’m still shuddering over here. It’s a little taste of gender-switched Sybil, with some Carrie yet to come.
All of the remaining witches, undead and alive, gather to discuss a diabolical plan to take out Fiona. Heading up the blueprint (so to speak) is Cordelia (Sarah Paulson, veteran of all three seasons), blind and disfigured by acid but a seer nonetheless. Then Misty Day (Lily Rabe, back from season two) shows up, barefoot and in rags, truly a “little swamp witch.” Misty was burned at the stake and resurrected herself. Then she resurrected Kyle (Frankenstein’s Monster Boyfriend), then Madison, and now we discover she’s also brought back Myrtle (Frances Conroy, all three seasons), who Fiona burned at the stake a few episodes ago. Nobody actually dies in this season. It’s awesome to have a resurrection witch wandering around.
Zoe and Madison, who coexisted uneasily even before Fiona murdered Madison, are now “sharing” Kyle, who Madison murdered and then helped bring back to life. Oh, yeah. After he came back, he went home to his mother…who, as it turns out, had been raping him for years, so he bashed her head in. The writers totally went there. And then, after all that, there was a necrophiliac threesome last episode. Are you still with me? At some point you just have to shake your head and blink.
Back to this episode: Zoe is teaching zombie Kyle how to learn again with a kids’ program on a tablet. When Madison walks in, still pale and bearing the scars of her slashed throat, Zoe scoots away. “Relax, we’re sharing him,” Madison asserts, and kisses him deeply. When Zoe explains she’s trying to teach Kyle how to be human again, Madison asks frankly, “Why can’t he watch porn and jerk off like any other guy?” I want to applaud AHS for featuring a nonmonogamous relationship, but I honestly can’t because this shit is fucked up. I can also see that, like in any other popular medium that features poly/nonmonogamy, this relationship is going to end badly. In other news, read that brilliant article Maria Bello wrote for the NYT.
Myrtle decides Misty must be the next Supreme, since she’s “brought back more people from the dead than Jesus Christ.” She bemoans the plight of the Salem witches who first introduced the Ritual of the Sacred Taking, who had to ride in covered wagons “without a proper charcuterie or bidet; absolutely savage!” Sometimes this show’s take on American history is so simplistic you can’t help laughing out loud. The witches decide to partake in this ancient ritual, in which the current Supreme commits suicide in order to allow the next to rise. Unfortunately, getting Fiona to off herself won’t be so easy.
Since she doesn’t know Madison or Myrtle are back from the dead, that seems the easiest way to push her over the edge, right? So Madison shows up, dancing in a red dress to “Season of the Witch” in Fiona’s bedroom, telling her to kill herself. Then Myrtle also appears, ghostly in Fiona’s addled brain. Somehow, we’re jumping around in time in this scene, and the Axe Man is telling Fiona he can’t watch her die anymore, that the room smells of death. As Fiona is preparing her suicide gown and makeup (a proper lady goes out in style), the witches wait on the stairs.
When Nan asks why the next Supreme couldn’t be her, it’s already in your head that she’s “handicapable,” to use Glee‘s term…and Murphy wants it that way so he can then turn it around. “Because you have no style and your pits smell like fish sticks,” says Madison, always kindly (I think the last time Madison said anything to Nan, it was, “We get it bitch, you’re clairvoyant”). Nan escapes to Luke’s house to find him writhing around in the closet where his mother left him post-Comet-Enema – a little reversal of Carrie. The theme of the abusive mother is pervasive in American horror film, and Murphy’s obviously paying homage, though there’s very little room to do so in a series already chock-full of weirdness.
In her final moments, Fiona reminisces about her “wild six months” with Levon Helm, the drummer for The Band, and asks Myrtle to make sure her portrait is hung where she chose. Myrtle leaves her, and who should come to the rescue but Spaulding (Denis O’Hare)? The formerly tongueless servant was given the gift of speech, then murdered by the coven after he stole Madison’s dead body, kept it in his attic room with all of his dolls, and did all sorts of horrible things to it (I won’t describe in detail, because it makes my stomach churn). Spaulding’s family has protected and served the coven for ten generations, and he’s ever loyal to Fiona. “Bullshit, you’re making a martyr of yourself,” he says, because she is. He won’t let her participate in something so “ignominious.” (I love that word.) He bends forward to feed her a potion that’ll get the poison out of her system, and EW FINGERNAILS.
In this season, Queenie befriended and then betrayed Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates!), an undead Civil War-era mistress who committed horrendous atrocities against her slaves for no other reason than that they were black and “it was a different time.” Queenie gave Delphine over to the older lady’s old (OLD) rival, Marie Laveau (Bassett!), the most powerful voodoo witch in NOLA. Queenie visits Delphine, who’s in a cage of her own devising in the torture chamber she reserved for her slaves. (Karma’s a bitch.) The two women, neither of whom is exactly small, bonded over food.
It’s to Bates’s credit that we are actually feeling sorry for Delphine. She killed her slave’s baby to put a blood youth-serum on her aging face. She murdered her slaves and put animal parts in place of their limbs. She is a really, really terrible person. She is pitiful, though. When Marie shows up, Delphine taunts her that they can’t kill her because, well, she’s been cursed and she can’t die. And then this pops out of her mouth: “I’ll take no part in a country that has a darkie in the White House.” It’s just so WRONG. You can’t help laughing. And then just when you’re laughing, the writers cut off somebody’s hand. Because sadism.
Meanwhile, back at the plantation, Fiona appears, better than ever after the little pep-talk from Spaulding. Next door, somebody just shot Luke’s mother. Nan is seeing Luke out on a stretcher as Fiona confronts Misty, who appeared as soon as the lady died, planning to use her talent to bring her back. It’s at this point we remember that Delia’s insane, cheating, girlfriend-murdering husband (Josh Hamilton) has a whole bunch of big guns. So it’s got to be him who’s shooting folks.
The cinematography in this show is remarkable not because it’s particularly artful but because it succeeds in exactly what it means to do: make you intensely uncomfortable. In this episode, there’s less use of fisheye lens and fewer weird angles, but still some strange cinematography and odd swooping camera action. In the drawing room of the mansion, there’s a de Palma-influenced dual focus on the waiting witches, who lounge on chaises, and then the DP uses a fisheye to bend the angle of the piano Myrtle plays. As Fiona says, “Schubert was emotional, not mawkish.” You cannot fault the writers for lack of fifty-cent words.
“This road goes two ways,” Kyle tells Zoe slowly, parroting his beepy little program. From the hallway, Madison overhears him tell Zoe he loves her – and she does not make a pleasant face. As I said, this is going nowhere good. Undead threesomes never do.
Fiona and Cordelia share a morning coffee, bantering back and forth, finally able to forgive one another for their respective sins. It seems, after all, a war is coming. Two factions of witches, the black and the white, will either combine forces or battle each other along with the witch hunters they’re evidently up against (this is, for some reason, foretold by silver bullets). The doorbell rings, a dainty tinkling, and Fiona picks up the package. In it is Delphine’s severed head, eyes wide, whispering “HELP.” A war, indeed.
In other news, the commercials that air on American Horror Story are so completely bizarre. Watching cable after 10pm makes me feel like I’ve been punched in the head. Victoria’s Secret offers slow-motion bouncing boobs while Dead Rising 3 has a CG protagonist taking out zombies with a weed whacker, and then Malcolm McDowell and James Earl Jones are reading texts aloud for Sprint. It’s schizophrenic and only adds to the whole experience of such a completely odd show. An aside: I have this distinct feeling Emma Roberts may actually be kind of crazy. I get a vibe, and those dropped charges of assault on Evan Peters (a.k.a. Kyle) don’t make it any less strong.
Where do you think things will go next? The writers have effectively taken death off the table, but we’ve still got torture, incest, cancer, and necrophilia to play with. Who’s the rising Supreme? Who threw acid on Cordelia? Who’s the witch hunter? UGH (also, I can’t look away).