Wednesday, October 24, 2012

AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1, EP. 7: CONSIDERING THE "RUBBER MAN"



With American Horror Story's new season, Asylum, now under way,  Simon Abrams and I continue our journey through the episodes of season one. Here are some of my initial thoughts regarding an episode I previously thought very little of, "Rubber Man." Excuse me while I change my tune.

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First things first. I take it all back. “Rubber Man,” which I described last week as my least favorite episode of the series up to that point, is by no means the weakest point in the American Horror Story line. At this point, having now seen the show in its entirety, I’d reserve that ignominious status for the "Piggy, Piggy” and “Open House” episodes, with “Murder House” probably running a distant third. Truth be told, "Rubber Man" might well be one the highlights of the Murphy/Falchuk run so far.

Second thing—a bit of explanation: I’m going to blame my lack of enthusiasm for what I originally thought of as a largely clumsy, expository episode, re the origins and import of the rubber man suit, on my distaste for what seemed at the time as yet another poke by Murphy at the tired, iron-poor carcass of middle-of-the-road values. This was a misread on my part as regards what goes on here, particularly the rather sad attempt by Chad to reach out to Patrick through S&M toys which he clearly finds confusing and terrifying himself. I would stand by the instances that I’ve pointed out in previous episodes when Murphy makes too emphatic a point of baiting the conservative tendencies of some viewers with the more outrageous envelope-pushing the show occasionally indulges in, but I think Murphy is on solid thematic ground in re-engaging with this tactic here.

Also, I’m going to blame my previous aversion to/misunderstanding of “Rubber Man” on seeing the episodes out to order. “Rubber Man” was perhaps the third, maybe fourth episode I saw in the run, jumping back and forth chronologically, so much so that a lot of what was alluded to had less narrative power than it might have if I’d been able to go through the episodes in the order in which they were intended. Seeing a show like this and trying to open myself up to its intended effect gives me new sympathy for actors and filmmakers who often must maintain emotional and psychological through-lines in their work that will hopefully make sense to a viewer watching the assembled work, even though the filmmakers may be starting from the ending and jumping around in the chronology of the story as it is being shot.

So much for my caveats. “Rubber Man,” on this viewing, turns out, especially after the doldrums of episodes five and six, to be plenty meaty in terms of actual character development and events that move the story along meaningfully. Though this episode was written by Ryan Murphy, it seems notably lacking in the sort of smarmy, “Look, ma, no hands” dialogue that has been so distracting in the past. And this is even allowing for the scene between Moira and Vivien in which Moira more or less confesses what’s really going on in the house and implores Vivien to leave before it’s too late, after having indulged in yet another speech meant to illustrate the terrible behavior of the male of the species toward the female. This time there’s emotional weight and not just a sense of smug superiority informing the dialogue, and what Moira tells Vivien has real power, real fear and empathy behind it. It’s not exactly surprising to find Moira a believably sympathetic figure for action here—we’ve been cued to find her (the older version, anyway) sympathetic from the beginning—but it’s still a nice release to see her operating outside the agenda of the house for reasons other than the promotion of her own release from the bondage of the afterlife. (I’ll get back to this in a minute.)


But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start from the beginning. “Rubber Man” is marked by unusual alliances (Tate/Nora, Chad/Patrick, Ben/Vivien, Ben/Violet, Moira/Vivien, Violet/Vivien, and Hayden/Nora), acts of reaching out (and their opposite, a refusal to do so) and a final, striking image of a connection not made which results in an eternal short circuit.  And speaking of connections not made, one of the things I missed on my first swipe with this one was perhaps the most obvious and important one, the whole reason why the episode is entitled “Rubber Man”—the function of the suit itself and what it means for the two people who wear it here. Initially, to me the whole scene in which Chad is seen seeking out the advice of the attendant in the S&M shop just played like Murphy’s shot at rubbing Middle America’s nose in yet another aspect of sexuality that might conceivably make them uncomfortable, not unlike the unfortunate line that comes later when Patrick rails against Chad’s controlling nature and shouts, “It’s no wonder I don’t want to stick my dick in you anymore!” (That’s a clunky line, coming from either the hetero or the homo perspective.)

In seeing it again, I realize that I completely missed, or at the very most disregarded the fact that the S&M milieu is profoundly uncomfortable for Chad too. He looks at the store’s inventory of spikes, ball stretchers and “the ultimate ass-lock, also known as the Apple of Anguish” and is understandably unnerved. Purchasing the Rubber Man suit becomes an act of attempted conciliation, a compromise between his fears, his reticence and his desire for control and Patrick’s more outrĂ© desires. The clerk even describes the suit’s appeal for couples as one of deliberate dehumanization, the reduction of one partner to the level of life-sized sex toy in pursuit of and deference to the pleasure of the other. Chad’s willingness to allow himself to skirt the boundaries of his own definition of debasement in an attempt to get his relationship with Patrick back on track is what makes Patrick’s rejection and humiliation of him so surprisingly powerful. It also makes Tate’s use of the suit in relation to these two unfortunates ironic—he employs it as a disguise in the act of murdering them, yet the suit can be seen here as the symbol of Chad’s last-ditch attempt to rescue their lives coming back to (in Patrick’s case especially) bite them in the ass.


However, the suit resonates for Tate too. It makes less sense that he would want to disguise himself from Chad and Patrick—his identity is meaningless to them at the moment of their murders and it’s never made a point that they would somehow continue to be unaware of who  did them in once they start roaming the halls of the house as ghosts. But as a means to deceive Vivien into believing she’s having sex with her husband so as to get her pregnant with the child that might appease the longing spirit of Nora (and, as it turns out, of Hayden) and bring some peace to Tate as a facilitator of life--- such as that life may be-- it’s perfect. Further, the suit also functions precisely for Tate as the clerk said, as an implement of detachment, a way to dehumanize himself and steel himself for the second assault on Vivien that Hayden convinces him to go through with, even after he tells her that because of his connection to Violet he’s no longer interested in hurting people. I always figured the whole concept of the Rubber Man, from seeing it in the show’s advertising and even through seeing how he first appears to us in the pilot, was simply a vehicle for disorientation and exploitative shivers. I never expected that it would (whoever is actually inside the suit) end up being one of the show’s most potent metaphorical devices, a rather brilliant stand-in for the entirety of the experience of the afterlife for all of these bastards born into spectral existence without the benefit of the real freedom physical existence affords.


Nuts. I’ve rambled on and allowed myself to run out of time before I even really got to a proper recap of this week’s episode, so distracted was I by what I managed to miss before.  But let me linger long enough to say that on a plot level alone “Rubber Man” satisfies in a way that we haven’t seen from this show since the “Halloween” episodes, and it really does pave the way for the momentum that delivers a well-conceived, not entirely expected wrap-up to what’s come before in episodes 8-11. We see here the seeds of Nora’s entry into the awareness of her ghostly existence, not only through her appeal to Tate’s empathy but also in Hayden’s eagerness to step in as sort of the brutally frank sister-in-arms who gives Nora the straight shit about her situation and begins to manipulate Nora’s pain and longing for motherhood to her own ends. I am so glad to see the return of Hayden, absent since her ignominious demise in “Halloween, Part 2”—I really dig the thundercloud of energy and righteous fury that Kate Mara brings to Hayden, who seems simultaneously outraged by her situation and turned on by the weird wrinkle of freedom it provides. “What is it about being dead that makes me so horny?” she opines, after rage-fucking and then brutally stabbing Constance’s undead, dallying husband, the one who was offed along with young Moira, who then sits up and carries his bloodied shell off to the kitchen for a post-coital beverage. Hayden also gets to taunt Moira and be the vehicle for a little more exposition about what exactly is going on with the ghostly population of the Murder House (“If we’re supposed to ‘fix our issues,’ we never can. It doesn’t stick.”) This exposition could be annoying and clunky, but as she’s on one level trying to orient the hysterical Nora there’s room for a little bloviating, and Hayden/Mara makes it work. (Damned if she doesn’t make undead sexual arousal sexy in itself in the process too.)

And what Moira has to say about that word “hysterical,” huh? She explains to Vivien its origins in the Greek word for “uterus,” a subtext for a history of (deliberate?) medical misdiagnosis of female maladies used to justify the subjugation and marginalization of women, and Frances Conroy manages to make it come off like a real character moment and not a history lecture. (I love our awareness, in this scene, of Moira’s lost eye, which is also Conroy’s—no prosthetic makeup involved for this woman.) Again, I really liked the scene between her and Vivien in which it becomes clear that Moira is putting aside her own vested interest in exposing Ben’s deeds (and perhaps her own corpse, buried so close to Hayden’s) in deference to the kinship she allows to come out regarding Vivien’s situation. This is the type of scene in which a female character rails against the indignities of men that, in smaller doses and smarmy sound bites hasn’t worked quite so well before.


But here Murphy, through Moira’s invocation of The Yellow Wallpaper, a novel whose story of a woman locked by her doctor husband in a bedroom where he hopes she’ll  recuperate from a run of  “hysterical” behavior she relates to Vivien, makes the same points as before. The difference here, to me, is that Moira is given some room to actually contextualize that indignity and make it resonate dramatically, though admittedly through the show’s tendency to speechify rather than more eloquently dramatize. Nevertheless, the moment when Moira says “That’s what men do—they make you think you’re crazy so they can have their fun,” illuminates what must have been this woman’s difficult past and gives shading to the fact that, as a version of a young succubus self she presents (or is forced to present?) to every living male character who encounters her, she’s dealing in the same appeal to baser instincts and madness herself. And of course this all echoes off the walls of the rubber room that Vivien herself is being prepared for and seems on the path to residing in by episode’s end.

Gee, Simon, I apologize for the scattershot nature of this recap, which hasn’t been a recap at all in actuality. But there’s just so much more to talk about in this episode than I would have ever anticipated—I haven’t even touched on Ben’s conversation with Violet, in which its revealed that she hasn’t been to school for two weeks now (hmm….); Violet’s apparent attempt to engage the Infantata in the basement; Hayden’s instigation of terror against Vivien (Hayden, Hayden, Hayden! I love her!); and the emotionally devastating image of Chad reaching out to Patrick in a repose of death and not quite making the connection between fingertips, Tate providing the bitterest of eulogies as he hovers over their corpses—“It’s kinda romantic, isn’t it? Now they’ll be together forever.” This is one of the few single images that the show has even allowed to resonate with real meaning for me, distracted as I usually am by the generally panicked pattern of disoriented editing that has been a hallmark of American Horror Story. So much more left to say, it seems. What say you, good sir? Did you miss Constance at all?

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Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links:


"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #4 
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #3
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #2
"PIGGY, PIGGY" POST #1

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 2 POST #4

"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #1
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #2
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #3
"HALLOWEEN, PT. 1" POST #4

"MURDER HOUSE" POST #1
"MURDER HOUSE" POST #2

"HOME INVASION" POST #1
"HOME INVASION" POST #2
"HOME INVASION" POST #3
"HOME INVASION" POST #4

PILOT EPISODE POST #1
PILOT EPISODE POST #2
PILOT EPISODE POST #3
PILOT EPISODE POST #4
PILOT EPISODE POST #5
PILOT EPISODE POST #6

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