Tuesday, October 30, 2012


Well, after a bit of a delay (I'll blame it on Halloween prep, but that wouldn't be entirely true), I'm back with my response to Simon Abrams  and his last post re our continuing discussion of American Horror Story and this pivotal "Rubber Man" episode.


Simon, you said something in your last post that got me thinking again about the artistic intent behind American Horror Story:

“That’s what I really want from this show, I guess— signs of a guiding intelligence that can organically establish, rather than just declare without qualifications, what it’s trying to do.”

As I’ve said before, I came at this show in a sort of piecemeal way, the result of professional obligation that required me to encounter the show in a not entirely complete and certainly not chronological way. And now that I’m looking at it episode by episode the correct order, ostensibly closer to the fashion it was intended to be seen, it’s been a strange experience for me to realize how more question regarding the pacing and the overriding thrust of the show have come up.  Of course part of that is undeniably a result of talking about it with you too and having aspects pointed out for my consideration that either went unobserved or were less of an issue for me before. But I think in part seeing American Horror Story out of order, and having missed a few episodes, allowed me to presume that the holes and moments of confusion I was experiencing were due to that fragmentation of viewing, that once seen as a whole these questions, these oddities of experience would somehow be resolved.

So here’s an agnostic point of view – what if there really isn’t a unifying, guiding intelligence behind American Horror Story in the sense of it being conceived thematically and within its narrative beyond being in service to a slightly modern wrinkle on a very old horse-- a house where ghosts are historically trapped and wreak havoc in the lives of those living who happen to occupy the same space? And I’m not saying there necessarily isn’t. Certainly there’s “intelligence” behind the show, but what if it’s in service to something less than telling a coherent, thematically unified story? I offered this facetiously a few weeks ago, but seriously, what if we’re thinking about all of this more than Murphy and Falchuk have? It wouldn’t necessarily be a shock to my system to consider them as something less than artists, and I’m not exactly ready to call them hacks either—there’s passion in this show, but it may finally only be for the execution of mood and shock and little else. And that’s not to denigrate mood and shock—there are plenty of works in horror that succeed precisely on those terms and not because of any underlying (intentional) subtext that might justify the project in the eyes of fans or those who pooh-pooh the genre.  

I started off asking the question, “What is it about what we’re going to see that makes it a specifically American horror story to the point that you’re going to use that as the title, the unifying concept behind the show? Murphy and Falchuk don’t exactly strike me as particularly pretentious in the way of attaching the word “American” in search of credibility or presumed depth. And it certainly wouldn’t be the first time in the history of popular, well-received television (or movies) that a story dribbled along with moments of individual strength and unity that ultimately didn’t add up to a cohesive whole. This symptom of serialization, of filling in the blanks with more good stuff that you may or may not need to tell the basic story, is going to rear its head again in next week’s episode with the introduction of another character straight out of real-life Los Angeles crime history who really doesn’t function in any significant way dramatically to deepen the thematic pool. I don’t think you can give as much leeway to a self-limited show like American Horror Story as you might Dark Shadows, which has to be the primary influence behind what Murphy and Falchuk are up to here. If you’re only giving yourself a pilot and 11 episodes in which to get the job done, then the more frittering around you do the more the audience is going to suspect what we always kind of suspected, even as kids, with Dark Shadows, that there was only the most generalized thematic outline, that to a certain degree it was being made up on the fly.

You said something earlier on in regard to watching out for individual bits of business that are referred to and then seen in flashback that links to this. If it’s a mistake to assume that there’s a continuity editor keeping an eye out to make sure all the threads of the show get tied together neatly and logically, or at least match up with information that is given in one scene and then comes up missing in another (I’m referring to that conversation the cheerleader says she had with Tate re her belief in God before she is killed which is never heard when we see the actual event), then maybe it’s also a mistake to think that as much thought actually went into the story development as we’d like to assume happened. Murphy has even hinted in interviews (some of which are available on the new Blu-ray/DVD set of Season One) that, despite the sense that of course the show has been herded into a certain mentality and thematic cohesion, there’s also the sense which can’t be completely concealed that the story has been in significant ways concocted as the writers lurched along. This information was presented, of course, with an implied wink—“Of course we we’re really winging it!”—but I think there’s room for speculation on that point.

Not to beat a nearly 50-year-old horse or anything, but going back to Dark Shadows, there was a writer’s roundtable on the subject published this past summer in Video Watchdog in which several of the participants talked about that show’s lasting effect and influence, and more specifically the ways in which we experienced that show, how it was constructed to dole out its story in dribs and drabs, in more typically soap-opera or serial fashion, building on it as it went along.  The point was made that the show had constructed into it the practical reality that no one was going to be able to catch every single episode, and back then if you didn’t, there was no chronological time-tripping back and forth through the chapters so one could catch up—once it aired it was (presumably) gone. Audiences had to be able to gather the threads of the story over and make connections that bridged the gaps of what they might have missed, and incredibly, over a span of five years Dark Shadows managed to keep hold of an internal logic and low-budget mastery of mood that it sustained marvelously, despite frequent shifts of time and space within the multiple storylines and actors doing double and triple duties as several different characters over the course of its run, and despite the sort of budgetary and technological limitations that would drive Murphy and Falchuk to their own sort of madness.

Yet within just eight episodes of American Horror Story there’s clear evidence that the ramifications of the basic premise haven’t been fully thought through. Some of this evidence is directly character related and therefore, presumably, of importance, yet some of it I can paper over with my own scrambles of rationalization. Other aspects aren’t so easily palmed off.

For example, I think I can take a swing at the inconsistency you bring up re Tate’s questions of infidelity and the apparent schism in his list of potential spectral screw-mates. Given that he’s got an expressed agenda to ensure that a baby is born in the house to carry on the legacy of (traditional) life-- he tells this to Nora—it would make sense that he sees his terrorizing of Vivien initially as a sort of duty, above and beyond the level to which it allows him to bend Ben’s head around, especially early on in their relationship, before they forge their strange sort of bond. He also clearly sees it as a way of straddling the universe of the living and the dead, of maintaining some sort of connection to the world he chose to give up. But within the strictly spectral universe, he has no reason to fuck Hayden—there’s no pleasure in it for him, he gains nothing, and by this point his has his fidelity and deepening love for Violet to account for as well. There’s another reason, one which I’m sure you’ve caught the scent of by now, but I will refrain from saying anything about that for the moment.

Further toward the horniness of the afterlife, maybe that ramped-up libido is a specific joke being played exclusively for Hayden by who- or whatever evil is guiding the universe they’re all trapped in. (Satan? Murphy? Mitt Romney?) ‘Cause it sure doesn’t play that way for Nora, or Moira. (More on her in a second.) I don’t think Hayden needs to fuck Hugo, but on one level she obviously needs an outlet for this rage that is continuing to build up (an outlet she will find very soon). Like Tate, sex with other ghosts doesn’t get her much in the way of release, and neither does her acting out of the murderous impulses she barely seems in control of, impulses which are obviously not being directed in the way she’d really like them to go. (Watch out, Ben!) How satisfying can it be when she gets to penetrate Hugo right back and then he just gets up to go get a sandwich? Good of him to indulge her little fantasies, I suppose. I certainly don’t begrudge Murphy and American Horror Story staging this little episode for our benefit because it does point toward something down the line, and it’s time spent with Hayden who, probably due to Kate Mara more than anything, is one of the characters I most enjoy spending time with on this show. (She has a way around Murphy’s most strident and knowing dialogue that makes me a whole lot more tolerant of its tendency to slop over the line.) But also I don’t begrudge the scene simply for its value as a shock tactic. A good horror show needs good ones, and as has been demonstrated here over and over again, though American Horror Story has shock tactics in spades, some are, well, better, and better executed, than others.

But what of the Moira Question? I’m afraid we’ve gone a long way now with no strong rationalization within the Murphy/Falchuk-devised ghost rules as to why Moira acts as a reflection of leering male sexism and the other dead women don’t. If it had something to do with the young Moira being an uncontrollable sexual tornado, then that might be one thing. But all indications from the show have been precisely the opposite. Is this then supposed to be a particular bit of ghostly irony, that Moira would be reflected back to males who are still alive in the way she was inevitably received, as an object of unchecked attraction and desire? Okay, I get that. She gets her revenge, and the male population is exposed for its rampant lecherousness and general foul state. But then what accounts for the split between young Moira and Old Moira? Why has she aged at all, when others, like Nora, have not? It seems the split between the two could be exploited and used as something that rises more organically out of her character, yet despite the best efforts of Frances Conroy I don’t see that has having happened just yet.

And it illuminates an inconsistency in Ben’s character too. He’s a psychologist and, as you said, one from whom we would naturally be primed to expect a bit more in the perceptivity department when it comes to the behavior of those around him.  Yet when Violet lands on him for his weird attraction to this old crone in a maid’s outfit he never says to himself, “What? Huh?” (Maybe we’re just supposed to chalk it up to her typical precociousness, or maybe we’re supposed to have forgotten that she pointed it out too—calling the story continuity editor again!) And he never makes the obvious connection between his own level of disorientation vis-à-vis the house and that of Vivien’s. AHS baits the question as to the rationale behind Moira’s appearance and then sidesteps what it might mean in terms of how the house actually works its evil by making Ben so ignorant in this regard. If he’d just ask one or two of the right questions, questions which it would seem his professional calling would incline him naturally to ask, then perhaps he might have a leg up on what the house is doing to him and to his wife with such obvious ease.

Strangely, stirring the pot in this way and focusing now on some of the overall flaws the episode illuminates hasn’t diminished its effectiveness for me in any way. It really is a strong episode, and it makes me look forward to watching the show begin to tighten itself up in pursuit of what I think is a pretty satisfying, and in some aspect unusual, conclusion. The show still feels significantly spitballed in a lot of ways, but that’s probably just the nature of the television beast here, particularly when the serial format is in play. I have less faith in Murphy and Falchuk as overseers who have perfect control of the universe they’ve concocted, but that’s okay too. Losing one’s religion isn’t the worst thing that can happen in the process of appreciating and enjoying the work for what it is.

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








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