Thursday, November 01, 2012



Okay, "Spooky Little Girl," episode 8 in the first-season run of American Horror Story, has turned out to be a bummer for both Simon Abrams and I, although I've managed to find some things worth celebrating amidst the rubble. But first, the rubble:


There’s a pivotal moment for Ben—psychologist, father, sex addict, adulterer, accomplice to murder-- that occurs midway through the “Spooky Little Girl” episode of American Horror Story which is intended to explain why Vivien is pregnant not with just one, but two babies, both of which are growing with an alarming rapidity. Vivien’s OB-GYN reluctantly tells Ben on the phone that his wife’s pregnancy is the result of heteropaternal superfecundation, an extremely rare (“Maybe one in a million”) phenomenon in which babies are conceived by having sex with two different men within 48 hours during the same ovulation cycle.

What this information signals to Ben is confirmation that Vivien has been indulging in the same sort of duplicitous behavior that he’s been raked over the coals for over the course of eight episodes. Of course Ben’s self-righteous indignation is short-lived—he gets to hand it over to Vivien, who lays in her hospital bed, rendered unresponsive to his coolly delivered vitriol by meds and probably her own well-earned state of depression, but then he’s quickly and neatly put in his place when he confronts Luke, the security guard who Hayden claims she’s seen creeping out of the Harmon house at suspicious hours, about the paternity Ben is sure he now shares with him. And of course H.P. is just the sort of sensational, medically verifiable occurrence that plays beautifully into the hands of this show’s fondness for the sort of dementia that’s rooted just enough in reality to make its wackier spins of narrative seem only slightly less plausible.

But as I was fixating on the concept (and imagining how lucky the actress must have felt to get to say “heteropaternal superfecundation” and get paid for it-- it's the AHS equivalent of supercalifragilisticexpialidocious), I began thinking that the idea of the series itself having two purposes at work in the same womb of creativity, one perhaps weaker, less developed than the other, made a curious bit of sense.  There is, in all the episodes we’ve seen so far, some tension between American Horror Story’s purely exploitative sense of grooving on the most transgressive elements of its horrors, which it shares with most modern envelope-pushing going on in the genre, and the more traditional dramaturgical structuring that allows for the kind of thematic development we look for in any good drama from any genre. 

I think it’s safe to say at this point that American Horror Story, on close examination,  has perhaps not held up to the hopes you or I would like it to in terms of having an entirely cohesive point of view on the world, or even its own constructed world, for that matter. Looking at the final three episodes may prove a little more satisfying in terms of the way the plot strands end upcoming together, though at this point I’m not sure I entirely trust my own first impressions, being the one of us who has seen the show through to its bitter(sweet), horrifying end.

But I do also think that the division between the thinness of the thematic ideas that have emerged— Right place, wrong time, pursuit of fame, the unavoidable repetition of history— and the show’s nudge-nudge-wink-wink snark factor and its tendency to arch its eyebrows in some peculiar and inappropriate places make uncomfortable womb partners with the show’s sharper instinct for gruesome teases and the clever serialization of tried-and-true plot ideas. They make for a compulsive watchable show, one which we find ourselves occasionally resisting (you, Simon, perhaps far more to the point of distraction than I, it seems), but the genre ideas it wants to riff off of-- unholy conception, ghosts treading the line between life and death-- aren’t exactly fresh sod, and neither are the variations on them that Murphy and Falchuk et al. have concocted. I don’t think that one creator is responsible for the reedy thematic connective tissue and the other for the well-worn plot material, so the metaphor may not be the most conveniently appropriate one, but there is some tension here that is, I think, the result of the show’s inability to resist a flippant turn when there’s little dramatic justification for it, and that speaks to me of warring sensibilities, whether they are consciously expressed or not.

Most obviously, it’s clear that in “Spooky Little Girl,” written by Jennifer Salt, the show is looking to expand its concerns in the area of the pursuit of fame, a bit of thematic underpinning that I had hoped, when it was originally introduced, as a character point for Constance, would develop into a much richer thematic strand than it has so far. As you have effectively pointed out at various times in this discussion, the theme is less powerful when it is implemented, rather grossly, into the action than it is when Constance offhandedly refers to her own past early on in the series. This definitely seems like an instance of “telling” being the better option rather than “showing,” especially when the writers and creators haven’t really figured out a way to pay more than lip service to one of their big ideas.

By the time we’re introduced here to the character of Elizabeth Short (Mena Suvari), the poor girl who became the violated heart of one of Hollywood’s most elusive real-life mysteries, it’s definitely a head-scratching move in terms of the show’s overall design. The Short character does nothing to illuminate the theme beyond the forgone conclusion that dreams of fame, at least the ones expressed here, are nothing if not pathetically delusional. (Constance is bestowed by the writers some measure of dignity by virtue of her being completely, cynically redressed by her show-biz related disappointments.) What’s more, you’ve zeroed in on what’s even more problematic about bringing in the Short scenario into the mix at this late stage of the game. She seems only ineffectually confused by her spectral status, much like Nora seems to be, which makes me wonder, just what have these female ghosties been doing for the past 60-70 years that they could remain so ignorant of an afterlife condition that someone like Hayden grasps almost immediately? You wrote last time:  

“Maybe, she (Elizabeth) reasons, she can stop what happened to her from happening. This is sadly impossible, as Hayden points out when she bumps into Elizabeth. But Hayden and Elizabeth's brief chat does raise an interesting question: "Don't you know who you are," Hayden asks Elizabeth. We, the presumably educated viewer, do: she's a real-life victim. But if you can tell me who she's supposed to be within the context of this week's episode beyond yet another sign of how history has a habit of repeating itself, I'd love to hear it.” 

At times it seems like I’ve made a virtual second-tier cottage enterprise out of offering rationalizations as to the various loops and gaps of logic involved in the ghost world rules and regs abound within AHS, but I’m coming up short (sorry) in this case. Elizabeth’s own confusion over her answer to Hayden’s question seems to disappear when she recounts exactly who she is and what happened to her, yet her ignorance of what came in the wake of her own murder—which Hayden has to explain to her, and perhaps some of the younger members of the audience-- seems a bit too convenient, although to what purpose exactly never becomes clear. So I guess the answer to your question again appears to be the simplest one-- there really isn’t much beyond the reiteration of that none-too-profound point about the elusiveness and the true price of fame.

But beyond the redundancy of the Black Dahlia strand which, if my feeble memory can be trusted (spoiler alert), doesn’t come to any further fruition in subsequent episodes, my greater concern is over something that we’ve talked about before. Here’s what I wrote in my post concerned “Murder House” and that Sal Mineo blip:

As for Sal Mineo’s appearance, at first I found it kind of grimly interesting, but upon further reflection I’m come to see it as a bit more evidence of what you suggested… in regard to Murphy and Falchuk’s somewhat winking attitude toward real-life tragedy. They are not done in this arena, and one instance I can think of that’s coming up works far more effectively as a bitter and vivid evocation of the emotional concerns the show is trafficking in—they actually take the time to integrate this future element into the action of the show rather than to just exploit the more prurient elements of a tragedy, as they do with the Mineo killing. (I was referring to the deliberate referencing of the Columbine tragedy here—DC). To reference what happened to Mineo in such a casually brutal way… seems to place the show more on the TMZ level of that morbid “Eternal Darkness” tour of Los Angeles atrocities rather than anything like a serious consideration of American horror.”

Here’s the thing—for as much of a specious low-blow as that Mineo reference was, it had the advantage of being completely gratuitous. That is, once it reared its ugly head and served its singular function as an attention-grabbing insert to segue into the Eternal Darkness Tour, at least it was gone, and within its depiction the show at least stuck to the general facts of the case. Not so Elizabeth Short, whose anonymity, I’m guessing, is the get-out-of-hell-free card Murphy and Falchuk use to allow the pillaging of this real-life tragedy for ostensibly plot-related reasons that in fact result in nothing but a queasy sense of the further violation of this poor woman’s memory. If you’re going to have one of your fictional ghosts be revealed as the murderer of a person who existed on the margins of Hollywood and at the beating black heart of one of the country’s most notorious, never-solved murder cases, it seems to me you’d better have  a damn good reason for doing so. The worst thing about “Spooky Little Girl” is that Elizabeth Short ends up getting ruthlessly exploited all over again-- She even gets to do a girl-on-girl scene with young Moira-- but Murphy, 
Falchuk and Salt never think out her presence beyond the most facile of explanations.

But apart from the whole Elizabeth Short subplot, in which I would include Constance’s pleading with and eventual take-down of her boy toy, who ends up the Black Dahlia v. 2012—some of the lamest writing for Lange in the series so far is in these scenes—believe it or not, I don’t think the episode is as much of a total bust as you did. Again, while giving up on the main thrust of the Black Dahlia aspect as being meaningful at all to what the show needs to do as it slithers toward its conclusion, I think there are elements here that work as individual scenes or performances that make the episode memorable and worth watching. Apart from that confrontation with Luke, I agree with you that Ben’s scenes are the elements most worth watching here. I continue to find Dylan McDermott a bit on the monochromatic side, but I have to give it up for him in his scene with Vivien in the hospital. His speech to her, in all its seething, clenched-teeth reserve, works, it’s powerful in exactly the way all parties intended (which is why it’s sorta disappointing that his righteous huff gets defused so easily).

I don’t necessarily want to see Ben go off on Vivien, or Hayden, or anyone else-- histrionics this show has in spades, and it’s refreshing to see him underplay the anger he radiates here. It’s a relief that Ben finally understands, as much as he is beginning to understand that he has the capability of conquering his own demons, that Vivien is telling the truth. (As you wrote in the final stages before your meltdown last time – ha!--  “He’s doing it! The show’s plot isn’t just a downward spiral of characters obliviously lost in a web of hideously contrived plot twists anymore!”) But on one level I also wanted Ben to have more of a moment where he realizes that he’s not, as previously advertised, the source of the evil pervading the house, to have an awareness that might counterbalance the show’s attitude toward him a little bit more than he’s been allowed so far. That said, we get as close to this as we’re likely to get when young, saucy Moira finally becomes old, withered, eyeless Moira in his eyes and she says to him, “Mr. Harmon, you’re finally beginning to see things as they are.”

Also exceptionally well played, I think, is the scene between Ben and Hayden in which he emphasizes to her what he sees as the reality of their situation (not knowing, of course, that Hayden is dead.) “I don’t love you, Hayden,” McDermott tells her, Kate Mara staring back at him with a beautifully modulated measure of disbelief as yet another of her best-laid plans begins to dissolve. “You don’t love me… Okay…” she responds, and we’re given the pleasure of watching the wheels begin to turn in Hayden’s head before she’s even fully processed what the words mean. That said, his rather blasé reaction to her reappearance is perplexing. Just what does Ben think explains Hayden’s recovery? He’s far too readily accepting of her presence without it setting off some serious alarm bells in his head. He did, after all, look on as she took a shovel to the face, presumably effectively ending her life, and then watched her be buried in the yard by Larry. Isn’t Ben just a bit too cavalier about her reappearances? Is it just because he’s so relieved when she gets the cops and her sister off his ass by walking into the kitchen that he doesn’t really think about it? I wonder who it is who’s really not thinking enough about this. I wonder…

And it’s a small thing, perhaps, but there’s a sublime little bit of camera movement during Ben’s initial conversation with Elizabeth that might be easily overlooked among the typically impatient cutting of the show, in which no shot is held long enough for it to really register. Except maybe this one: As Ben begins to indulge a fantasy about kissing Elizabeth, she pleads with him to take her on as a patient, with the idea of setting up a very special payment plan not unlike the one she proposed to the dentist who ended up accidentally killing her back in 1947. She says to Ben, “You’re the one who can help me. I can tell.” And the camera beautifully approximates Ben’s disorientation, his unwilling seduction, with a short, swift tilt from left to right, making Ben look as though he’s bobbing on an invisible wave of nausea. So much of the show’s flashy visual style is relatively empty that it’s a pleasure to encounter something that works so expressively well, even if it only lasts a couple of seconds.

Finally, I enjoyed the teaser at the end, in which Billie Dean, sitting in Constance’s kitchen and bragging about her reality show getting picked up, offers her relatively elaborate explanation about the election of the Pope, the Room of Tears and her suspicion (Is it more than  suspicion? Is Billie Dean a genuine force for evil here—is that how she knows?) that what Vivien’s got baking in the oven is in fact the Antichrist x 2. After years and years of exposure to the son of Satan since the popular advent of The Omen back in 1976, it can’t be counted as much of a shock to find out that this is what’s in store as the season begins to wind down. And though the line itself doesn’t make much sense, I still got a fun little shiver from Sarah Paulson’s laying this one down for Constance: “The Holy Ghost merely whispered in the Virgin Mary’s ear and she begat the Son of God. If the devil’s going to use a human womb for his spawn, he’s gonna want a little more bang for his buck.”

On one level this is just more Murphy-style folderol, a camp-gilded nod to the end of the world. But it’s also a straight–up stab at the kind of come-on to horror I wish the show had a little bit more of. Maybe the twin impulses in the womb of American Horror Story are really ones representing the down-and-dirty qualities of disreputable horror and its gussied-up counterpart, the one that wants us to believe there’s more to the meal than the usual menu. So far Murphy et al haven’t shown us that their heart is really in the themes they’ve managed to rustle up to enrich this stew. They’d much rather just creep us out, and I think I’d prefer that too, but their pretenses and their unwillingness to think their ideas through have often gotten in the way of coming through on that promise. So what is it about the last couple of hours that makes this a rough ride worth taking? You and I will both see together…

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


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