Tuesday, November 06, 2012


What better distraction from the nightmare of this election season coming to a head (and the possible extended nightmare resulting from the tally of the vote) than to traipse back into American Horror Story? My cohort in horror, Simon Abrams, is ready to go, and so we shall for a first dip into episode 9, entitled "Smoldering Children," fire extinguishers at the ready if need be.


So we’re back inside the Murder House for episode 9 of American Horror Story, and there’s still a sense of the show spinning its wheels a bit narratively, especially at the beginning. But “Smoldering Children,” if it’s not especially tight (a lengthy subplot involving Constance falling under suspicion, however briefly, for Travis’s murder, feels especially rote), ends up resolving the status of one character (alive) and another (dead) and illustrating how a measure of atonement is meted out toward a pair of guilty consciences that have haunted the show  from its early stages.

The show kicks off with an uncomfortable dinner scene set in 1994. Addy, Tate and Larry are seated around the dinner table as Constance brings out a garish-looking ham covered with pineapple rings. Tate’s sarcastic run at saying grace (“Thank you for this salty pig meat…”) explodes into an exposition-heavy rant in which we are reminded of the murder of Tate and Addy’s brother Bo, which Tate rightly suspects Larry of committing. Tate also rails against Constance and her seething, controlling nature and again acutely diagnoses her bilious disdain of Larry, even as he tries to paper over Tate’s obvious rage and make nice—“I will never be your perfect son,” he tells her, the worst possible thing I suppose he could ever say to this proud, angry woman, in fact, before he goes out and proves it once and for all by getting coked to the gills and heading to the high school fully armed. Oh, but before he does that, he stops by Larry’s office and sets him on fire—the real story of Larry’s third-degree fate, after Larry’s bizarre account to Ben of having torched himself and his family, and the other in which he was supposedly burned while trying to rescue them.

Vivien pulls light duty this week— one scene in the hospital where Ben comes to apologize for not previously believing her story about being raped by the Rubber Man. But Connie Britton, I think, makes the most of it, giving her line “What convinced you? Because it certainly wasn’t anything I said…” just the right amount of bite. (It must be the meds tamping down that normally sharp-to-the-point-of-laceration edge.)  Of course Ben has to reveal to her that reality of the dual fatherhood of the twins she’s carrying, which does nothing for Vivien’s sense of stability. Ben tells her that despite the lingering presence of a couple of legal matters, stemming from the fact that she shot the guy, she’ll be released into his care in a couple of days. But she has to reiterate: “I’m not going back to that house…” At this point you’d have to think that Ben might see the wisdom of this declaration too, but as slow as he was to pick up on the other clues involving Vivien’s state of mind, I’m not particularly confident he’s going to be especially perceptive in this situation either.

Probably the least satisfying strand of this week’s adventures—which unfortunately takes up most of the running time-- involves Constance, for whom the writers appear to be running low on ideas as the season progresses. She gets more active in the last two shows, but here she’s on the defensive, and though she seems naturally inclined to a little righteous indignation, it’s not a particularly entertaining position (for us) for her to be in. She’s detained by detectives (one of whom is played by the sadly slumming Charles S. Dutton) who reveal to her the identity of a recently discovered body—Travis, her would-be modelin’ boy toy—the grisly bisection of whom has apparently earned him the moniker The Boy Dahlia in the media. The scene allows for the sort of racist nose-rubbing that has become Constance’s signature—when she’s told Travis’s body was discovered in South Central her reply, aimed directly at Dutton, is: “The colored section? What would he be doing there?” She also gets in a digs at the Koreans again, noting their excessive suspiciousness, a quality she claims they’ve displayed ever since Hiroshima.

Clearly this attitude is a holdover from her Old Dominion upbringing, and it certainly illuminates her sense of entitlement, of victimization. I just wish it didn’t also smack so much of a callowness on the part of Murphy and Falchuk et al, the kind of game-playing Alyssa Quart might label “hipster racism.” So far Constance’s demons, other than the constant, supernaturally enhanced suffering to which she has been subjected (and which gets a thorough airing out in this episode), have been rather earthbound. The conception of the character is, somewhat disappointingly, I think, being restricted to that of a facilitator of evil rather than an originator of it, though it seems clear by now that the act of murder that she is responsible for is what has set the table for most of the grisly action of the series, around which folks like the Montgomerys and especially poor Elizabeth Short are mere satellite echoes.

Constance ends up accusing Larry of having killed Travis out of some theatrical sense of revenge for having been so cruelly rebuffed by her, going so far as to threaten his twig and berries (which may or may not be burned like his face) with a butcher knife she has concealed in her purse. But Larry confesses under this duress that he only disposed of the body, at which point Constance realizes that Travis was in fact also killed on the premises. It’s at this point that the most egregiously self-conscious dialogue of the week (there’s a crowded field every episode, isn’t there?) occurs. Constance, relishing her opportunity to stick it to Larry again, with foul words if not the blade, tells him that she never loved her now-crispy ex-bedmate, she only endured him-- heavy Lange emphasis on the “endured.” “So you’re going back to your dead boy?” Larry taunts. But Constance oozes right back: “Even dead, even a boy, he’s twice the man you are.” Larry’s reply?  (Wait for it. ) “Well, he is now.” (Satanic rim shot!)

Constance trots out the self-pity and gives the knob a twirl toward 11 when she’s finally brought down to the police station for questioning—that knife falls out of her purse right in front of the disbelieving detectives who take it as a serious indication that Constance might not be up to any good. As much as they may sniff something ripe about Constance and the most recent loss of life with which she is even marginally connected, they’re more interested in dredging up the fates of Bo and Tate and talking about “the missing,” meaning Hugo and young Moira. We then see Constance burying Moira in the backyard and denying her straying husband the dignity of being buried in the same grave as his lover. Instead, she drags him down to the basement, dismembers him and grinds him up into dog food.  

Even Lange, whose work I’ve frequently thought was magnificent in this show, can’t keep my eyes from rolling slightly when she cackles and tells the detectives that the two were never found because there was nothing to find. (These officers, perhaps not L.A.’s finest, don’t think it even momentarily necessary to probe around further regarding on this statement.) Finally, she offers another juicy tidbit, this one from the pen of James Wong: “Once I discovered what he did, Hugo meant nothing more to me than dog shit.” Zing! Constance is instructed by her only-now-arriving lawyer to shut up, because despite their reticence to ask pertinent follow-up questions, the police are looking to hang the murder of Travis on her. The scene has dragged on long enough, reminding us of events we already knew about (except that whole dog food thing, of course) that I happily agreed with the public defender’s advice.

Not long after, Travis catches Larry cleaning up evidence of Travis’s murder in the basement. Our undead wannabe underwear model asks if Larry wouldn’t mind collecting some new clippings about the discovery of his body, in the hopes he might enjoy a sliver of his newfound fame. Larry agrees, then hears the voices of two little girls with whom Travis has been passing the time. They are, of course, Larry’s smoldering children, whom he looks upon wistfully, before being joined by the charred ghost of his wife Lorene. Apparently this is the first time since they died nearly 20 years prior that he’s seen them, and he asks Lorene why he hadn’t been able to before. In one of those convenient little non-explanation explanations, Lorene simply says to him, “You’re ready now. You’re on the cusp.” So Larry has now finally apparently been driven so low, by Constance’s vile treatment, his own self-hatred, his murderous actions and, of course, his own guilt at having betrayed his family and contributed to their deaths, that he is ready to do the one thing—make sure that Constance rots for what she’s done—to make up for all of it.

 But Lorene tells him, “Constance didn’t do anything.” Larry realizes that the only way to make up for the hell he’s consigned his family to, and the horrors he’s helped visit upon the Harmons, is to confess to the murder of Travis. Being able to produce not only the murder weapon but details about the murder that were never made public convinces the L.A.P.D., who begrudgingly, and somewhat too patly, let Constance off the hook, but not before she can deny Larry one last measure of comfort. He tells her through jailhouse Plexiglas that he can endure the punishment he’s lined up for himself if she’ll just say some variant on those three little words. Unfortunately, the (unspoken) three little words turn out to be closer to “Fuck you, Larry” than “I love you” as she makes a move to line up her hand with his, only to retract at the last minute and hang up the phone, leaving Larry perhaps redeemed but forever on the hook for murder and unrequited passion.

The title of the episode, “Smoldering Children,” turns out to relate not only to the redemption and atonement at the heart of the story of Larry’s unfortunate family, but to two other kids who are in their own way smoldering—Tate and Violet. But it’s not the flames of love that are still threatening to erupt. This is the episode in which something we’ve suspected for two or three episodes now is finally revealed, and along with the scenes between Constance and Addy (which I know you didn’t think much of, Simon) the mostly artfully sustained sequence of storytelling and acting in the run of American Horror Story so far. Ben is visited by a truant officer who explains to him (I guess he was too busy with Vivien and Hayden to have noticed) that Violet has in fact missed 16 straight days of school and that one more will land them in juvenile court. (The officer, slightly more observant than our beleaguered resident dad, also notices an odd swarm of blowflies hovering around a bowl of fruit in the living room.) Ben’s appeals to Violet are met with inexplicably tearful proclamations that she “can’t” go back, which means something different than what we initially think she’s referring to—she only means that she can’t return to school with it being as continually difficult for her as it has apparently been since her arrival. (We haven’t really seen much of Violet’s experience there since the early episodes.)

After Ben leaves, Tate tries to convince Violet to stay home with him one more day and apparently succeeds. He then overhears Ben on the phone with a placement counselor talking about a possible enrollment for her in boarding school, which he dutifully, and in a bit of a panic, reports back to Violet. “They’re going to try to separate us,” he pleads with her. “I won’t let him send you away!”  This is after he’s already killed the exterminator Ben hires to investigate the source of the blowfly problem when said professional makes an awful discovery in the crawlspace beneath the floor, the exact nature of which is held back from us for the moment.  Tate’s next move is to put on the Rubber Man suit and attack Ben, who of course eventually pulls off the mask and realizes that it’s Tate who is trying to beat the shit out of him, and who probably also raped Vivien. But Tate retains the upper hand and tells Ben that the only reason he doesn’t kill him right now is “for her.” 

Tate confesses his attack on Ben to Violet, claiming that he was only trying to dissuade her dad from sending her away to another school. But of course we know by now that Tate has another agenda, and he suggests that if they can’t keep Ben from carrying out his plan, then they should commit suicide together, like Romeo and Juliet. Dazed and confused, Violet agrees a bit too readily and heads downstairs to prepare the bath in which she suggests they sit while they off themselves. But after she leaves the room, she begins screaming to her dad for help—“He’s trying to kill me!” (Not exactly sure why Ben doesn’t respond or where he’s at that he can’t hear her cries, but…) Horrified, Tate pursues her, but her attempt to escape the house leads her inexplicably right back in the kitchen door, and which point she cries to Tate, whom she assumes means her fatal harm,, “I don’t want to die!” And Tate is forced to reveal to her, “It’s too late for that.”

Of course Violet has already been dead for nearly three weeks at her own hand, Tate unable to revive her in the bathtub after she ingested the pills. Tate takes her though the crawlspace and reveals to her the gruesome spectacle of her own rotting corpse, blowflies erupting from its mouth.  I love what Tate says to her as she weeps at this horrific tableau—“You died crying”—and also how he demonstrates the sincerity of his love for her by explaining his strange suggestion of their mutual suicide-- “I had this idea that if you chose to die with me you wouldn’t be so sad.” But it’s Tate’s sadness, the vulnerability of this undead mass murderer who can never fully atone for the ghastliness of his own crimes, combined with Violet’s own inability in the moment to comprehend the fullness of where she now resides, that make for a very powerful, wistful capper to this story line.

Even if we may have guessed where it was heading, the performances of Evan  Peters and Taissa Farmiga sell the emotional punch in a way that feels completely undiluted, avoiding the potholes of the ghost world logic that occasionally trip the show up on the way toward its seemingly inevitable payoff. It helps too that this more satisfying subplot is used to punctuate the screen time given to the more routine dalliances with Constance and the law. I was far more conscious of what I had invested in finding out how Violet and Tate’s dilemma played itself out and was pleased to see that it did so with none of the bludgeoning dialogue that has more typically pockmarked even the best moments in this series. My hat is off particularly to Taissa Farmiga, whose performance and character has been up to this point one of the nagging annoyances for me in American Horror Story, which I have not been shy in noting. But thanks to some deft writing and unexpected reserves of sympathy she has been able to cut through the self-defensive shield of John Hughes-style smugness that was a hallmark of the Violet character early on and emerge as one of the true beating hearts in this cruel drama.

Tate has taken steps toward illuminating some of the humanity that still radiates through his spectral shell, though he still has plenty of ‘splainin’ to do about some of the actions he’s engaged in since taking up permanent residence in the Murder House. But Violet, more than Vivien even and certainly more than Ben, has taken her place as the heiress to sincere and relatively profound tragedy that the show has been hinting and poking and snarking at since the beginning. A lumpy episode to be sure, but I think it bodes well for the final stretch.

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


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