Thursday, November 08, 2012


Turns out Simon Abrams and I see pretty much eye-to-eye on the "Smoldering Children" episode of American Horror Story, and in this post he gets into lots of the reasons why, including how the sad story of Larry managed to worm its way under his skin this week. Good to have you back, Simon!


Hi, Dennis!

The high-highs and low-lows of this series sure are something, huh? If we were talking about any other show, I'd question my emotional stability just because I ardently love one week's episode roiiight after strongly disliking the week prior's pick'ns. But hey, that's where we are, I guess. 

"Smoldering Children" treated me considerably better than "Spooky Little Girl" for a number of the reasons that you've already hit on. I agree with a lot of what you wrote, as usual, though weirdly enough, Constance's admittedly weak subplot didn't bug me as much as it did you. I agree with much of the reasons you had for being down on her story this week, particularly the way that she's treated like a tragic shit magnet and not an active agent of emotional tumult. 

I think that that's especially true of two weak scenes you've already mentioned: 1) The interrogation, where Constance is grilled but for the sake of narrative contrivance, the cops focus on Constance's children, not the actual crime at hand. This is irritating not just because it makes these cops look really stupid (don't they realize that her lawyer's on the way? Quick, quick, time's of the essence, while she's in a chatty mood, say something, do something!), but also because, as you wrote, it shows how the scene in question is narratively driven by providing new shocks/material (ie: stuff that apparently wasn't important with regard to establishing Constance's past). I get that a lot of AHS's main ideas--on repression and forgiveness, particularly--are dependent on the slow doling out of information. So there's always more torrid secrets that to be revealed, but only when the time is right. Still, this interrogation scene is illogically silly. 2) The way that Constance's carving knife conveniently plops out of her purse. This is just dopey on a level that I didn't expect from the AHS bunch. I mean, come on, I get that it's a joke, but really? Even as a MacGuffin, that knife is stupid.

But! As in "Halloween, Part 2," I feel like artful execution was more important than the concepts and soapy melodrama that were being established. It's not the story that got me this week or the characterizations, which are shot through with inconsistencies when you compare them with previous week's events. But as a stand-alone episode, there were real hints of heart-ache and sudsy pathos. I'm thinking particularly of Larry's story. I never really liked Larry until "Smoldering Children" but there were two scenes that really made me care about a character that for the most part, has been defined as a goofy, desperate stalker whose backstory, as it's recently been revealed, was never really substantial. So he had an affair with Constance and then torched his family. This might be less snooze-worthy if it were, y'know, executed with some skill. But because there's only so many minutes in an episode, and that many more skeletons that apparently NEED to come out of various characters' closets, Larry's recently revealed past never really stuck with me. Until "Smoldering Children," that is.

First, let me say that I don't think Larry's story, as it wraps up in "Smoldering Children," is flawless or even especially thoughtful. I still chafe at the thought that there are apparently gender-specific ghost rules. I hate that women ghosts are only visible to men once the planets align and the time is right, blah bleh barf.

Allow me to sidetrack this conversation for a moment: I recently argued with a friend about a similar issue, regarding the use of the word "mansplaining." I don't object to the sentiment behind this neu-speak term, but rather to its expression. If you want to talk about how chauvinist men speak/talk down to women and minorities as a sign of the power that they have, let's do it in a way that acknowledges the complexities of the issues at hand. I brought up Gayatri Spivak's "Can the Subaltern Speak?" for illustration's sake. That's a wonderful essay, one that I don't necessarily agree with all of, but I nevertheless think is a rich and complex consideration of a subject that is very difficult to parse. "Mansplaining" is too glib, for my tastes, and while I realize now that calling for a categorical ban on the term, as I half-jokingly did yesterday, was dumb, the crux of my disagreement with my friend Andreas was a matter of execution rather than of essence. 

Likewise, I don't like that Ben and other male characters see a young, lustful version of Moira when they look at Frances Conroy's character and not, well, Frances Conroy. Double likewise, I hate that Larry was only able to see his two daughters and the wife that he abandoned until now because, as his wife's ghost says, "You're ready're on the cusp." That sentiment makes sense given how Larry's story concludes in "Smoldering Children." But gosh, come on! Is this really how we're going to address the oppression of women on this show, with an unflattering smirk? I can't help but be nettled when Murphy and Falchuk practically fall over themselves trying to poke me in the eye.

But hey, Larry's story in "Smoldering Children" is infrequently rather moving. There's something kinda haunting about the moment where Tate flicks a match at Larry and sets his surrogate papa on fire. Maybe the moment in question's just gotten more imposing as I think about it, but I swear that the short time it takes for that little tinder, whizzing across the room on a small bit of fishing wire, felt like an eternity in retrospect. It reminded me of the scene where the private dick falls down the stairs in Psycho, actually! Samewise, the scene where Larry hopefully relates how a paltry three words from Constance will put him at ease, and then extends his hand to hers? That made me want to care, Dennis! I was ready! I was on the motherfucking CUSP! I think episode director Michael Lehmann, most famous for directing Heathers, is to blame, really. He's obviously a very talented filmmaker and he paces and shoots this scene so well, and within AHS's house style of crash-zooms, jump-cuts, jagged extreme C.O.s, too!

Another aspect of "Smoldering Children" I really enjoyed was seeing Violet's romance with Tate finally start to blossom into more than just teenage bathos. Watching Violet realize for herself that she can't (meta)physically escape the Murder House was pretty neat, as the scene in question could have also just come across like a bad Marx brothers routine. Duration and timing is the key to making this scene work here. Lehmann did a very good job of taking just enough time to make Violet's revelation believable. This revelation can't just be another rug to be pulled out from under her, a fact that Lehmann acknowledges by minimizing the use of flashbacks during Tate and Violet's subplot. There's a brief cut to Violet's death in the tub, but Lehmann trusts the dialogue and the performances, and the lighting! Hoo boy, loved the scene where Tate returns to the attic after he dispatches Ben. So creepy, as if he were quietly emerged from the shadows.--to do the work here. And they do, thankfully.

I thought I had more to say, but really, the ephemeral pleasure of "Smoldering Children" are the ones that stood out the most for me. These isolated scenes made me want to believe that the show's clunkiness were at least deliberate, and sometimes even semi-thoughtful. So yeah, I'd call that a victory for this show, wouldn't you?

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


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