AMERICAN HORROR STORY SEASON 1: LINGERING THOUGHTS ON EPISODE 10 "BIRTH" AND THE "AFTERBIRTH" EPISODE 11 RECAP
Finally, after a long break instigated by me, Simon Abrams and I enter the final stretch in our consideration of season one of American Horror Story. When last we posted, Simon offered his increasingly frustrated take on Episode 10, "Birth." I pick up, nearly a month later (!), with some brief thoughts of my own on that episode, and then I launch directly into the official recap of the final episode, "Afterbirth."
This is how you started out your last post, Simon, and I think it’s a measure of how exhausted we both are at the rigorous task, one not entirely bereft of enjoyment, of recapping the first season of American Horror Story, to note that that last post was logged just before Thanksgiving. I don’t think it’s a misstatement to say that neither you nor I have felt a burning need to get back at this and drive a stake through the heart of the inaugural narrative in what will be (if the ratings continue to soar) a many-seasoned anthology of long-form stories designed to get the rocks of Mssrs. Murphy and Falchuk off and then some. But in much the same way as the show has tended to jam things in with an eye toward to a satisfying close that doesn’t just dribble on forever, so I will now offer just a few comments on the episode you recapped, “Birth,” before moving on to a recap of “Afterbirth.” And I’ll try to keep it short, lest we both find ourselves talking about this damned show into the new year. *
Any episode of American Horror Story that contains the line “Life is too short for so much sorrow” would tend toward the self-critical, one would think. But I don’t get that vibe from “Birth.” Nora tells this to a tearful, 1984-vintage Tate after saving him from being attacked by Thaddeus, the monstrous undead creature who is, of course, her own son. (“If Thaddeus comes back to scare you again,” she also instructs the boy, “just shut your eyes and say, ‘Go away!” This instruction will become important late in the episode when it is echoed by Violet.) Read and seen in December 2012, just a week or so after the horrific Sandy Hook massacre, Nora’s assessment of our capacity for sorrow definitely takes on a more circumspect tint, and it made me wonder if Murphy and Falchuk et al. thought about that line, or if they even remembered it, in light of the horrors in the past week’s news. I also wondered, given the distance between Columbine and the first season of this show, how much time was going to have to pass before somebody (Murphy, Falchuk or anyone) might comfortably feel like the national wounds inflicted by Adam Lanza had healed enough so that his story (or that of the Aurora shooter, whatever the fuck his name was—thankfully I’ve forgotten) could be used as a foundation for the infliction of their own nightmares.
I think overall I liked the episode, and its attempts to sew up the strands of the story of the birth of Vivien’s babies, better than you did. But I cannot argue with your annoyance with the way the show wastes time on mythology and history, only to discard it. Is it a reflection more on the gullibility of people like Billie Dean, the medium who passes along the folklore about the Roanoke tribe and their successful banishment of the ghost colony (“CROATOAN!”) that the incantation she passes along to Violet turns out to be only so much hokum? Or is the joke on us an audience of a genre that tends to opt for magic pulled from the writer’s hat to wrap up our tales of terror at the 90-minute mark? Or maybe it’s really a reflection, as you suggest, of Murphy and Falchuk’s disdain for playing fair that they would invest time enough in the story for an elaborate flashback to 1509 and yet another true-life mystery that is ultimately only trivialized and scoffed off by Chad in such a cavalier and smarmy manner?
Quinto is also saddled with an impossible scene with Lange in which he argues with Lange over the viability of gay parenting, which in Quinto’s mouth just come off contemptuous, and again Murphy and company fail to find time or ways to dramatize their position, so it gets turned into hammer-and-tong dialogue. If you’re going to score points off the supposed bigotry of a character—and perhaps a goodly portion of your audience-- better to do it through Constance, not at her. Not long after Constance and Chad’s argument over who will be the parents of the soon-to-be-hatched child—Constance is of course none too keen about two perverts raising her grandson-- Billie Dean offers a long explanation to Violet, in Constance’s presence, as to the source of the evil in the house, which she spells out as a physical force created by the accrual of negative energy that is absorbed into the environment in places like prisons or asylums (clever plug, gentlemen) which is then disbursed by conduits, ghosts trapped between this world and the next. In the time it takes for Jessica Lange to arch an eyebrow, Constance spits out impatiently, “That’s very interesting, but what do we do about the gays? How do we get rid of them?” Social satire and plot development in one nasty line, and the biggest laugh of the show too.
I actually enjoyed the sense of urgency brought on by the need to steer the show toward its inevitable conclusion—at least the structure of the one season-one story format seems to ensure that we won’t be punished by a long Lost-esque narrative dribble. And I think “Birth” handles its business in this arena far better than “Afterbirth” does. (More on that in a minute.) The thing AHS finds itself up against in these final hours is our very expectations, the familiarity with the genre that we share with Murphy and Falchuk (some of us are undoubtedly even better versed in it than are they), and I’m not sure the show has either the creative desire or the impulse to necessarily fight that sense that we pretty much know what’s coming. For all its flashy editing and envelope-pushing in terms of vile content, it’s still wine poured from worn skins, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that. Where AHS has annoyed me are in those moments, like the ones the show has consistently flirted with which promised some sort of meaningful connection between the history of real-life horrors it evokes and the predicament of the occupants of the Murder House. That the writers never find a way to make those characters or their situations resonate beyond their status as apparitions taking up metaphysical space inside this cursed home is probably the show’s biggest disappointment. I asked you early on, Simon, just what it was that you thought made this a bedrock American horror story, and I don’t think, in examining the episodes up to this point, we’re ever really given much of an answer to hang our hats upon, or anything like a prod that at least points to a darkened, unexamined wing of the house where that answer might lie.
All that said, I was greatly appreciative that the visual style of the show calmed down enough for the emotional power of Vivien’s trauma and death to register—although it was very weird and disconcerting to suddenly see Dr. Charles Montgomery, perpetrator of the horrors that got this particular ectoplasmic conundrum started in the first place, in the traditionally comforting role of sincerely concerned birth surgeon. And I will stand up lastly for the scene which profoundly annoyed you, the “overheated” one between Violet and Tate which seems to seal the fate of their relationship. The dialogue is rather purple, I’ll admit, but it’s not delivered as such, and I think the actors (Evan Peters and Taissa Farmiga) really get in there and fight for what’s real about it. I think the scene works because it’s basically the show stripped down to its essentials, in much the same way that Tate’s final scene with Ben in “Afterbirth” is. The hysteria is past, save that final “GO AWAY!” in which the very edges of the frame seem to vibrate and momentarily dissolve along with the last vestiges of Tate’s pretense toward normalcy.
But enough about “Birth.” Let’s get to the leftover placenta…
“Afterbirth,” in which all about the Harmons will finally be shelved and sealed away, begins with a flashback (“Nine Months Ago”) to Ben and Vivien sitting in the kitchen of their antiseptic Boston manse—the psychologist racket has been berry-berry good to Ben, but he’s screwed that marriage to such a degree that he’s found this old art deco palace just off Hancock Park in Los Angeles that he figures will be a great place for he and his wronged wife and daughter to heal. “A house isn’t gonna fix it, Ben,” Vivien insists, but ben insists just as insistently (a lot of insisting in this scene) that bliss will be achievable, and he details it while we get visual reminders of the horrors they will soon have to endure. “My gut is telling me this house is gonna break down that wall inside of you. When I look at this place,” Ben says. “For the first time in a long while I feel like there’s hope.” It is to laugh.
Quick cut to Ben calling out for Vivien and Violet in the empty hallways of the Murder House (nine months later; that’s the length of the average human pregnancy gestation, in case you forgot). He cannot figure out where his wife and daughter, now both dead, have gotten themselves to. So he goes to visit Constance, who has been babysitting the surviving Alpha baby, he of the accelerated nonhuman pregnancy, while Dad arranges the sale of the house and, presumably, roams the hallways shouting “Vivien?! Violet?!” in whatever spare time he has. Ben tells Constance that Vivien’s sister will be arriving soon here to take the baby. Constance naturally looks upon this as a bad idea and contrives to keep the baby under her care, but Ben won’t be taken in this time—he demands that she hand over his son. “Your son,” Constance hisses, and one has to wonder if Ben might finally detect something other than sarcasm under that honeyed retort. Now backed into a corner, Constance finally comes clean about not taking the child back into the house—there are forces there that mean to do him great harm, “the same as they did your sweet wife.” (I got the distinct impression Constance wanted to confess the house’s evil to him just so she could rub his own insistent ignorance in his face one last time.) “Did you buy a casket for Violet too? After everything that’s happened, how can you still be so blind?!” At this point Ben notices the pic of Tate with Addy in Constance’s kitchen and flashes back, finally connecting the dots, to the call he made to Tate’s mother about not being able to treat her son. Ding!
Back across the way, Moira offers a friendly shoulder to Vivien, but not before reminding her that in the afterlife she is no longer her servant, that they are on equal footing. “How is your adjustment going?” she asks. “Are you fighting the desire to appear to him?” Vivien tells her that she is not considering appearing to Ben for fear that “if he sees us he’s gonna want to stay here.” “Then sit down and keep your distance,” Moira offers, before finishing with this one: “Remember the endgame.”
Ben finalizes preparations to leave, which turns out to include suicide by a revolver in the mouth, all the while looking to Violet’s picture—For inspiration? For salvation?—before Vivien is compelled to jeopardize “the endgame” by intervening in what she imagines would be Ben’s final disaster, leaving the baby to be raised without a father while he cools his heels along with the other trapped ghosts. “I’m not his father and you know it,” He moans. “I forgive you,” Vivien replies, somewhat impatiently. “So enough with the drama and the tragedy. I’ve had enough.” (By the 12th episode, viewers may be feeling something of the same.) There’s an impromptu family reunion, Violet appearing now too, before everything sharply disappears and Ben is left by himself in his office, wondering if it might not all have just been another realistic delusion. (And I also wondered, why this abrupt spectral way for Ben to experience the ghosts and no one else Just another question left unanswered, I‘m afraid.)
As Ben prepares to leave, alive, Hayden confronts him on the stairwell and with the help of the three killers steals the baby and hangs Ben from the chandelier in front of the wailing infant. “Now we have all the time in the world,” she says to Ben’s dangling corpse.
Enter Stacy and Miguel Ramos and their son Gabe, who take the tour of the Murder House with the increasingly ridiculous Realtor Marcy, who wastes no time making ethnically idiotic (and so funny!) remarks while she attempts to sell them on the bliss of living in a house she well knows to be haunted. Gabe immediately runs into the Twins, and is observed by Violet as well. The Ramoses, bewitched by the allure of this house, the price of which has been mysteriously reduced by the now-deceased sellers, buy that sucker. And the first thing I thought to myself was, thank Christ the Ramoses didn’t buy at the start of this season, because the prospect of spending 12 episodes with these lousy actors would be just too much, and it made me appreciate, flaws and all, McDermott, Britton and everyone else anew.
The two detectives who once thought they had Constance dead to rights over the disappearance of her boy toy, the Boy Dahlia, now quiz Constance over the whereabouts of the suddenly missing baby. She recounts to them the sad story of how she stumbled upon Ben’s body, a story which is contrasted with a representation of how it really went down—Constance smoking, staring up at the corpse and addressing Ben’s ghost, now standing right beside her. “You stupid son of a bitch,” she offers to him with as much sympathy as she can muster (.0008% by my measurement). To which Ben replies, “I can’t believe she killed me.” There’s comedy in there somewhere! Constance stands by to witness the undead Harmons reunited.
She somehow convinces the police that Violet, whose body has not yet been discovered by the outside world, must have made off with the baby after the apparent suicide of ben and rather easily dissuades them from further investigating her possible involvement. But Constance does know where the baby is. While searching the Harmon house, she bumps into Hayden, in whose cold arms the baby is cradled. They trade a couple of Murphy-approved quips and Hayden actually tells her Constance will have to take the baby “over my dead body.” (She really does.)
Just then Constance’s previously bisected boyfriend Travis steps out from the shadows behind Hayden and slits Hayden’s throat, which disables Ben’s put-upon ex-lover (“Oh, shit”) just long enough for him to grab the baby and give it to Constance. Sweet vengeance for him, I suppose, but an ignominious and disappointing exit for Hayden, once a favorite character, from any vital part she might have to play in how this show settles into its final resolve. Constance retrieves the baby and hides it in her closet, where it was, sitting very quietly, all through the detective’s interrogation in Constance’s kitchen.
Gabe is introduced to Violet—she plays his CD of Butthole Surfers and insults his terrible taste in music. Violet seems to be grooving the taunting aspect of undead flirting just to piss off Tate, who plaintively stares and the scene which serves as a weird reboot of his own beginnings with Violet. Meanwhile, Ramoses start getting amorous in their new kitchen while Vivien and Ben quietly observe. “I remember when we were like that,” Vivien intones wistfully. But when the Ramoses start talking about a new baby to replace their soon-to-be-graduating son, Vivien and Ben are spurred to action. “I lost two babies in this house,” says Viv.” They seem like such a nice couple. We have to do something.” Enter Moira, who explains that they’ll need some help if they’re really serious about an intervention in another typically expository speech: “Some spirits in the house are angry and vengeful and eager to inflict their fate on others. But many of us are innocent, kind, blameless victims at the hands of another, and we don’t want to see more suffering in this house.”
Thus kicks off Murphy and Falchuk’s ghoul-infested riff on Blithe Spirit, pitting the “good” ghosts versus the “bad” ones for the souls of the new family. Tate taunts Gabe and threatens to kill him so Violet won’t be alone. Stacy is attacked by the Rubber Man (it is Ben this time), and she even sees the dead nurses in the upstairs bathroom, which kicks off an agonizing bout of very unconvincing screaming. (Travolta’s Jack Terry would have erased that audition tape.) Vivien and Moira reveal the spirit of the house to Miguel, including a SHOCK reappearance by the bisected Black Dahlia— “YOU’RE WIDE AWAKE!”
Stacy ends up in the basement, Miguel follows her hilarious yelping, and in front of the two of them (but not Thaddeus, who must have remained cowering in the basement corner in fear of having to inspire this new owner to so unconvincingly scream) Vivien mock confronts the unmasked Ben and then disembowels him for show. “You have no idea how long I‘ve been wanting to do that!” she says, making explicit what we always knew about Vivien. Ben responds by shooting her in the head. Haha! After they both fall, then get up, Ben intones to the living couple, “This is what it does to you, this house.” “Run,” groans Vivien, and boy, do these bad actors skedaddle. Vivien and Ben enjoy a hearty laugh.
Meanwhile, upstairs Violet intervenes in Tate’s wacky plan to keep Violet from being alone by killing Gabe, thus providing her with a companion for eternity that she’ll presumably like better than Tate. (But, dude, he listens to the Butthole Surfers! What are they gonna talk about?) “You told me to go away,” Tate whines. “Yeah, but I never said goodbye. Come let me say goodbye.” Violet plants one last kiss on Tate, lasting just long enough for Gabe to escape. And then: “Goodbye, Tate.” She disappears, leaving Tate somehow now isolated in the house.
Cut to a reprise of “You Belong to Me,” the eerie song sung by children first heard when the redheaded twins break into the house during the first moments of the pilot. We hear the song over the sight of the Ramoses escaping the site of the house, too frightened to ever return. Vivien, Violet and Ben stare out from the front door as they peel away in their station wagon. “Some other poor family’s just gonna move in here,” Vivien worries. “Suckers’ll have no idea what they’re in for.” But Ben reassures her (and us): “We’ll know exactly what to do.” Who you gonna call?!
Marcy puts up yet another “Reduced” sign on the Murder House while the Eternal Darkness tour swings past the house one last time. Adieu, Marcy! Then comes one of the show’s best scenes, in which Tate tries one last time to run his scam on Ben, who seems finally to have wised up in his status as Dead Guy with Newly-Minted Insight—he ain’t having it. If the scene smacks slightly of that making-it-up-on-the-spot syndrome you’ve pointed out before, Simon, then at least it has the conviction of the actors to back up it up. Both McDermott and Peters redeem the scene in much the same way Peters and Farmiga redeemed the spoiled romanticism of their final scene in the previous episode.
“You’re a psychopath,” he tells a moist-eyed Tate. "But don’t listen to me. I’m a total fraud. Therapy doesn’t work.”
“Then why do people do it?” Tate reasonably wonders.
“Because they don’t want to take any responsibility for their crappy lives, so they pay a therapist to listen to their bullshit and make it all feel… special, so they can blame their crazy mothers for everything that went wrong. Sound familiar? We’re not so different, Tate. I’m a bad person too.”
“But she forgave you. Maybe she’ll forgive me too.”
“She can’t. You can only forgive someone for what they do to you directly. Those people you murdered, they’re the only ones who can forgive you, and you took away their chance.”
“So this is it? There’s nothing I can do? No chance of mercy?” Tate is beside himself.
“Terrific performance, Tate,” Ben retorts, made seemingly and forever (and ever, and ever) cynical by the experience of death in the Murder House. “The whole misunderstood kid act? I fell for it. Violet did too. But a psychopath by definition is incapable of remorse. So let’s try this again, for real this time.” He moves in on Tate for special emphasis. “You destroyed everything that mattered most to me. What could you possibly want from me now?”
Tate apologizes again, but Ben rejects it. “What about taking responsibility for the things you’ve done?” Tate doesn’t (cannot?) respond. “Christ. You can’t even say the words,” spits Ben with disgust.
Then Tate is finally moved to confess his real world crimes. “There are other things I did. I’ll tell you everything.”
“I’m not your priest, Tate. I can’t absolve you for any of this.”
“I get that. But can you just… hang out with me sometimes?”
This struck me as perhaps the most moving line in the episode, perhaps even in the series, as in so nicely encapsulates what Mira feels moved to spell out just a few minutes later, only in the context of a real character call-and-response.
Vivien finally gets to play her cello, but she’s interrupted by the cranky baby that Nora is already tired of tending to. Nora assumes she is the nanny and insists on being called Mrs. Montgomery. Vivien accedes when she realizes the baby is hers, the unfortunate one who was presumed to have been born dead before the emergence of the Alpha Baby. “He made one tiny little cry and then passed on,” Nora explains bitterly. “Apparently I’m the only one who witnessed it. Charles didn’t—genius.” Nora dismisses the infant as unhappy and can’t possibly hold inside how disappointed she is in him, because of his apparent weakness and constant crying. But she asserts “the arrangements that had been made” when Vivien tries to comfort the baby and tells her to keep her hands off— “The baby is mine.” Vivien, understanding how easy it will be to get this apparition to forget about yet another unsatisfactory child, offers to help using some tricks she knows. Nora reveals that she hasn’t even named the wailing child—she calls him “Little Noisy Monster,” and Vivien immediately comforts him with song. “Oh, thank God,” Nora sighs, tacitly, eternally relieving herself of maternal obligation. “I was actually quite worried I might harm him if he didn’t quiet down. Perhaps you can keep him for the night.” “You rest, Mrs. Montgomery,” Vivien offers in her best approximation of the tones employed by Moira in her servitude. “We’ll be fine.” Nora waves her off and reveals this shocker: “I’m not entirely sure I have the patience to be a mother.”
Vivien brings the baby to Moira who is in the kitchen—“Cleaning is what I’m good at, so I’ll just carry on.” Vivien offers to let her hold the baby, and an eternal bond is forged when she asks Moira to be the baby’s godmother, yet another new member of the Harmon family. Soon they are all decorating the Christmas tree together and Violet marvels at just how ancient the tree ornaments are. (I was marveling at where they got all this stuff, but that’s just me.) Moira responds by reminding her, echoing Tate’s existential fears, “You’ll come to understand, Violet, that the word ‘ancient’ loses all its meaning when your entire existence is one long today.”
Ben then offers the most unlikely of all sentiments in the first season of American Horror Story: “I didn’t think it was possible ever again, but I’m happy.” Of course the camera pans from this scene of undead familial bliss (one which I’ll admit I was grateful for, and not just because of the way it slightly curdles the typical feel-good Hollywood Christmas ending) to two familiar figures staring, quite separate from the glow of the hearth and the radiating love, through a series of windows. Hayden says to Tate, deflating the holiday spirit, “Grow a pair, Rambo. She’s not into you. You’re not getting back into her. She’ll never talk to you again.”
Tate’s all-too-true response: “I’ll wait forever if I have to.”
But wait! That’s not all! The title card says “THREE YEARS LATER”…
Constance enters a beauty salon, where she is greeted by her hairdresser, who obviously hasn’t seen her in a long time. When she asks what Constance has been up to, Constance replies, downplaying somewhat, “I’ve been just a little bit housebound of late. I had a baby.” Ever the frustrated actress, Constance then spins an elaborate scenario of the orphaning of little Michael for the hairdresser’s benefit. After the salon session in which Constance’s bouffant is restored to epic dominance, the hairdresser compliments her: “I don’t think you have ever looked younger or more radiant.” Well, this is catnip to our Constance, who stares into the mirror and begins a brief soliloquy that certainly reminded me of everything I liked about Jessica Lange’s performance in this show, even after all the rough patches. “It’s true, isn’t it?” she asks rhetorically, admiring her own visage as the wheels of her mind begin to turn.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I was destined for great things… Tragedy was preparing me for something greater. Every loss that came before was a lesson. I was being prepared, and now I know for what. This child. A remarkable boy, destined for greatness, in need of a remarkable mother, someone forged in the fires of adversity who can guide him with wisdom, with firmness, with love.”
Constance returns home to find her housekeeper Flora murdered, her throat torn out, little Michael sitting over the body in a white rocker. He giggles, angelic face smeared with blood. “Now what am I gonna do with you?” she asks, gazing on him admiringly.
Calling Mrs. Baylock!
Well, Simon, I had a lot more issues with the sort of cut-and-paste sensibility of this wrap-up than I did with “Birth,” but warts and all I still enjoyed it and felt it was a fitting way to bring the season to a close. I almost wrote that I wish there had been more time to investigate some of the things I still find lacking, but I imagine that investigation would just result in more dead ends like the whole idea of invoking Los Angeles’s (and America’s) real-life horrors. Using echoes of Richard Speck and Charles Manson and Elizabeth Short to adorn what ends up a not especially surprising story that is far less original at close range than the glance at its surface in real time suggests is disappointing, and maybe even at times offensive. But by its end there is some power to American Horror Story that transcends all the deadening attempts by its creators to be wise and hip and above it all, and I’d wager my conclusion would be that it’s the actors who bring to it that weight. They are who I’ll remember long after the skittering, fractured images of monstrosity that are this show’s moldering bread and butter have long been ionized and floated away. And I'd be lying if I said I begrudged this show, after all it has put its characters-- and us-- through, the attempt at bringing a little light into the scenario vis-a-vis its holiday tinged denouement. Of course there's room from that Omen-oid stinger at the end too, and naturally I salute that. But I also appreciated the sliver of possibility for some afterlife peace, however short-lived, for the Harmons and Moira, and maybe even Tate, if he'll just stop hanging out with Hayden and convince Ben to chew the fat every once in a while. Constance's place in the design of the coming apocalypse, is well assured, and it's nice to know that somewhere inside the Murder House there is solace and repose from even that.
(* I hope I do better on my 2013 New Year’s resolutions…)
Catch up on the American Horror Story conversation between Simon and me by clicking on the following links:
"SMOLDERING CHILDREN" POST #2
"SMOLDERING CHILDREN" POST #1
"SPOOKY LITTLE GIRL" POST #2
"RUBBER MAN" POST #3
"SMOLDERING CHILDREN" POST #1
"SPOOKY LITTLE GIRL" POST #2
"RUBBER MAN" POST #3