Tuesday, October 09, 2012


I'm back with my response to Simon Abrams's "Piggy Piggy" post (and no, that's not a pejorative judgment on Simon's writing or his arguments!) as our American Horror Story  season one analysis continues. The Blu-ray/DVD box set of season one is now available, which will make catching up with and keeping track of this conversation even fresher (providing that it hasn't already taken on the odor of a discarded hog carcass). Also a reminder, American Horror Story: Asylum, the new season, in which a completely new story line is introduced, with some of the same actors returning in different roles-- one would assume they'll be different, anyway, but with this show, who knows-- premieres October 17 on FX. Onward! 


Here we are, running out of time to talk about “Piggy Piggy,” and again, mey-uh culp-uh, but if there really is no time for sergeants, then there’s even less time for whining, so let’s get right to it, shall we?

I can and will accept the notion that the Piggy Man idea is a clothes line on which the episode attempts to hang its particular metaphorical concerns, but it remains reed-thin and subject to the blustery breezes AHS is capable of stirring up as far as I’m concerned, and I’m not sure it’s up to the weight of the laundry Murphy and Falchuk and company want to hang on it. The thing that bothers me about it is that the very annoying randomness you ascribe to the fate of poor Derek is the randomness of the Piggy Man concept, at least as it fits into the grand scheme of AHS as we seem to understand it so far. The Piggy man mythology itself seems to violate the insularity of the concept of the Murder House structure of the series—it’s as if the “What Happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” ad campaign suddenly shifted its focus to Reno, or Winnemucca, without changing the tag line.

Perhaps I’m being too legalistic in more or less demanding that the show, by episode five, play by the guidelines it’s set up for itself—and by now, halfway through the arc of the story of this season, we should be able to rely on those guidelines as meaningful in some way to the way we process the information that is sometimes slowly being distributed. And yes, I think knowing how the rest of the season does play out colors my perception of the Piggy Man element somewhat—it really isn’t organic, other than to the metaphoric application, to what happens before or after. It doesn’t resonate in the way that M&F, however blithely, however irresponsibly, however effectively, have juggled and accessed the house’s history—much of it derived from real, ghastly crimes in Los Angeles and elsewhere—up to this point. It’ a conceit, an episodic conceit at that, and it seems to be in service to a concept that is the antithesis of what we’ve seen so far too. Billie Dean, the psychic—sorry, the medium-- who we’re introduced to in this episode, tells Violet in reference to Tate (and, I suppose, to Violet herself) that “nothing can be done once one has been chosen.” This implies, of course, that Satan, or evil, or who/whatever, has a design and, by implication, so would God/love/the forces of Good, I suppose. In other words, if we can take Billie Dean as a reliable narrator of the show’s internal logic—and the fact that Constance gives her credence and that she seems to genuinely be in contact with Addy and the mysterious Mary who sends such shivers of recognition through Violet’s cool demeanor lends weight to her reliability—then we have to assume that it is the show’s premise that there is an intelligent malevolent force shaping the fates of our beleaguered Harmon and the agenda-driven supporting players.

 But the Piggy Man subplot never develops beyond a sort of “shit happens” shrug, which I find really annoying. It’s a philosophy devoid of predestination, and one to which I personally happen to subscribe, but in this context, where the creators are working so hard – and largely successfully, I think, despite the reservations that examining the series in close fashion as we have been have drawn out into the open—it seems like a hipster con, a “whatever” stab at black comedy that falls flat because it seems to mean little to the way the story we really care about plays out. Watch the poor schmuck literally get shot in the dark! Why? Because, well, sometimes it really is all meaningless, because sometimes you’re just in the wrong place at the wrong time. All true. But in this context I cry “foul.” I want it to resonate with at least some facsimile of depth. Unfortunately, the tendrils connecting this wry bit of random happenstance to the meaning of how Tate or Constance or Vivien conduct themselves in this episode are just too gossamer thin to work for me.

Your non-rhetorical question plays into this too, I think. Tate is clearly being confronted by his past—Constance less so, but there’s still the whole Addy thing that haunts her-- and being forced to face his worst fear about what he might be. But as for Ben and the others, I don’t get a sense that anyone is really facing up to their past in a real way. Ben reflects not a whit on Hayden, and certainly the only time he considers his past (and what it implies for his hellish future) is when Vivien shoves it at him after he asserts his need to work out of the house. Vivien’s fears manifest themselves in her horror movie dream, but they don’t seem to stick with her too strongly when she’s faced with a plate full of pancreas, or a bowlful of brain. I think you’re absolutely right when you complain that these scenes don’t have the power they should—completely apart from the question of why Constance seems so insistent on this kind of diet to promote the baby’s “health.” Does she really expect Vivien to keep this up? Well, she might, after all. She goes at them with a hell of a lot less resistance than any pregnant woman I’ve ever known would have—we’re a long way from pickles and ice cream here, Toto. And Vivien being the health trender we’ve seen her to be in the past, maybe we should have our suspicions. Moira does, after all, say to her at one point, “I hear the raw food movement if really taking off,” yet more Murphy/Falchuk-style yuks.)

I can tell already that I’m going to run out of time (one can never really run out of space here), so I’ll try to touch on a couple other things that I had in my reserves which you touched on as well before I have to bail. You’re right when you suggest that we are on queasy, ever-shifting ground when it comes to the morality of restaging (under a fictionalized name and set of circumstances) the real-life horrors of Columbine et al. in the context of the horror series for television. There has a social stigma surrounding horror since the first appearance of horror in literature and in the movies, and it’s been persistent. Horror is somehow not good for you. It’s disreputable and indefensible. And frankly, in the envelope-pushing era of the ever-devolving Saw movies (and I liked Saw II & III a lot) and the defiant stupidity of The Human Centipede, there’s less and less modern horror that’s worth standing up for. So when Murphy and Falchuk deliberately tread into these murky waters, sans the distancing element of Bela Tarr-derived methodology that Gus Van Sant brought to Elephant, well, I think it’s a good thing that we as viewers sense the producers’ reticence, their awareness of what they’re getting into, as this scenario plays out.

Yes, we’ve already seen the results of the massacre in the previous episode, when the Dead Breakfast Club makes their first appearance to Tate and Violet, and to its credit I think the show did not treat their gory state with flippancy then. If you didn’t know who these people were at first, by the time they start talking it’s plenty clear, and seeing their violated, blasted, bloodied bodies is more than enough to clue us in that at least this violence is not something to necessarily be grooved upon. So I don’t really think Murphy/Falchuk et al. can be accused of being coy in not walking us through the steps of seeing fresh-faced high school students being turned into hamburger meat by Tate’s savage deployment of automatic weaponry. I don’t think it’s necessarily a cop-out or a sly bit of hypocrisy if they decide we don’t need to actually see the moments of these kids’ death.  Combined with what we already know, I think it’s a tacit acknowledgment of the thin ice they’re on in the first place, perhaps even a nod of respect to those who might identify all too closely with the events being depicted, to not turn the library shooting into an opportunity to get off on some more gore. Because that is how it would be perceived, whether that was the intent or not—as exploitation—and the debate over whether or not they should have ever even gone there is a different debate altogether. The fact is, they did, and I was grateful for the restraint they did display.

Which is why you’re absolutely right to be outraged at that shot of the girl pissing herself and the stream of urine as it trickles its way across the library floor. It comes across as a violation, not of the trust we have in Murphy and Falchuk—we ought to expect at some point that the show would be transgressive; it’s the rules of the game that have been set down, after all. But for me it is that relative restraint shown throughout the rest of the scene that makes this seem so gratuitous, like such a showboating, gotcha kind of move. The way the scene has been structured has some respect built into it, through which genuine empathetic terror and an awareness of what we now of Tate as a character, as well as a continued willingness to engage with all that contradictory behavior and how it either does or doesn’t jell and make sense, all come through. We don’t need that extra frisson of information. It’s like the good sense of the filmmakers  momentarily took leave, like they couldn’t trust us to understand the gravity of the situation without leaving us one truly pitiable image to convey that moment when the physical gives way to the inevitable. The show has pushed a lot of boundaries, many of them in service to making us understand how awful violence can have weight and meaning and horror, but you’re right-- the piss take was just too much.

Okay, I gotta go to work, and I didn't even get to the last scene between Tate and Violet, which I really like and which leads to an interesting development in the next couple of episodes. The way these two actors play together is marvelous; Evan Peters is really finding his way into a very difficult character, and managing to maintain a goodly, unlikely portion of audience sympathy along the way, and Taissa Farmiga seems so much more appealing to me as she slowly begins to become less smug and sure of herself as a teenage misfit, and more sure than ever that she really doesn't know what the hell is going on anymore.  One more swing at “Piggy Piggy” from you, good sir, and then on to episode six?


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








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