Monday, October 01, 2012


Simon Abrams and I are ready to kick off our discussion of the next chapter of American Horror Story. I'll open up with a recap and some opening thoughts, then it's Simon's turn.


So here we are, Simon, finally arrived at episode five of American Horror Story, entitled "Piggy Piggy," an episode that feels transitional to me. Or perhaps it’s just that it’s an episode given over to emotional repose, gathering up, airing out. It’s also a strange one in that the name of the episode carries weight that doesn’t entirely get resolved, at least not in a satisfactory way, in the episode itself. It may be significant to my half of the discussion (and it also may not be significant) that this is one of two episodes that I had not yet seen myself, so my reactions to it may be a little more raw than my reflections on any of the other chapters so far.

After having just seen finished watching the show, I realized that my preconceptions of just what the porcine imagery of the title was referring to were somewhat off-base. On one level I like that; on another, some dissatisfaction arises from the sense that the imagery, and the element from which it is derived, seems grafted rather inorganically onto the main concerns of the show’s thrust so far.  When I think of “pig” in the context of American Horror Story, my mind races first to the little creatures pickled in Dr. Charles Montgomery’s basement laboratory, and I expect that somehow there might be at least a suggestion of how the presence of those creatures in the visual iconography of the series might be expanded on in some way. Instead, the “Piggy Piggy” of the title refers to an urban legend, the Piggy Man, a Chicago hog butcher who, during the World’s Fair of 1893 made a habit, before entering onto the main floor of the slaughterhouse, of donning a pig mask made from the flesh of a previous kill, and then snorting at and taunting the soon-to-be pork. According to the legend, one day he slipped and fell, the hogs killed him, leaving not a trace of the Piggy Man left behind to be discovered by the authorities. When some of his former customers started turning up gutted and skinned and hung upside-down in the bathtub to expedite draining, the legend of the Piggy Man was born. And they say (“they” always say) that to this day, if you stand in front of the mirror (shades of the Candyman)  and recite the words, “Here, piggy, piggy, piggy, pig” to your reflection, his murderous spirit will be unleashed yet again, the one doing the reciting presumably being the Piggy Man’s first new victim.

All this is revealed to Ben (and to us) by Derek (Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet), another patient of Ben’s who is incapacitated by an irrational fear of fairytales and urban legends. (Ben is living elsewhere after having been booted to the curb by Vivien, but he still must use the office in the house as a—paltry?-- source of income.) Ben attempts to help Derek deal with this irrational fear, which are getting in the way of Derek’s attempts to pursue normal societal and sexual relations, manifest in insisting that he confront those fears and doing precisely that which most terrifies him—staring into the mirror, reciting the incantation and proving once and for all that the legend is just a harmless story that should hold no sway over a grown man’s life. Of course we know, when Ben invites Derek to step into the bathroom typically designated for use by his patients just down the hall from his office, the one located in the Murder House, to confront his fear that it’s probably not the best idea. And in fact, when Derek finally steels himself and goes through with it, he conjures not the Piggy Man, but a mysterious, ashen, hospital-gown clad ghoulie whom he finds in the shower, and who conveniently disappears by the time Ben comes to take a look. (Since the vision flies by so fast in the editing scheme of AHS, I stopped down and went in for a second stop-frame look just to make sure that I wasn’t mistaken in not recognizing the ghoulie’s identity.)

Insistent that he’s on the right track, Ben pushes Derek to try the experiment again, this time in his own home and away from the security blanket of Ben’s presence, after Derek complains that the anxieties have remained crippling to his potential love life. Ben encourages Derek to think of the problem as a psychological law of physics—the more you fear something, the more power you give it.  Of course there’s an underlying irony that it’s Ben, who has very little power over his own sexual impulses and a much looser grasp on his own moral certainty in the light of his disposal of Hayden and his various betrayals of Vivien, who is dishing out this advice. (The director, Michael Uppendahl, lays Ben’s theory of psychological defense over a series of shots of him looking through windows, unseen, at Vivien as she sits in the kitchen conversing with Luke, the hunky security guy played by Morris Chestnutt.) Heartened by Ben’s rationale, Derek goes home and tries it again, and this time with each recitation resulting in no pig-faced homicidal maniac lurching at him from behind, or even through the mirror, Derek relaxes. “Here, piggy, piggy, pig!” he taunts, to no one in particular, obviously relieved. Except the home invader who turn out to be hiding in the shower (there is just no sanctity of the home in this show) thinks Derek has spotted him and takes exception to being taunted in such a manner. So he shoots and kills Derek, which prompts his pal, who has been ransacking another room down the hall, to burst in and start yelling about how this was just supposed to be a burglary and that no one was supposed to get killed. The last time we see Derek, he’s laying dead on his bathroom floor, perforated with gunshot wounds to the back and bleeding, probably already dead, a victim of Ben’s advice—good advice, on the surface—and a nasty case of unfortunate coincidence.

My problem with the Piggy Man section of the show is that it seems to be unrelated (except in the way that Uppendahl visually insists on making the tangential connection) to the real meat of what’s going on in the show vis-à-vis Ben, Vivien, Violet, Constance and Tate, all of whom have a substantial presence in what amounts to essentially a very mournful episode. The Piggy Man hi-jinks fulfill the show’s jolt quotient, but they don’t seem to add anything either to our understanding of the characters, the situation they are in or, more importantly, the evil mythos of the house itself.

“Piggy Piggy” begins with a harrowing account of the murders at Westfield High, and you’d have to be particularly pinched in the empathy department not to respond with an ache in the gut at the very onset of this scene, which opens the action of the episode in 1994. We see in detail (but, thankfully, given AHS’s tendency to not look away at some rather gruesome events in its past, not too much detail) exactly what happened to the Dead Breakfast Club in that high school library, and how Tate comports himself as a bringer of death. Not that I’m angling for a membership in the Gaffe of the Month Club or anything, but one thing that stuck out to me as glaringly missing from the scene is something that is specifically referred to in “Halloween, Part 2,” the moment when the blond girl expresses anger at Tate for asking her if she believed in God, and her own response to the positive even though she admit, in death, that she didn’t. It remains to be seen if this is somehow significant or just an oversight of editing, but that exchange never happens as the horror unfolds (in what passes for real time on this show) in “Piggy Piggy.” Yes, it could be that we’re supposed to accept that it just happens off-screen, but so much was made of it in the previous episode—it seems central to the girl’s eternal existential wrestling match—that to ignore it so casually here seems like an uncharacteristic storytelling blunder. The recounting of the murders ends with Tate, who lived with Constance in the Murder House in 1994 at the time of the killings, back to his bedroom, where he is followed by a squad of tactical police, who are themselves followed up the stairs by a wailing Constance, crying out for information about what’s happened and, eventually, for the reputation and then the life of her boy. (We revisit this event near the end of the episode and see Tate, who initially puts a finger to his temple in an act of mock suicide, lunge for a gun, which draws the deadly barrage of fire that sends him into his peculiar limbo.)

But that’s not all, folks. Violet Googles (or whatever the name of the fake search engine is that she uses) info on the Westfield High murders and discovers a Web site devoted to the history of the horrific event, but also to its victims, whom she met in the previous episode, and to the perpetrator, her ostensible boyfriend Tate, who she finds out was killed by police in the aftermath of the shooting. He’s dead, something you certainly suspected for a while, Simon, but which comes as quite a shock to Violet, who has the news confirmed, rather matter of factly, by Constance and a medium friend played by Sarah Paulson, who bristles at Violet’s description of her as a Beverly Hills psychic (“A medium, dear. I can’t read your future. That’s a different gift.”)  The two sit Violet down for some serious exposition on the nature of the Murder House ghosts and a heart-to-heart talk about the condition of Tate in particular. It’s a conversation that leaves Violet reeling back to the counsel of former teen queen Leah, whose basement encounter with Tate and the Infantata in the pilot episode has turned her  (somewhat improbably, as far as I can parse) into a completely paranoid expert on the Antichrist mythology of the Book of Revelation.

Leah admits that she only gets about four hours of sleep at night—she can’t stop thinking about the Biblical account of a woman up in heaven in terrible labor pain whose baby is waiting to be eaten by a seven-headed red dragon who is himself /itself then cast out of heaven and spends the rest of the course of human history trying to steal the human race away from God soul by soul. But Violet is really most interested in the “pills” part, and before she leaves Leah has supplied her with a bottle of big-time downers. After visiting the Westfield High library herself and quizzing a wheelchair-bound teacher who was himself a victim of the shooting, Violet returns home and catches a glimpse of who she believes is Tate sliding past a doorway. She follows him down to the basement, where instead of encountering Tate she discovers the redheaded twins, that same undead shower ghoulie that Derek runs into, Dr. Charles Montgomery, who wonders if she’s here for an appointment, and even the three serial killer copycats from the “Home Invasion” episode. Horrified, Violet reaches her breaking point and returns to her upstairs bedroom where she despairingly overdoses on Leah’s pills in order to escape a reality that has warped well beyond her recognition. (My favorite visual moment in the series comes here, when she lies down after gulping the contents of the bottle in a position of deathful repose on the bed, and the camera follows her downward movement onto the mattress, and then continues slowly down, past the edge of the bed and into the blackness of what lies beneath it. Thankfully, Larry has moved on.) A quick cut reveals Tate dragging Violet’s unconscious body down the hall, begging her not to die, and eventually putting her in the tub with himself, where he revives her under the shower. The end of the episode finds Tate confessing his love for Violet out loud (as opposed to the “I Love You” note Violet discovered upon first arriving home) and the two of them, confused and exhausted, spooning together and completely unsure of what to expect next.

But that’s still not all. “Piggy Piggy” also finds Vivien undergoing an excruciating amniocentesis and encountering the radiologist who fainted at the sight of the ultrasound in “Halloween Part 1.” This woman, who insists upon meeting Vivien in a Catholic church one-ups even Leah in terms of flowering religious pathology. (“I saw the unclean thing you carry in your womb, the Plague of Nations, the Beast! I saw the little hooves!”) And with the help of the medium Billie Dean, Constance contacts Addy, who forgives her never being the mother she clearly knew she never was. Addy also tells her that on the other side Addy says really is a pretty girl, thanking Constance for failing to drag her onto the lawn of the Harmon house before she died. (“She doesn’t want to be with Tate,” Billie Dean tells her. “She’s afraid of him now that she knows the truth.”)

As I said earlier, the episode seems to me to be one in which there is some breathing room given to the process of grieving (the true nature of Constance’s tortured relationship with Addy is revealed, at least from the tortured mother’s perspective), but also to dealing with the emotional recoil of Violet’s discovery. It’s a relatively quiet episode in the moments I like best, and it’s most effective violence is something that is centered within wounds that, even a decade after Columbine, and absolutely during the summer of the Colorado/Dark Knight shootings and the Muslim mosque massacre, remain agonizingly fresh. I think this is why I find the Derek subplot unsatisfying—it’s tacky filler compared to the resonance of the Westfield High episode and the weight we’ve invested these characters with so far. (Uppendahl and writer Jessica Scharzer walk the thin line between illumination and ghastly exploitation pretty well, though Scharzer shows her schooling in the Murphy/Falchuk Snarky Dialogue Department all too clearly at times, especially during the Violet/Constance/Billie Dean conversation and any time the strident Vivien shows up.) This episode also gives over an interesting amount of space to textured imagery of a somewhat grisly nature—Violet’s horrific self-mutilation fantasies, that aforementioned amino session, and bloody meats. I haven’t mentioned Constance’s insistence of bringing in some fresh, vitamin-rich offal for Vivien to eat to encourage the healthy growth of the baby, culminating in a particularly gag-inducing dish that we can talk about next time, if you wish. But I’m thinking also of the sliver-thin focal plane in which Derek is often shot which renders his tortured face in a more empathetic, yet strangely disorienting fashion. Too bad there wasn’t the thematic resonance to go along with what is clearly the episode’s showiest visual trope.

Anyway, I have prattled on long enough. The one thing element left dangling in this episode that will (hopefully) be illuminated later is Billie Dean’s very odd projection back to Violet of the vision of an old woman, lying in a hospital bed, hooked up to oxygen and obviously near death. In the vision, Violet leans over the old woman who looks at her with deadened yes and whispers, “I don’t understand you. Never will understand you.” Violet is horrified, and Billie Dean asks her, “What does this mean?” I can’t wait to find out myself.


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







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