We might as well get cozy because it doesn't look like American Horror Story's whole meta-show convention is going anywhere. Which isn't that bad! Still, after a mildly confounding premiere, "Chapter 2" was both more satisfying and frustrating for reasons related to the show within a show, My Roanoke Nightmare. Satisfying because the episode delivered some inventive and disturbing scares along with an elegant story; frustrating, because of the distance at which the fake show continues to keep us. Also: still no credits!
But hey there's already too much negativity zooming around the world wide web, so this week let's try and focus on the positive attributes of these talking head testimonials. For one, they're a source of humor, an element that's been present in every season of this series in one form or another. Seeing the words "Dramatic Re-enactment" accompany Shelby's (Sarah Paulson) quite highly produced horror dramatization felt like comedic understatement. Let's just say your Ghost Hunters isn't exactly known for cracking out Emmy-winning cinematography.
Production value aside, Shelby's (Lily Rabe) discovery of the human luau was pure, gory American Horror Story goodness, with Kathy Bates even leading some sort of nature cult death ritual in an old school New England dialect. You could practically hear those weird long S's that look like fs. We don't know a lot about this faction of spectral maybe-wiccans, but it seems safe to say they do not approve of deserters who steal from the communal supplies.
Shelby could certainly attest to that, as she watched the dude get a pigtail nailed to his backside, and then received the humiliation of wearing a real hog's head. Very embarrassing. Oh, also he was roasted on a spit with his extremities cut off. If my backyard held terrors like these I'd be Craigslisting faster than you could say "Ye Olde Magicks."
I appreciated Shelby and Matt's (Andre Holland/Cuba Gooding Jr.) expressed desire to leave along with the couple's levelheaded response to such inexplicable nightmares. While Shelby still didn't have any answers about what she'd witnessed, the duo agreed that at least some of this nonsense had to due with local hillbillies The Polks trying to intimidate them. With so much money sunk into the property (Matt's life-savings), practically speaking they didn't really have many other options.
Sticking to the homemaking plan also allowed for Matt to be drawn into the phenomena, witnessing the otherworldly gun murder of a poor hospice patient in an otherwise unoccupied room. Which is to say the sympathetic skeptic became a believer after watching legit ghost sister nurses yucking it up over the killing of a helpless old lady. But hey, that's a fixer-upper for you.
This is the sort of atrocity in past seasons that would casually occur while the rest of the story chugged along, but this time around highlight scares like these almost always precede a follow-up testimonial from the likes of Matt, Shelby, or Lee (Adina Porter). Which could be seen as another benefit of the fake show: being treated to the inner-monologue that accompanies each terrifying moment. We not only get to see the characters discover horror, but also get to hear what was going on in their heads. In a media landscape where consumers can have second screen experiences and receive news while it occurs via hashtags, receiving these characters on several layers — as fictionalized player and composed storyteller — lets us see them as multi-dimensional, as a little more human.
While Matt and Shelby were brought closer together over their shared hunt for answers (and increasing refusal to leave this wretched, wretched stead), the hour also saw Lee (Angela Bassett) in shifting intimacies with her own family — and not necessarily for the better. I'm always impressed how each season works in domestic struggles, as the horror genre at large traditionally uses the unease of relationship strife to amplify paranormal terror. In last night's hour, Lee's damaged motherly bond with her daughter Flora found itself under a microscope courtesy of an invisible friend named "Priscilla" native to the home, and the lady cop's unstable history with substance abuse.
On a thematic level Lee's failure to be a good caretaker paralleled the failure of Shelby and Matt's own house to provide basic protective comforts. Whether a child new to the world, or a tenant new to a shelter, (or doomed colonists new to Roanoke), both mother and home traditionally take on protective roles. The world's a scary place full of unknown threats. Everyone needs a sanctuary from the madness outside.
This connection isn't anything new in American Horror Story. Last season also saw Alex (Chloe Sevigny) suffering through similar expectations along with dowdy mother Iris. Hell, Murder House even surrounded the birth of a baby in a new home. Throw in Priscilla acting as a voice for this deadly money pit threatening to kill Flora and her loved ones, plus the girl's sweater ending up at a baffling tree height, and Lee's looks to be a path of motherly redemption. Who knows, maybe Lee will even tell us this herself in a testimonial.
Another byproduct of letting the characters present their own take on the various hauntings going on is a more subdued and focused pace. I've always enjoyed the show's breakneck story developments, with plot lines blooming like flower footage on fast-forward. However, I also respect any entertainment hell bent on surprise.
For better or worse, sticking with a meta-show is surprising. To be fair, the further this series continues, the more pressure there's got to be to "wow" the audience. In a perfect world Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk would just ignore the crowds altogether, but we knew that wasn't the case the second we were all invited to guess the new theme. We became an audience aware of itself. In this mild breaking of the fourth wall, the characters on-screen also became more fictional — so why not just go ahead and call it out? Why not have fake characters playing "real" ones?
There is an argument to be made for secondhand story delivery adding to the mystique of a scary tale. Bram Stoker's novel Dracula is told through a series of varying media, like letters or dictaphone recordings. Found footage movies like last week's heavily advertised Blair Witch or the videotape discovered by Matt and Shelby can take a familiar real world format and "rationalize the irrational." Sure this dramatic re-enactment is very polished (plus how could Denis O'Hare's Elias Cunningham and his recordings be part of this fake show's production?), but the frenzied academic's explanation still helped a legend grow through the passing on of indirect information. There's a telescoping history concerning this property, and the fake show is part of that. Sisters who ran a murder hospice who were in turn possibly killed by an even older entity, and now we're hearing about some characters dealing with both? Hey, why not throw some mirrors facing other mirrors in there, too!
So, much like the no-nonsense banker who made it clear by episode's end that Shelby and Matt were pretty much stuck with this property, we the audience would do well to embrace the fake TV show element as our narrative structure. At worst, its a fresh take from a franchise known for taking chances, and at best a setup for something cooler down the line.
American Horror Story: Roanoke airs Wednesday nights at 10/9c on FX