Tuesday, October 18, 2011

American Horror Story, Episode 2: Can't You See The Blood?

Well, if you're going to leverage the success of your previous shows to do something spectacularly messed-up on a network that seems willing to take some chances, you'd best go big. American Horror Story came out of the gate like the tweaking party guest nobody could remember inviting - the one who won't stop sweating and really, really wants to talk to you about the gold standard and some really compelling business opportunities involving the collapse of Western civilization. A whole lot of crazy, all up in your face at once. I had some concerns after the first episode that a constant barrage of weird would be too distracting to be scary, and the second episode eases up a little on the sheer WTF-ery in every scene. It's still a little frenetic in spots, but with the cast of characters in place, the pace slows down a little. It's less a bunch of stuff being flung at you, and more something unfolding. Some piece of origami, maybe. Folded from a hideous picture, each glimpse, each angle, letting us in a little more to the horrible totality.

Just as the pilot opened in 1978, with the house sitting in ruins, this episode opens up in 1968, with the house serving as a boarding house for nursing students. In 1978, two boys intent on vandalism were mauled by, well, something in the basement. In 1968, the house is in fine shape, and some of the students are going out for the evening. Two others are staying in to study, and because they don't want to get themselves in trouble, late-60s-single-women-style. And when a man comes to the door, hurt and bleeding from a cut on his forehead, the nursing students let him in.

He isn't really hurt, and they don't survive the night.

It's looking more and more like this house is built as much out of atrocity as it is brick.

Meanwhile, the Harmon family, already busy disintegrating when they moved in, are hard at work fucking themselves up even more. They moved across the country to get away from everything that happened to them in Boston - Ben's affair, Vivien's stillbirth. Now Ben's affair is reaching out from one coast to the next. She's pregnant, and wants Ben to come to Boston to help "take care of it." Naturally, Ben lies his lying face off about it to his wife and daughter. Not that it matters as much at this point - he and his wife are forging a tenuous reconnection over her new pregnancy (yeah, that's healthy), and his daughter is pretty much openly contemptuous of him because of the affair. She doesn't fit in at school and she's cutting herself. On the other hand, she's made a connection with Tate, one of Ben's clients. Tate is probably not the healthiest friend to have, but he's pretty familiar with the house - including the knowledge that there is something in the basement. So Ben's off to Boston, and Vivien and Violet are on their own in the house.

And a woman comes to the door, hurt and bleeding from a cut on her forehead.

One of this show's strengths so far is how it keeps us off-balance. In the pilot, that was partially because we had so much information thrown at us. In this episode, it's more how new reveals upset what we think we know. The people who die here don't seem to leave, so it remains to be seen who else is a victim of the house. For the most part, we only have the Harmon's perspective, and that's not very trustworthy. It turns out Constance has a life apart from the house, and it's just as messed up as you might imagine. But Moira? Tate? Are we seeing them as they are? Tate is alternately full of rage and lonely, confused. He knows there's something important about the basement, but pleads ignorance as to what. Moira is a seductress to Ben and an older woman to everyone else. People don't really walk into this house. They're just sort of not there, and then they are. The jittery, disconnected editing of the pilot continues, as if what we're witnessing is fragmented, and the gaps suggest there are things we aren't actually seeing, but should. For the nursing students in 1968, the blood on the man's forehead was a lie, and the truth was much worse. This episode reinforces the idea that what we see may very well be the lie, and the truth might actually be worse. What can't we see?

Episode One

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