Monday, November 21, 2011

American Horror Story, Episode 3: The Man of the House

In my post about the first episode, I talked about this show as being an honest-to-goodness American horror story - a disintegrating marriage, a traumatic stillbirth, a rebellious daughter, and now a costly, unsellable home. That's the American nightmare right there. The third episode focuses the nightmare a little more, though, on American nightmares specific to men. Apart from everything else we learn, this is Ben's episode, Ben's nightmare.

It opens in 1983, and a vivacious young Moira is being pressured into sex by the man of the house. This is apparently based in precedent, a bad decision Moira chalks up to being lonely. The man's not hearing it, though, and things start turning to rape pretty quick. In comes the wife - oh shit! It's Constance! - and she shoots the fuck out of her husband and Moira. Yeah, they were living in the house at the time. This is a point in the show where one piece of the puzzle starts unwinding over the next few episodes. For as much batshit insane stuff as gets thrown at us in the pilot, much of it seems to be paying off as the tips of many ugly icebergs.

But this episode is, as far as I'm concerned, really about Ben. He's got a new client, who is distraught over her failing marriage (there that is again). Her husband is leaving her because she's, well, boring. The actress really sells it, too - she's pleasant enough, and she doesn't do a droning monotone or anything as obvious as that. She just makes everything she says seem inconsequential and stays just on the right side of not knowing when to stop talking. It's not overstated, but you don't miss the intent. Ben does the worst possible thing you can do in this instance - he drifts off in the middle of the session, and the next thing he knows, he wakes up in the backyard. The client is gone, nowhere to be found. I'm not a therapist, but I can't imagine anything worse than tuning out in the middle of a session, let alone to the point that you lose time.

So Ben can't do his job. He can't handle the role of provider.

On top of that, Hayden - the woman with whom Ben had an affair - has shown up on the Harmon's doorstep. She thinks Ben's wife should know everything. Like what? Like that Hayden didn't get an abortion. She's keeping the baby and insists that Ben help her raise it, starting by getting her an apartment in Los Angeles. Hayden's passed the point of jilted lover and is headed for crazy-eyed obsessive. Ben's mistake is metastasizing.

So Ben can't bring closure to his infidelity. He can't handle the responsibilities of a man atoning for a mistake.

And he wasn't there during the home invasion that threatened his wife and daughter. They took care of it on their own (well, more or less, but more on Tate over the next few episodes). Violet sees him as irretrievably weak, and her mother as strong and better than the man she married.

So Ben can't carry any authority at home. Nobody takes him seriously. He can't handle being a father.

Ben has failed as man of the house.

As the episode goes on, each of these crises winds tighter and tighter around Ben, and his anxiety and suffocation are tangible. He does not have his shit together at all. His shit is completely apart at this point, and it all ends in sudden, shocking violence, followed by a burial of sorts. Ben finally exerts agency, finally does something of his own will. He builds something in the backyard, a lovely brick gazebo, a fine addition to any home. In doing so, he entombs all of his misery and ensures that he will never be free of it.

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