American Horror Story Recaps: Chapter Two

by thethreepennyguignol

Since last week’s recap, I have been drowning under a big pile of work while this blog has lain sadly dormant, but more importantly, Sarah Paulson won a fucking Emmy! I mean, not for American Horror Story, so this is tangential at best, but still. At last! And she looked like some kind of divine, haughty mermaid while she did it. Ugh, this news has been making me smile all week. Sarah Paulson might legitimately be the peak human we have to offer right now, and I’m fine with that.

Moving on from my sweaty-browed, thigh-rubbing obsession with Sarah Paulson, let’s talk about this weeks’ episode of American Horror Story. We left off last week with (Emmy-award winning!) Sarah Paulson’s Shelby running across what appeared to be some kind of disturbing historical cult which included, even more disturbingly, Wes Bentley back for round two of Acting While Apparently Trying To Hold in a Poo. Luckily, Kathy Bates was there to even things out, so I was going in to this episode pretty optimistic.

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And, honestly, I think that’s how I left it too. Despite the lack of Kathy Bates, this episode was a relatively decent follow-up to that intriguing opener. Chapter Two had problems-fuck, this is American Horror Story, after all- but it did manage to get one thing right. And that was something that’s been missing for years- the horror.

The arguable centrepiece of this episode was a found-footage-esque sequence which occurred after Shelby and Matt find a old video camera in their cellar. They hook it up, and we meet Professor Cunningham (Denis O’Hare), who lived in the house an unspecified number of years ago and used the camera to document his time there. What we see, in a deeply unsettling sequence, is Cunningham laying down the facts that surround the history of the house, his own experiences there, and then, despite the fact he assumes he’ll die upon re-entering, his presumably final visit to the house. The actual depictions of what went on in the house before him- evil sister nurses murder, because, um, spelling?- were fine, I guess, and traditionally thin on any kind of sense, but secondary to the ratcheting tension present in the sequence.

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For a show that has relied so heavily on hysterical camp, unpleasant amounts of gore, and other thin tactics to masquerade as horror, this was something pure and proper and scary. Helped, in no small part, by the fact that Denis O’Hare is a fucking brilliant actor and one of this show’s key assets, and I honestly don’t understand why everyone isn’t putting him in everything.

While that was undoubtedly the scariest segment the episode had to offer, it didn’t skimp on the unpleasant for the rest of the episode, either-it opened with Kathy Bates (donning another oddly terrible accent) and her murder cult stringing up a member like a pig and roasting him over a fire, and there were plenty of things going bump in the night as the house continues to close in around Shelby, Matt, and Lee. I could have done without the show wringing the last drops out of The Sixth Sense/The Amityville Horror in the sequences featuring Lee’s daughter, but hey, as long as we’re not getting subjected to random scenes of spike-rape, this is an improvement. They’re also managing to keep their focus on one story as opposed to wandering off down bizarre side paths, which helps the show feel a lot leaner, but mostly it’s the old-fashioned horror element that pulled this episode out of the doldrums. I’m a huge, pathetic sucker for horror, so the fact that episode went so hard on that side of things really worked for me, and helped erase some of it’s more glaring problems.

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The biggest? Well, that anyone would still be staying in the house at this point. Surely, Shelby and Matt have some family they could stay with, somewhere they could go, even if their savings have been poured into the house- but instead, the show hastily papers over it with a few “it’s amazing how much you can rationalise the irrational” and “it was a fight they were going to get” lines. I just don’t believeĀ anyone would be staying there after the clear and present danger the place has posed to them, and we’re looking at a bad case of the Too Stupid to Lives at the moment. I’m hoping the show will do more to address that in the future, but American Horror Story has a way of just not noticing the big gaps in it’s own logic, so I won’t hold my breath.

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I also think the show shifted away from the interesting inter-personal dynamics it had going on last week as it focused in on the horror elements, which is a shame as they’ve got a collection of awesome actors there to make something really interesting happen if they want it to. Speaking of awesome actors getting wasted, I’m also concerned that Kathy Bates and her merry band of puritanical murderers might end up on the back seat, as I can’t see a way for the show to sustain it’s mockumentary format while still giving us a solid look at them and their motivations.

But, these are all problems that they have plenty of time to fix- it’s just a matter of whether they want to or not that’s the issue now. In the meantime, though, I’ll take this American Horror Story- leaner, scarier, and far more human than ever before- over the flailing camp I’ve been enduring for the last few years.

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