American Horror Story S8E6: Return to Murder House

by thethreepennyguignol

Okay, so in this greatest-hits season, we’re finally getting around to some of the songs I can actually sing along to: in Return to Murder House, Emma Roberts and Billy Porter roll back the clock to season one to figure out what the hell has been going on with Michael Langdon, starting with a visit to his original home, the Murder House from the first season. And I loved this season, I really did, so this should have been a win for me. And yet…

Alright, in all fairness, let’s start with the stuff I did enjoy, because this episode really did deliver on the most riveting stuff of the season so far. Surprising not one singular person, a big part of that is the return of Jessica Lange as Constance Langdon, matriarch of the Murder House and biggest hit in the show’s history, delivering on that Southern-Belle-from-Hell thing we all know and love. The section dedicated to her, and her raising of Michael, was honestly superb stuff: Lange is a cut-above actress, and she took these tiny moments and imbued them with such meaning – touching a young Michael’s foot to her head as she cleans up after one of his many murders, for example, becomes this agonising gesture of deference and fear and maternal instinct, all wrapped up in one, wordless moment. It’s fucking magical stuff, and what a gift it is to have her back for even just this snatch of time.

After Constance, fearful of Michael’s growing power, kills herself, Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott) steps up to father the boy he sees as at least half his own, and attempts to counsel Michael through those murderous teenage years. I don’t love McDermott as an actor per se, but there’s a good amount of pathos here as he attempts to connect with Michael and lead him off a path to evil – McDermott has always been game to do just whatever the show asks of him (including murderously breastfeeding as a grown man in season two), and he actually seems to be enjoying his return to the character here.

My favourite thing about this episode came in the form of Cody Fern, though, and I think that’s pretty awesome, given how “hmmm” I have found myself on him in the past few weeks. Michael Langdon as a sweeping Antichrist figure is pretty average and uninteresting, but Michael Langdon as a reluctant conduit for evil terrified by his own power? That’s some juicy shit. He shares a scene with Lange, wherein he chokes her before coming to his senses and asking for a glass of water – she corrects his grammar, they both cry, scared for what is to come. It’s a truly superb scene, some great acting from Fern, and a tantalising hint at how interesting Michael could have been if he was more set against his evil ways than straight embracing them.

And I suppose that brings us to the stuff that I didn’t like about this episode, because there was plenty. The biggest issues I had were a couple of major cop-outs for returning characters: firstly, Moira (Frances Conroy), as part of a deal with the witches, gets her bones moved out of the house and over to her mother’s grave. I’m not saying that Conroy didn’t nail the reunion with her mother in the afterlife, because she did, but I just hated that the show felt the need to dedicate so much to this resolution. Yes, it is tragic and unfair that Moira has to spend eternity trapped in a house she hates performing banal tasks for terrible people: that’s what makes it so unsettling. In season one, when Moira visits her mother and is unable to leave with her, the pathos is drawn from knowing she has no choice but to return to the house, trapped there for eternity. This is a slapped-on happy ending that feels cheap and unnecessary.

But the other one is what annoys me more than anything else. Violet Harmon (Taissa Farmigugh) returns as the undead teen angst of my nightmares, tormented by the fact that she is stuck in a house with a man she loves who has committed unspeakable acts: I refer, of course, to Tate Langdon (Evan Peters), a school shooter who killed over a dozen people in a spree killing and went on to rape Violet’s mother. One of my favourite parts of season one was the sheer, brutal truth of the fact that, no matter how gorgeous and sweet and thoughtful Tate was with Violet, he was a bad person who had done bad things that she could never forgive him for. Her rejection of him is brilliant, powerful stuff, a subversion of the teenage heartthrob into something far more interesting, far more nuanced, and much more frightening as a result.

Psych! He was just a great guy all along. Yeah, seriously, really: it turns out that the house was just using him as a conduit for its evil, and now that Michael has come along, it has someone else to attach that to. So him and Violet can get back together, because he’s actually a lovely boy and she should bring him home and introduce him to her – ah, well, maybe not, actually. Fuck, I hate this. I hate it so much. I know a lot of people on Tumblr liked to make swoony gifsets of the two of them smooching on each other, but that doesn’t mean that the show had to do such a hardcore retcon on one of its best-ever characters, turning him into a flaccid vessel with floppy hair and dreamy eyes. They’ve neutered Tate, turning him from a subversion of the tortured teenage heartthrob in to a prime fucking example of it.

Outside of that, a lot of the episode just seemed to skip on by at random: Anton LeVey and his Satanist cult track Michael down to the house and have him eat a heart and that’s how he’s evil now. Connie Britton turns up and seems bored out of her mind, or maybe this is just always how she played Vivian Harmon and I just didn’t notice till now. Sarah Paulson, behind the camera for the first time, brought some decent direction to this episode, but the musical choices were on-the-nose so much I’m pretty sure mine is broken now.

Whatever. I liked getting to visit with Constance again, and I enjoyed Cody Fern in this episode, but this return to Murder House tied up a lot of ends that weren’t even loose in the first place.

And that’s where we leave off for this week! If you want to read some of my other recaps, I’m also looking at the first Harry Potter book chapter by chapter right now, and recently picked up on my Riverdale recaps for the new season.. If you enjoyed this recap and want to see more stuff like it, please consider supporting me on Patreon! And if you’re in a horror mood, go check out Halloween season on my film site, No But Listen

(header image courtesy of Daily Herald)