'American Horror Story' Postmortem: The Good, the Bad, and the Theories About Season 2
American Horror Story wrapped up its highly rated, Golden Globe-nominated first season on Dec. 21 with one hell of a cliffhanger. But the devilish dramatic flourish on the FX series didn’t happen in the final frames of “Afterbirth,” which unleashed a toddler Antichrist on the world (nannies, beware!) and left each member of the Harmon family – Ben (Dylan McDermott), Vivien (Connie Britton), and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga) — dead and destined to spend eternity stuck in a haunted house with their one-eyed, two-faced maid (Francis Conroy/Alexandra Breckenridge), a Grunge-era mass murdering teen (Evan Peters), a hideous patchwork of sewn-together baby parts known as The Infantata, and a small nation of other ghoulish squatters. No, the breathtaking twist occurred during a press conference the morning after the season 1 finale, in which AHS co-creator Ryan Murphy announced that the Harmons, their fellow spirits, and their wretched suburban manor — that “classic L.A. Victorian,” a dark star of “paramagnetic” evil, dense with secrets, spirits, and untold history — would not be coming back for the second season. Instead, Murphy revealed that AHS will focus on new characters and a new supernatural locale each season. In fact, Murphy recently told EW that season 1’s penultimate installment “Birth” contained a clue to the location of next year’s piece of unreal real estate. (We tasked an intern to analyze the episode frame-by-frame, but he found nothing, except the sad, sobering epiphany that all of his expensive college learning has absolutely no value or relevancy to the glorious work that’s done here at Entertainment Weekly. Merry Christmas, kid.)
The move was not unanticipated. Earlier this fall, EW’s Tim Stack reported that Murphy and co-creator Brad Falchuk (the two also make Glee together) had been mulling the “anthology” approach from the start. The move was also not unappreciated. Many critics – including those who claimed to not really like the show – praised FX for giving the producers a storytelling vehicle that would allow them to craft tightly plotted, wildly different, totally complete yarns each year. Should AHS rise to the creative challenge of actually producing those kinds of yarns, and if viewers should continue to watch, one would hope the example would inspire other networks to such innovation as well. The packaging seems ideally suited to new, popular secondary markets for TV series, especially Netflix, where serialized dramas are popular, as customers can gobble up multiple eps each night and mow through whole seasons in a week.
Still, some AHS fans were shocked and even disappointed to learn that this clever little claptrap came with an annual reboot mechanism hidden in the boiler room. The show’s viewership — which watched the first season not knowing that the Harmons and The Victorian were one-and-done propositions — had become invested in various bits of business that will remain unresolved and corners of the world that will never be explored. Why was Moira able to toggle between young and not-so-young guises? Was The Infantata a long-lived Frankenstein or one more house ghost? Who was the guy with the bloody pruning shears in the opening credits? How and when did the season’s most entertaining character, Constance Langdon (played by award show-bound Jessica Lange), come to live on Murder House Lane? Whatever happened to her never-seen fourth child? Will her Antichrist grandson take over the world and skewer all of us with his pitchfork rattle?!?
As EW’s (overly-obsessive) American Horror Story recapper and just a big fan of the show in general, I have mixed feelings about moving out of The Victorian. For the most part, I’m okay with lingering ambiguity. And I’m not angry that I didn’t know in advance that the show would be abandoning the Harmons after a single season. Such foreknowledge would have muffled, if not negated, the emotional impact of the their fates, as we have would have been anticipating their deaths from the start. But if a cohesive stand-alone volume of story was the intention, then my in-retrospect assessment is that season 1 did not succeed. Yes, the goal of deconstructing and destroying the Harmon family – and then having them find reconciliation and redemptive purpose in death – was reached, but the journey could have been and should have been more artfully navigated. McDermott and Britton did well by Ben and Vivien. Nonetheless, their parts were little more than archetypes. Bad Husband. Victimized Wife. Troubled Marriage. The show hinted at interesting backgrounds for each character – a painful childhood for Ben, an artistic life for Vivien – but never revealed them. This may have been by design, and might have been in service of portraying the Harmons as shallow, unreflective people unwilling to deal with their issues. (Unless the show was sincerely trying to argue that psychotherapy is bogus and promotes narcissism and solipsism, not healing; see: Doc Harmon’s rant against his own profession in the finale.) Still: I wanted more insight into Ben and Vivien. Moving forward, I hope we get protagonists as dynamic as the season’s best character, teen psycho Tate, who somehow managed to earn our sympathy and empathy despite being a vile human being, worthy of damnation, challenging our notions of “good” and “evil” in the process.
And as much I greatly enjoyed the supporting players, a few characters failed to live up to their potential. Moira the Maid and Larry Harvey (Denis O’Hare) were cool creations that lost some cool over time; it was as if the show liked the idea of them, but didn’t always know what to do with them. While the season moved with confidence toward one pre-determined destination – the death of the Harmons – other aspects of the story lacked the same focus, making me wonder if the producers weren’t always certain they’d be allowed to activate Operation: Reboot in season 2 and wanted to keep all of their options open, just in case they, like the Harmons, were forced to remain tethered to The Victorian for the duration of the series. Season 1 now feels like a beta test for hopefully better seasons to come.
Still, in the moment, American Horror Story 1.0 was – for me – one of the most purely entertaining TV shows of 2011. Great performances. Unique tone. Often really, really funny. Season 1 actually may have been a better at dark comedy than horror. The greater whole may have been flawed, but the individual installments routinely delivered on what the title promises – creepshow thrills; subversive riffs on uniquely American fears; winky wallowing in horror stories of all kinds, true and imagined. The show often tapped the cold, maddening terror of eternity, wherever it may be spent. Such intellectual chill is always valuable, because it begs an always-useful question: How are we living life now? The season covered or touched on many big, provocative themes — divorce, abortion, guilt, religion, cultural fixations with youth and beauty and fame and darkness, cultural violence against women and homosexuals and children. It made for a murky mess of meanings, but I like murky mess, and anyway, I think attitude was the point: This show had some seriously angry cheek, furiously snarky at The Way Things Are, pissy protest pulp for The Year of The Protester. [Finally, and maybe more randomly, here’s an idea I’ve been kicking around since the finale: AHS strikes me as the anti-Lost. Just two thoughts, though feel free to skip the rest of this graph if you’re sick of my blah blah blah about Lost: (1) The Island was a naturally occurring light with power that could be harnessed and directed by its resident guardian. It was an objective truth, albeit open to interpretation. A metaphor for the metaphysical nature of the universe. The Victorian was an anomalous darkness created by man’s inhumanity to man that had taken on a toxic, corrupting life of its own. Meaninglessness incarnate, spawned from human experience. A metaphor for society/culture. (2) The final showdown between victim/victimizer Ben and Tate in the AHS season finale struck me as the converse to the final confrontation between victim/victimizer John Locke and Ben Linus in the Lost series finale. Whereas Locke was full of grace and forgiveness for the man who took so much from him, including his very life, Ben was much more “Screw you, a—hole!” to the boy who systematically raped his family, literally and figuratively. Locke offered Ben entry into the castaway church; Ben left Tate to chill and mope on the outside of The Victorian, forever looking in.]
While we’ve seen the last of Murder House and its spectral occupants, I can see how a couple storylines (like the growth — and rise-to-power? — of Tate’s unholy, unnatural devil boy son?) and the larger mythological framework sketched by American Horror Story’s might carry forward. Perhaps future haunted locales, like The Victorian, will also be vile vortices of paramagnetic influence, created by super-massive black holes of hideous history. I predict that in the fifth season, after five different haunted houses, an enterprising detective-priest investigating the connection between these supernatural properties and the perverse, pernicious pop influence of teenage Michael Langdon — now a Justin Bieber phenom, leading the culture to ruin like some Teen Beat pied piper, who feeds on adolescent blood and stashes the bodies in the basements of shopping mall Justice and Hot Topic shops) — will plot the lunatic locales on a map of the United States and realize that if you draw a line connecting each hellmouth, you get… a Satanic pentagram. Cue dramatic music!
(That joke-theory was dedicated to my favorite horror writer, Alan Moore.)
So where will season 2 plant its sinister stakes? My mind immediately went to the Lemon Grove Prep Academy for Girls – the place where Ben was thinking of sending Violet to get her refocused on academics. (See: the episode “Smoldering Children.”) Many fans suspect Florida, home to “Aunt Jo,” Vivien’s sister. Twin sister, possibly? That would allow Connie Britton to come back next year – and Murphy did say we might see some season 1 cast members again, playing different parts. Trusting Murphy wasn’t pulling our leg when he said that “Birth” contained a clue, here are some possibilities:
CLUE? In the opening sequence, we saw Newhart on Constance’s television. THEORY! Bob Newhart’s second sitcom was set at a small New England inn. Might be too small for American Horror Story – but I am tickled by the idea of a Psycho-esque story at the Lizzie Borden Bed and Breakfast in Fall River, Massachusetts. (Another Mass. theory in a second.)
CLUE? The little girl dolls in the Murder House basement, also seen during the prologue. THEORY! American Horror Story 2.0 will reside in Wisconsin, home to the American Girl doll company. The nation’s cheesehead capitol allegedly has “more ghosts per square mile than any other state in America.” As for exact locations, there’s Summerwind, the state’s most haunted house, or – on a bleaker tip — the terrifying farmhouse of one of America’s most infamous homicidal maniacs, Ed Gein, whose grisly atrocities have inspired fictional monsters like Leatherface (Texas Chainsaw Massacre) and Jame Gumb (The Silence of the Lambs). Or so Wikipedia tells me.
CLUE? Billie Dean Howard’s story – told visually — about the lost colony of Roanoke. THEORY! Ergo, next season will take place somewhere in Dare County, on the North Carolina coast, perhaps inside a beach house-turned-mental asylum for women lined with Yellow Wallpaper. Too on the nose, if you ask me. (BTW: Would love to see kooky Billie Dean — and her Lifetime show — in the future. Maybe next season will transpire within a haunted Hollywood studio?)
CLUE? The Massachusetts license plate on Ben’s vehicle with an October expiration date. The digits: “14Z Q83.” THEORY! Perhaps next season –which is likely to begin in October — will be set in Salem, Mass., site of a true American horror story, The Salem Witch Trials. Then again, there was a lot of talk about Harvard University in the last couple episodes of the season. Perhaps season 2 will be set at some haunted dormitory… or inside some mysterious building on the fringes of the campus, just down the hallway from Walter Bishop’s lab.
As always, I look forward to being proven wrong. But what about you, AHS fans? Where do you think season 2 will be set or should be set? How do you feel about leaving Murder House behind? Has your opinion of season 1 changed for the better or the worse? I look forward to reading your thoughts in the message boards.
American Horror Story
An anthology series that centers on different characters and locations, including a haunted house, an insane asylum, a witch coven, a freak show, and a hotel.