American Horror Story recap: 'Piggy, Piggy'
Violet spoons with a psycho, Ben treats a man spooked by urban legends, and Vivien porks out on brain food in "Piggy, Piggy"
The year is 1994. Around the world, Quentin Tarantino is blowing up with Pulp Fiction. In Seattle, Kurt Cobain is opting out with a shotgun to the head. And in a Los Angeles suburb, an old Victorian built decades earlier by a deranged taxidermist and basement abortionist is home to a boy who idolizes both of those iconic high school drop-outs. He is sitting on the edge of his bed and listening to his mother cry and the thunder of boots rumbling toward his bedroom. He waits.
The Jock and The Cheerleader are flirting. The Goth is reading. The Geek taps on a computer. They are inside the library of Westfield High when they hear two sets of gunshots – two bangs, then three. Enter The Stoner, completing the Breakfast Club set. His hands are wet with someone else’s blood. “Someone is shooting up the school,” he says. “Just shooting!” He builds a barricade with a chair and book cart. The Jock wants to run. Another pair of gunshots changes his mind.
Fear inspires some to move. Fear inspires others to stillness. Fear inspires all to silence. They hear footsteps approach, deliberate and cool, boots heavy on the hallway tile. The footsteps stop. The door shakes. The barricade holds. But there is another door, unblocked and unlocked. The Librarian springs from his cower to press his body against the threshold. His weight is not enough. The gunman fires three times into door. The Librarian falls. The Goth screams. The little pigs scramble as The Big Bad Wolf walks in. The Ghost of Columbine Future, clad in Trenchcoat Mafia black. He’s just a boy.
We know what will happen next, because we heard the story last week. We know where the bullets will land. We know what they will do. We know these kids will die. Our awful God-like knowledge of the horror that looms makes witnessing it actually happen all the more disturbing. We don’t want to watch. Except we want to watch, too.
The boy is whistling. It’s a whistle we’ve heard before. It always accompanies Tate Langdon’s dreams of the Westfield High Massacre… or his efforts to forget it. The tune – written by Bernard Hermann, who also composed the scores for Psycho and Taxi Driver — is from the 1968 British film that I have not seen called Twisted Nerve, which according to reviews is about a disturbed young man who may or may not be a schizoid or mentally diminished but who is certainly a cunning killer, who has a mother who’s obsessed with him and a sibling with Down’s syndrome, who becomes fixated with a teenage girl who wants to save him. The movie – now considered a cult classic, though perhaps only because Quentin Tarantino swiped the whistle for his two-part vengeancesploitation epic Kill Bill– was criticized for promoting a stupid link between Down’s syndrome and psychoses. The poster language is jazzy-chilling: “Cleaver. Cleaver. Chop. Chop. First the mom and then the pop. Then we’ll get the pretty girl. We’ll get her right between the curl.”
The Goth goes down first. The shotgun blows away half her scalp. We don’t see it, but we don’t have to. We saw the wound last week, when the Dead Breakfast Club roamed free on Halloween. Our own imagination – impacted by one story – fills in the blanks of another, even helps bring it life. Very clever. Still, there is one discrepancy. Last week, The Goth said that her killer asked if she believed in God, and she lied and said yes. We don’t hear this exchange. Did it really happen? Maybe not. Regardless, the question is being asked, right now, in our heads, and it begs many more. If God exists, why does he not act? Why does he not participate and intervene? Why is he content to just watch?
We watch. The Punk goes next. The shotgun blast wrecks his face. The Geek grabs the phone and calls for help. The shotgun destroys his jaw. “Screw this,” The Jock says. He tells The Cheerleader that everything is going to be okay and decides to make a stand. The Jock gets in the boy’s face and declares: “That’s enough!” No, it’s not. The shotgun throws The Jock backward with a round to the forehead.
Finally: The Cheerleader. She’s screaming. She’s calling out to God. We see the book on top of the table she’s trembling under: Harlan Beckley’s Passion For Justice: Retrieving The Legacies of Walter Rauschenbusch, John A. Ryan and Reinhold Niebuhr (1992), an examination of three extremely influential Christian theologians and their relevance to nitty-gritty real-world matters like ethics, social policy, and responding to injustice. Do you think The Cheerleader was thinking about Niebuhr’s notion of “the perfect disinterestedness” of God and his question “How can the God of love also be the God of justice?” while she was cowering and pissing herself? Me, neither.
NEXT: Please don’t be Tate, please don’t be Tate, please don’t be… ah, hell.
Throughout this terribly cruel and terribly effective sequence, I kept hoping that when we finally saw the boy’s face, it would be someone else. I kept hoping it would be the hypothetical friend/accomplice I theorized about last week. Not because I’m invested in any of my theories, but because I’m invested in Tate Langdon. I like him. I want to continue liking him. I don’t want my affection for him to be complicated by the fact that he’s a mass murderer. Oh, well. The boy flips over the table and points his shotgun at The Cheerleader as she begins screaming “Why? Why?!” and we see that it’s Tate Langdon. His face is twisted with emotion. But which one? Rage? Confusion? Blood lust? All of them? And because this is American Horror Story, a show that allows for the existence of supernatural forces (except, perhaps, for God), we have to wonder: Is Tate in control of himself, or is some Devil making him do it?
The Cheerleader’s last word: “Please.” We are with her now, taking her perspective. On the floor, looking up the barrel of the shotgun, Tate looming large and awful above us, watching us. He puts a bullet The Cheerleader’s heart, and ours. The “Why? Why?!” goes unanswered. In “Piggy, Piggy,” the silence of God was joined by the sleep of reason, and together produced monsters, dragons, and assorted unclean things.
Inside The Victorian, Tate sits on his bed, waiting as he made his victims wait. The door bangs open. The police are dressed for a firefight. The lasers on their guns pepper the black of his shirt with red dots like little bloody bullet holes. He stands and puts his hands up… and then makes his right hand into a shape of a pistol. He puts a finger like a barrel to his temple. The thumb releases like a hammer. He stares at them with dark hypnotic eyes and makes a sound like a gunshot. Ka-powwwww. Drawn out just like that, just like the movies. We get the idea that Tate is trying to put an idea in the cops’ heads like telepathy, a command to action that would send him out in a blaze of glorious infamy…
But before we can learn if they got the message, too, “Piggy, Piggy” leaps forward 17 years into the future of Murder House.
NEVERMIND: VIOLET HARMON
How old is Violet Harmon? If she’s 17, or about to turn 17, then The Girl Whose Name Could Have Been Sunshine is a child of The Downward Spiral, for she would have been born in the year that the (grunge) music died, the same year that Cobain killed himself — the year Tate went ballistic. Violet seems to be tainted by the cultural darkness of her age, figuratively speaking. Maybe literally, too? Could Violet be the next-life version of some Tate-slain Westfield student? What if she’s the reincarnated version of Tate himself?
We found Violet searching the Web for info on Westfield High Massacre, just as the Dead Breakfast Club asked her to do last week. She learned the death toll was 15. She learned the members of the Dead Breakfast Club were more than Hollywood archetypes. They had names. The Cheerleader – Chloe Stapleton. The Jock – Kyle Greenwell. The Goth – Stephanie Boggs. The Geek – Amir Stanley. The Punk: Kevin Gedman. Violet learned something else, too. The boy who committed those murders was shot and killed later that day. The epiphany hit her like a shovel blow to the head. Tate wasn’t just a mass murderer, he was also as undead as a Twilight vampire.
Violet was distraught. She wanted her mother. They would never cross paths in this episode. Instead, Violet found Tate’s momma, sitting in the kitchen, smoking and waiting for her. Constance knew Violet had been digging into the Westfield High Massacre. She was here to dish some more dirt. Constance told Violet that she and her family were living in The Victorian at the time of the murders. She also told Violet her big theory – an answer to The Cheerleader’s “Why?” question. “I believe the house drove him to it,” she said. Violet sarcastically mocked the idea and tried to cast the demon mother away. The former lady of the house bit right back, the way Larry Harvey blasted Violet’s daddy for his “clinical worldview” in the last episode. “You’re a smart girl!” Constance preached. “How can you be so arrogant to think that there is only one reality that you’re able to see?!”
So began Violet’s story, a series of events that challenged her cynical orientation and revealed a vulnerable soul that yearned for meaning. Constance — determined to make Violet “a believer” — introduced the gloomy girl to “a gifted medium” named Billie Dean Howard, played by the always-welcome Sarah Paulson, who once played a ghost in a past TV life known as American Gothic. Constance had been seeking the woman’s guidance for years. “I found her on Craigslist,” Constance said. “She’s 100% authentic.” So authentic, Billie Dean bragged, that she just came from a meeting with Lifetime Television: “They’re interested in making a pilot with me.” The medium said Violet has been singled out — “chosen” — for a life-changing encounter with the walking dead. Billie Dean: “I used to be like you, until I was 25, when out of the blue my cleaning lady shows up as I was brushing my teeth. Except she’s got no toilet brush and rubber gloves. She’s naked and bloody. Her husband murdered her with an ice pick.” (Housekeeper-killing Constance: “It’s hard to keep good help.” RIMSHOT!) “All I wanted was to improve my tennis game and unseat Charlotte Whitney as the president of my book club,” Billie Dean continued. “But I was chosen. And when you’re chosen, you either get with the program, or you go crazy.”
At Violet’s request, Billie Dean laid out her version of “the truth” about Tate. Along the way, she offered a theory that could explain the other undead entities bound to Murder House, including The Nurses and The Mischief Twins. “There are some who have an understandably violent and vengeful reaction to being murdered, who refuse to move on until they exact their pound of flesh,” the medium said. “And then there are very few souls — like Tate — who don’t even know they’re dead. Who walk among the living in child-like confusion.” Constance chirped up and said (or claimed) that was why she wanted Doc Ben to begin treating her self-denying ghost boy – to “help him achieve some clarity about himself, that he’d see the truth on his own.” Added Billie Dean: “We must help him cross over, Violet.”
NEXT: The secret locked inside Violet’s heart-shaped box
I couldn’t tell if Constance and Billie Dean were sincere in their belief or if they were feeding Violet (and us) a bogus but viable-sounding explanation for Murder House paranormal activity, a credible lie designed to mask the true truth, and/or their true ambitions. Regardless: Violet called “bulls—t” on both of them, but only because it sounded bats—t insane. To convince Violet, Billie Dean had to play an ace. “Who is Mary?” she asked. “Violet, she wants to talk to you.” FLASHBACK. Violet is sitting with an aged, dying woman. (Her grandmother? Great-grandmother?) “They don’t understand you,” the woman says, as if she could see secret truths across the divide, in the world beyond. “They never will understand you.” END FLASHBACK. “Does that mean anything to you?” Billie Dean asked Violet. “They don’t understand you?”
It did mean something to Violet. An explanation for her alienation, the myth that spawned her prickly, pragmatic worldview. It was also clearly something nobody could possibly know… unless they were psychic or something. Violet erupted into tears and bolted away. Constance turned to Billie Dean. “Can I trust her?” she asked. The medium replied: “I’m not sure.” They lit up and smoked.
For Violet, it was as if the world had declared war on her rational mind. What was real? What wasn’t? She couldn’t tell. She hid in the bathroom and pulled out her cutting kit and gave herself a Nine Inch Nails reality check by hurting herself with slash herself across the wrist, just to see if she could still feel. Then she slit her throat. Blood gloopgloopglooped from the gash and NO: That was just a dream, a lucid, waking dream. In an echo of the episode’s “Piggyman” storyline (more on that later), Violet looked in the mirror and saw her bogeyman boyfriend Tate. “Are you scared now?” he asked. When she turned around, he was gone. She went downstairs and sought comfort in the arms of her father, Dr. Clinical Worldview. “The darkness has me,” she said, so defeated.
At the metaphorically empty swimming pool, Violet sat at the deep end and sought solace from floppy-hatted frenemy Leah, but all she got from her was more talk about The Devil, plus a deeply flawed Bible lesson about The Red Dragon and The Woman Clothed In The Sun, the alleged theological roots of universal misogyny, and the seductive beauty of fallen angels. Oh, and Leah gave her a bottle of sleeping pills, too. Next, Violet visited Westfield High and met The Librarian, the man who put his body in harm’s way and tried in vain to keep Tate at bay. Violet called him a hero. The Librarian in his wheelchair sneered. “Now you know what heroes look like.” The Librarian had told Violet that Tate was a quiet kid who used to haunt his library and read books. He also liked to read Romantic poet Lord Byron, one of the chief literary architects of the anti-hero archetype that populates today’s edgy-ironic-cynical pulp pop. Violet wanted a smart, sensible, satisfying answer to the “Why?” question. The Librarian could only give her bumper sticker existentialism: “Sometimes, s—t just happens.” Violet refused to accept that. “Good people just don’t have a bad day and start shooting people!” The Librarian replied, “Maybe he wasn’t a good person.”
The final assault on Violet’s reason was waiting for her at The Victorian. Walking through the devil-glass door, Violet spied a figure out of the corner of her eye. She followed the darting blur down into the basement, the reality-warping underworld of Murder House. The Mischief Twins were there, throwing Pop-Its. Nurse Gladys was there. Fuming. “Look at what he did to me.” And then Violet got an answer to one of her own burning questions: Whatever happened to missing Franklin fanatics Fiona and Guy? They were here, too. Trapped in Murder House. Forever. “Excuse me, ma’am, I don’t mean to bother you, but I’m hurt and needing some help,” Fiona said, parroting Franklin’s tricky put-on, only this time sincere. Then came the original house devil, demented abortion doc Charles Montgomery, brandishing a painful-looking fork-pronged instrument. “Has my wife medicated you?” he asked. “Are you here for the procedure?” Violet put on the jets, ascended the stairwell and escaped…
And heard music. A guitar riff, dark and romantic, rocking from her bedroom. On the chalkboard, Violet’s spectral admirer had replaced the word TAINT with a dedication: I LOVE YOU. Violet wilted. It was more than her reason could take. She had to put it to sleep. For good. She found Leah’s pills. She took one. Then all of them. She fell into darkness… and then Tate caught her. He dragged her down the hallway. He wailed: “Don’t you die! Don’t you die on me!” He brought her to the bathtub, cranked the cold water, and forced his finger down her throat. Violet awoke and puked up the pills. She was alive. An undead mass murderer was cradling her. She wept.
Later. An exhausted Violet lay in bed recovering from her brush with the abyss, a melancholy meat puppet flipping through an illustrated book about birds that Tate had checked out from the Westfield High library and never returned. (One of the pages depicted the “Fork-tailed Flycatcher.” In a story about a good boy gone savage, about a brainy man-child with a piggy-visage driven nuts by the cruel conditioning of his younger, meaner brothers, about rotten, rotting, superstitious ideas about evil and warding off evil, I take “Fork-tailed Flycatcher” to be a reference to William Golding’s Lord of the Flies. More on this when we get to Piggyman.) Why birds, Tate? Why?! “Because,” Tate said, suddenly materializing in Violet’s bedroom, “they can fly away when things get too crazy, I guess.” He asked if she was depressed. “Sad,” she clarified. Tate’s eyes filled with tears. He was sad, too. “Something’s changed in you toward me,” he said. “You’re distant cold and I don’t know what I’ve done.” Clearly, nothing changed since the Dead Breakfast Club intervention on Halloween night. Tate still believes himself to be an innocent who only dreams of shooting up his school. Still a damned soul gunning down a Lost Highway, desperate to elude guilt that will never stop chasing him. “I’ll leave you alone from now on if that’s what you want,” he told Violet. “And I would leave you alone, because I care about your feelings. I love you. There. I said it. Not just words on a chalkboard. I would never let anybody or anything hurt you. I have never felt that way. About anyone.”
Violet looked upon her mad, bad and dangerous-to-know wannabe Byronic hero and said, “Come here.” Tate went to her bed and lay down next to her. She spooned him. He felt comforted. “I’m tired,” he said. She said, “Me, too.” She held him, and on that image, we left them.
NEXT: Let The Right One In. Or Wrong One. (These days, it’s hard to tell the difference.)
Violet’s amazing grace for Tate was touching. Do you share it? After all: We’re talking about a mass murderer. It’s hard to believe that American Horror Story wants us to see Tate as any kind of hero, ironic or Byronic or otherwise. And I don’t think it does. Among many things, “Piggy, Piggy” was about deconstructing evil, and about looking beyond the horror and getting to the human heart of it all. To what end? Understanding, for sure. Forgiveness? Maybe. But not necessary. What’s at stake here, I think, is justice. And I want to believe Violet has a passion for it. So I’m choosing not to interpret Violet’s spooning as affirmation or affection. I’m choosing to view it as a remarkable act of sympathy – and a first step toward accomplishing the work that needs to be done, for his sake, and for those that Tate killed: Coaxing and guiding Tate toward recognition, awareness and confession of his crimes. Call it: Project Dead Man Walking. Violet is the Sister Helen Prejean to Tate’s “Matthew Poncelet.”
IN UTERO: VIVIEN HARMON
While Violet was spooning her man, Vivien was sticking hers with an emotional shiv. While Violet was becoming a believer, albeit on her terms, Vivien was fortifying her defenses against the crazy trying to take possession of her life, albeit in the craziest way possible. Got your barf bag ready? Because here we go.
Vivien’s story began with a dreamy premonition. The aspiring divorcee was sitting alone, listening to music – a cello, the instrument she once played for a living but gave up. (We still haven’t gotten that backstory, have we?) She was rubbing lotion on her plump, pregnant belly when she felt the baby move inside her, and then saw something like a cloven foot claw the inside of her womb. There’s a tiny Infantata in my tummy! She awoke from the nightmare feeling threatened, needing to feel safe. The husband that had once pledged to protect her was gone. But there was a button by her bed that could a summon a man whose business was providing security — and maybe, soon, a little more.
Enter strapping safety specialist Luke, who’s been entering The Victorian quite a bit lately. Vivien dressed up for him, told him that Ben had moved out, even shared with him that Harmon had cheated on him. She did everything short of hanging a scarlet-neon VACANCY sign around her neck to signal Luke to make a move. Luke revealed he knew a thing or two about infidelity. His ex-wife had cheated on him with another woman. Just as the growing rapport between Viv and Luke was reaching new levels of intimacy, Ben walked in. Luke explained that Vivien called him to investigate a possible intruder on the property. “Thanks for filling in,” Ben said. I said: You won’t be thanking him an episode or two from now when you catch him “filling in” for you IN YOUR BED. Luke offered this post-script before leaving the Harmons to yell at each other: Hayden got away from him last episode. Jumped out at a stop sign or something. Oops!
Ben had returned to the house because he needed to use the home office to see patients. Vivien didn’t like it, but Ben reminded his wannabe ex that they needed the money to finance the dissolution of their bond and the start of their new, separate lives. Vivien knew he was right, and she hated him for it. She let him know it by ripping off a fire-and-brimstone kiss-off that demonized him for being a veritable unclean thing. Which is to say: A pig. “I find it hard to look at your face, because I really, really want to bash it in,” she said. And she was just getting started. “I find you disgusting, and disappointing as a man. And we’re going to end this marriage, and we’re going to sell this house, and I’m going to let you be a father to our kids because I happen to think you’re a good one. But I’m not going to be your friend. I will merely tolerate you. And you can see your patients in the house but I want you to leave after your last session of the day.” I think Vivien could learn something about the whole “sympathy for the devil” thing from her daughter. But there’s a season for everything – including suffering for your sins. Suck it up, Ben.
As Vivien created new boundaries with Ben, her old boundaries with Constance were weakening. Vivien was on the phone as the former lady of the house let herself in uninvited, as usual. Bad neighbor guilt may have prevented Vivien from scolding her: She felt like a heel for not quickly paying Constance a condolence call after Adelaide’s death. Constance was forgiving. She was also more concerned for Violet’s well-being, and specifically the mysterious geocentric malady affecting her pregnancy: “Moira tells me every time you leave the house you’re wracked with violent morning sickness?” Constance had brought with her a home cure (quite uncured), a recipe passed down from her mother, a dish intended to nourish both Vivien and the life growing inside her womb with super-plus amounts of vitamins, especially iron. It was a platter of pig Offal — choice cuts of thymus gland taken from the throat and heart, plus the pancreas, “so good for mother and child,” Constance explained, “full of protein, Vitamin C, all the B vitamins, and iron.” It was all vaguely sinister. Sweetbreads from Constance, the baker of poisoned cupcakes? Dubious. And no matter how you slice it, scrapple is scrapple. Yuck. But there’s also the religious symbolism of the pig, which shouldn’t be ignored given the themes of the episode. Pigs – an “unclean” or “impure” animal, according to Jewish and Islamic dietary laws. Pigs – vessels for demons cast out of afflicted humans. (See: Luke, Chapter 8)
And yet, decoding the key words in the Offal scene suggests Constance might not be the southern gothic Sweeney Todd we suspect her to be. The thymus gland is an essential part of the immune system; it produces T-cells that fight off alien elements that attack the body. Moreover, it was interesting how the word “iron” reminded Constance to inquire about Violet. (“Speaking of which, how’s your other baby? She was such a comfort to me when Addy passed.”) The linking of “iron” to Violet to the night of Addy’s death evoked for me what Constance told Violet about Tate during that Halloween evening heart-to-heart in her kitchen. “He’s a sensitive boy, a young man of too deep feeling, with the soul of a poet, but imbued with none of the grit or steel that would act as a bulwark against these horrors. This world.” (Itals my emphasis.) My take on Constance’s plate of “awful” (to borrow Vivien’s funny mispronunciation) is to read it metaphorically – or is that superstitiously? – in the context of her belief in the corrupting nature of Murder House: Vivien and her baby need protection against dark forces moving against both of them. Is it time lay aside the “Evil Queen” conspiracy theories about Constance and accept her Good Neighbor routine at face value? “We need that baby,” the grieving mother said. “We need another sweet child around here.”
Because the nightmare of the cloven foot infantata had made her jittery, Vivien ate the heart and throat, sizzled and seasoned to surprisingly yummy perfection by Moira Sr.; apparently, she used to make this dish all the time when former employer Constance was with child. However, Vivien only sniffed the precious pancreas, which Moira said should be consumed uncooked. Still, the desperate housemaid — who dodged another eviction from The Victorian by offering to work for free after cash-crunched Vivien tried to give her the pink slip — did succeed in getting Vivien to swallow another dish of old wives’ oink-oink, against courtesy of Constance. “The most nutritious organ of all,” Moira said. “It came from an organic farm. I hear the raw food movement is really taking off.” Moira put the covered bowl on the table and walked away, leaving Vivien alone, and leaving us to wonder if the grotesque feasting that followed really happened or only took place in Vivien’s imagination. (In American Horror Story, there may be no difference.) Under the lid: Chilled pig brain. Again: Gross. And isn’t cold deli supposed to be, like, reallyreally bad for pregnant women? But again: Metaphor? I found it interesting that in an episode full of “Why? Why?!” grappling and reality blurring, that pitted scientific orientation against religious mysticism and common sense versus superstitious thinking, Moira fed Vivien the raw noggin of one of the smartest, most sensible animals on the planet. In the same way Christians take and eat the body and blood of Christ in symbolic form during Communion, Moira’s bowl of raw pig brain could be interpreted as a sacrament of Reason, given to Vivien to further fortify the bulwark of her mind. You are what you eat, after all.
Of course, raw pig brain should also be interpreted as… raw freakin’ pig brain. And watching Vivien pick at it, then nervously munch on it, then warm up to it (I’m sure that dash of pepper really helped), and then gobblegobblegobble it all up may have been the most nauseating thing I’ve seen on cable television since Rick and Glenn dressed themselves in zombie guts this time last year on The Walking Dead.
Still, I think my “boosting Vivien’s immunity to crazy” reading of the raw swine buffet makes sense when you consider where Vivien’s storyline culminated: At church, and a meeting with Nurse Angie, who since fainting away at the sight of Vivien’s ungodly ultrasound on Halloween night had traded in her life of medicine for a life of prayer, Bible study, and religious hysteria. She treated Vivien the way Vivien treated Ben – like an unclean animal to be kept at a safe remove. “That’s… probably… close enough,” she said nervously as Vivien scooched into a pew. Vivien: What exactly did you see on that monitor that made you pass out? Nurse Angie – echoing born again devil believer Leah – began pulling scary bits out of Revelation, the stuff of so many sensationalistic horror movie nightmares and dippy doomsday preacher eschatology. “I saw the unclean thing that you carry in your womb,” Nurse Angie said. “The plague of nations. The beast.” Vivien – fortified with 100% more pig brain – made Richard Dawkins eyes at the woman’s devil delusion. “Okay, so you didn’t see anything,” she cracked. “The machine malfunctioned.” Nurse Angie protested: “It didn’t! I saw the little hooves!” Vivien shook her sensible head and quipped: “You need some help.” (She should have given her Ben’s card! They need the money!) As Vivien walked away, Nurse Angie began preaching. “And the woman was full with the filthiness of her fornication! The mother of harlots and abominations of the earth!” Between this and Leah’s Red Dragon ruminations, “Piggy, Piggy” reminded us that The Bible can be one scary horror story. Especially if you’re a woman.
UNPLUGGED: BEN HARMON
The curious case of Dr. Shrinker’s newest patient was an island of story unto itself, but one that commented on the anxiety of influence and the war on reason evident in every other corner of the episode. Meet Derek (well played by Modern Family’s Eric Stonestreet), a twisted nerve of a man, terrified of unreal things. “Urban legends,” he explained. Bloody Mary. Candyman. Lady In White. When he was a child, his loathsome little brothers used to hold him down and fill his head with these crazy-chilling American myths. “Nothing else scares me,” Derek said. “Terrorism. Disease. Violent crime. The economy. Just these stories are that utter bulls—t.”
The urban legend that spooked him the most was Piggyman, a fictional fiction created for the episode, but one that struck me as built from pieces of real and made-up horror stories, including all of the aforementioned (“Candyman” in particular), plus bits of The Devil In The White City, Saw, Robert Pickton and Hannibal. Also? The song “Piggy” by Nine Inch Nails, recorded in the home of Charles Manson victim Sharon Tate. (“Hey pig piggy pig pig pig/All of my fears came true.”) “The story goes that he’s a hog butcher in Chicago during the World’s Fair of 1893,” Derek explained. “Before he’d go into the slaughter pen, he’d put on this mask, this pig mask, that he made from one of his other kills. And he would snort like a pig. Make him think he was one of them. And then one day he slipped and fell and the pigs – the hogs – tore him apart. They didn’t find one piece of him anywhere. Or so everyone assumed. It was not too long after this that his former customers started turning up dead. Gutted. Skinned. And hung upside down in the bathtub to rain like a hog in a shop. And they say if you stand in front of a mirror and say: ‘Here piggy pig pig’ that he’ll return for the slaughter.” CUT TO: Derek imagining himself in his bathroom, looking into the mirror and saying the accursed words and getting hacked to shreds by a slaughterhouse butcher wearing overalls and a pig’s head with sharp tusks. (Cleaver. Cleaver. Chop. Chop.) The tusks really sold it for me.
NEXT: The Death of Piggy
Ben wanted to know if Derek had tried looking into the mirror and saying the curse to summon the monster. “No,” he said, “but there’s something inside of me that’s afraid that I might. And it scares the hell out of me.” By “hell,” what Derek really meant was his humanity, his masculinity, certainly his self-confidence. He had become a binge-eating shut-in incapable of asking a woman out, incapable of looking at himself in the mirror. Ben Harmon was determined to fix him. He seemed literally mesmerized by Derek’s tale. Or maybe by just Derek himself. Ben had been beaten up by Vivien’s deconstruction. Especially, I think, that part about finding him “disappointing as a man.” Ben saw himself in Derek, and he was moved. Helping Derek change the way he saw the world and change the way he thought about himself offered Ben some catharsis, maybe even some hope.
Throughout this sequence, American Horror Story gave us a couple upward-titling shots that framed Ben and Derek against the backdrop of a painting high on the wall. The image: Birds. Which reminded me of Tate. They can fly away when things get too crazy. It also reminded me of the Fork-tailed Flycatcher. A kingbird; the Tyrannus savanna – a tyrant flycatcher. A lord of flies. In the novel Lord of the Flies, the castaway boys live in fear of a legend, a mythic monster evil they call The Beast. They sacrifice a pig and create a totem out of its head to appease The Beast. (“The Lord of the Flies” – the English translation of Beelzebub.) There’s also a character named Piggy – a pudgy, socially awkward egghead who clings to social conventions and a clinical, scientific worldview. SPOILER ALERT: The Beast is bulls—t, man is the cause of all evil, not Satan, and Piggy gets killed. Or so the Internet tells me tonight. (Somehow, I graduated school — and watched all of Lost — without ever reading this book.) But it seems to me that Golding’s novel and “Piggy, Piggy” share common values, including a sober regard for human goodness and belief that man, not some supernatural agency, is the author of evil. From the book: “There isn’t anyone to help you. Only me. And I’m the Beast. . . . Fancy thinking the Beast was something you could hunt and kill! . . . You knew, didn’t you? I’m part of you? Close, close, close! I’m the reason why it’s no go? Why things are the way they are?”
Ben tried to help Derek with some “face your fear” therapy. He put Derek in the upstairs bathroom of Murder House, turned off the lights, and asked him to look in the mirror and say the “piggy pig pig” incantation. Derek bravely did as he was told. Piggyman never showed up — but Nurse Gladys did. After all, this was the bathroom where Franklin drowned her back in ’68. Derek freaked. So much for that approach. Still, Derek kept trying, motivated by the potential for romance with a coworker in accounting. He didn’t want to bring her home and have to explain why all his mirrors were covered up. Ben cracked the whip and told him to get over it, already. “Think of it as a psychological law of physics,” he said. “The more you think it, the more power you give it.” He promised Derek that the moment he gave up his stinkin’ thinkin’, “you’ll be free.”
Derek’s story came to an end in his own bathroom. We watched him look into the mirror and say the “piggy pig pig” curse. No Piggyman. No Nurse Gladys. No devils. In his final moments, Derek realized that Ben Harmon was right (for a change!), that he had been living in fear of a beast that didn’t exist, that he had foolishly ceded control of his life to an unclean thought. Derek sighed with relief. He was finally free from the crazy. Free as a bird…
And then a robber hiding in his shower opened the curtain and shot him between the eyes because he thought Derek was making fun of him for being fat.
Sometimes, s—t just happens.
In Constance’s kitchen, Addy’s grieving mother and Billie Dean Howard were finishing dinner when the catty hostess busted her Craigslist medium for wearing cheap fingernail polish. “Don’t take it out on me just because your dead daughter is mad at you,” Billie said. Constance was stung. Why would she ever say something like that? “Because you’re capable of handling the truth,” Billie replied. “The dead can hold a grudge better than most Scorpios.” Constance – flustered – took her meaning to be that Adelaide was mad at her beauty-obsessed mother who used to call her “mongoloid” and “monster.” Constance wanted to talk to Addy, to tell her that she missed her, that she was her reason for living. Billie relayed Addy’s reaction: “She says you should have told her that she was alive.” Still, the medium said, “Talk to her. She’s here.”
At this point, I wasn’t yet convinced that Billie Dean wasn’t a charlatan. I also wasn’t convinced that Constance wasn’t just keeping the woman around so she could tell her things she wanted to hear. What she certainly needed at that moment was to hear that her daughter could forgive her. “Baby, I am so sorry,” Constance said. She explained that she felt overwhelmed, especially when Addy’s was younger. She called herself a “single parent” (where was Papa Langdon?), and said it wasn’t easy. She told Addy she was proud of her and admired her for what she had overcome in her life. “And I think you are beautiful, Addy,” she said, “I think you are the most beautiful girl I have ever met.”
Billie was moved enough by Constance to wipe away a tear. She also told Constance the words Constance most needed to hear: “She says ‘Thank you,’ and that she knows, and that where she is now, on the other side, she’s a pretty girl at last.” Constance and Billie laughed. It was all so warm and fuzzy, and it was tempting to dismiss it all as faked and phony… until Billie Dean revealed that Addy – who apparently had been fed a lot of white-washy lies about Tate — had lost all sympathy for her devilish brother in the afterlife. “She also wants you to know that she’s grateful that you didn’t get her to the lawn at the old house. She doesn’t want to be with Tate. She’s afraid of him, now that she knows the truth.”
Constance went pale as a ghost, and she remembered.
Sirens are wailing, and so is Constance. She wants to talk to Tate, as if that might make a difference, but it’s too late. The boy who loved Cobain has his finger pointed at his head. The SWAT cops have their guns trained on his heart. He makes the Ka-powwww sound. His eyes beam hypnotic. But this is a top-notch batch of LAPD. They don’t flinch. Tate looks at them blankly. Was he trying to Jedi mind trick them? Did he think he could? Is he disappointed that he failed? It’s hard to know. He drops his hands and reaches for the gun under his pillow. He’s spurting blood from the torrent of bullets puncturing his torso before he can even raised his weapon. He gets his suicide by cop, though maybe not in the way he wanted or expected.
A police officer rushes to him and kneels and with heartbroken eyes and a stunned tone asks him the only question that matters. “Why did you do it?” Tate moves his mouth, but only a death rattle comes out. Gone. Except he’s not.
Sorry, Addy. To borrow a line from The Librarian: Now you know what heroes look like.
Your turn to oink away. “Piggy, Piggy” – what did you think?
For Ryan Murphy’s exclusive take on the episode, click here.
RATE THIS EPISODE:
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.