American Horror Story season finale recap: No Exit
Ben Harmon reaches the end of his rope and Tate's son shows his true colors in 'Afterbirth'
“Afterbirth,” the season finale of American Horror Story and possibly the series finale for Ben, Vivien and Violet Harmon, left me in limbo. My opinion pings between cool admiration and hot disappointment, between reflections like “It’s Sartre’s No Exit but with a happy ending! How ironic!” and snarky knee-jerk reactions like “That was lame. And Sartre? Can you be any more pretentious?!” (Sadly, I can.) Right now, I’m pinging toward the positive. The more I sit with the finale, and the more I re-watch it (three times, as of this writing), the more it grows on me, and the quality that initially irritated me the most – a surprisingly light tone that went for laughs instead of scares – becomes a virtue. In the spirit of the episode’s big theme, I should take personal responsibility for my experience and confess that my expectations set me up for inevitable let-down. After last week’s frothy and frightening peak installment, I was anticipating — envisioning — a terrifying corker worthy of FX’s “television event” positioning and extended running time, a high stakes dark tragedy driven and dominated by the conflicts that “Birth” seemed to set up: Ben Harmon fighting for his sanity in the wake of triple-whammy loss (Vivien, Violet, his stillborn child) and intensifying Murder House crazy; and a battle royale between the living and the dead over guardianship of the Tate-sired infant terrible. Yet “Afterbirth” made quick work of both Ben and baby, then sought to amuse and even uplift with a loopy, low stakes dark comedy – a very special Christmas episode, no less — that labored to give the Harmons a redemptive victims-to-heroes makeover. If “Afterbirth” was the end of the line for the Harmons, then it gave the woefully abused family some closure and triumph, albeit clumsily.
In the final minutes of this hit-and-miss affair, Season 1 MVP Jessica Lange tried to make like Tim Tebow and win a sloppy game with one last spine-tingling drive. She moved the ball to mid-field thanks to that dread-building beauty parlor soliloquy, then chucked a Hail Mary with a scene that asked her to make like a southern fried magi and gaze adoringly upon her grandson, Michael, who is maybe the Antichrist, certainly a Natural Born Killer. It was a wobbly pass, and I’m not sure if it connected – my instant replay team is still reviewing the tape — and yes, I am in love with this football analogy a little too much. (Pat Robertson is already organizing a protest.)
Bottom line: I think I liked it. I think.
To Ben, Vivien and Violet, and the whole sick crew, a salutation: Thank you for 12 episodes of addictively watchable hot mess; thank you for your contributions to a season which, in retrospect, is perhaps best appreciated as a brilliantly buggy beta test for what will surely be a better, more refined, yet hopefully no less crazy second season next year.
“Afterbirth” began with a flashback to a pivotal crossroads in the Ben/Vivien relationship, a cruel overture that reminded us of the crisis that put the Harmons on the road to Murder House and tried to flesh out the dubious rationale behind Operation: Fresh Start. We learned that nine months ago, Vivien had literally packed her bags and was going to leave her adulterous husband and end the marriage. Their therapy didn’t take. Their differences seemed irreconcilable. She was moving out and moving on. To Florida. With Violet. Smooth-talking yet utterly sincere Ben tried to puncture her steely resolve and convince her that what she wanted to do wasn’t really what she wanted to do. He had searched the Interwebs on his (product placement) iPad and found a grand old house in Los Angeles priced for cheap, and he begged Vivien to check it out before she made up her mind. “I’ve been looking for houses for a month, and when I found this one, I swear to God, it was like a laser beam shot right into my brain,” said Ben, who then sketched a vivid picture of a La-La Land happily ever after. “It was a like a movie in my mind. … When I look at this place, for the first time, I feel like there’s hope.”
Now I’m not sure how I feel about knowing that Vivien was thisclose to leaving Ben. On one hand, it better explains Vivien’s ultra-severe zero-tolerance policy for Ben’s miscues in the early episodes. On the other hand, it only made it harder to believe that someone so strong would agree to Operation: Fresh Start in the first place. She decided to give it a shot because… she went weak-kneed at the sight of a real estate posting on the Web? Damn! That’s one hell of an iPad! I joke. I accept that Vivien rolled the dice on The Victorian because deep down, she did love Ben, for better and worse. However, I did find myself wondering during this scene if AHS was trying to suggest the possibility that supernatural forces meddled with the Harmons from afar. Did The Victorian put that “movie” in Ben’s mind? Did Murder House lure the Harmons into its vile vortex via its “paramagnetic” power? For the purpose of producing flesh and blood extension of its insidious, corrupting influence? If so, then the rape of Vivien Harmon began long before the Rubber Man climbed on top of her. [Note: AHS exec producer Ryan Murphy throws cold water on this theory in this week’s exit interview Q&A with Tim Stack.]
NEXT: The Murder House completes its set of Harmon family souls.
From Boston past to the Murder House present, where we found grief-stricken Ben playing single dad to Tate’s kid, with tickled-pink Constance playing granny-nanny and plying the miracle babe with (offal-flavored?) formula. During a visit to Mrs. Langdon’s model Kitchen by Cleaver, Ben finally figured out that Constance was Tate’s mother. Growling ensued. The good father – who held no grudge against the kid, even though the boy wasn’t his — went home and fed the baby, rocked the baby, smiled at the baby, and then kissed the baby goodbye. He got drunk in his office and put a pistol in his mouth and tried to pull the trigger. He couldn’t. He put the gun to his temple. He was about to pull when Ghost Vivien showed herself and solidified herself and pulled the weapon out of his hands. Ben was blown away to see that somehow, someway, something of his wife – and daughter — had survived the destruction of their mortal coils. He wanted to stay. Vivien and Violet begged him to go. Ben apologized for being a bad husband and a bad dad, and his wife and daughter, now super-powered with insight that only death can bring, saw into his heart and deemed him to be sincere and rendered unto him forgiveness for his sins, and then POOF! vanished. Ben took the baby and moved to leave The Victorian and live his life and hopefully shape his Little Lord Voldemort into a harmless, law-abiding muggle when he was stopped by
Draco Malfoy and his droogy goons Crabbe and Goyle Hayden and Friends of Franklin Fiona and Dallas.
Now, when we last saw Hayden, the raccoon eyed magpie was about to rumble with Constance and Moira for possession of Tate Jr. What the hell happened? Said skirmish would have been fun to see, don’t you think? Never mind. Guess that didn’t happen. And so it went that Hayden got justice for her murder and the murder of her unborn child by sicking the psycho sycophants on the man who buried her pregnant corpse under a gazebo. Fiona and Dallas wrapped a rope around Ben’s neck and hung him from the chandelier. We thought maybe he would escape. He didn’t. And with that, the Harmon family tragedy was complete, and Ben joined his wife and daughter in eternal house arrest.
Hayden seized the child… then later lost him after getting ambushed and garroted by the ghost she gutted, Travis. (These turnabouts of vengeance were among the things that “Afterbirth” did rather well.) The himbo handyman delivered the kid to beloved Constance, and with that, not even halfway through the finale, American Horror Story settled accounts with both Ben and baby in rushed but not ineffective fashion.
Violently liberated yet again of occupants, The Victorian was once more put on the market, priced even cheaper than before, represented as always by its true steward, real estate agent Marcy. THEORY! Marcy is House Spawn – a child conceived and born inside the house, one of many who live only to serve its awful bidding. END THEORY! In the post-Harmon era, Marcy had acquired a feathery new ‘do and decided to adopt Vivien’s orphaned pooch, Haley. She quickly snared new
victims owners: The Ramos, comprised of husband Miguel, wife Stacy, and son Gabriel, a SoCal sk8trboi punk. Violet took an instant shine to the lad, even if she wasn’t impressed with his taste in music. Jealous Tate fumed. And so did I. At the entire Ramos family. Frankly, I was irked that the finale was trying to make me care about these single use disposable cut-outs instead of making quality moments with and between the show’s core clutch of characters. Maybe this is unfair, but when I allow myself to ponder what was spared for the sake of time with the Ramos’ — a little more Constance; a little more Tate; a little more Infantata and Chad-Pat; one more quality peek into The Victorian’s past or another crack at a better pay-off for the season’s most squandered asset, Larry Harvey – I get pissed.
With Gabe on the cusp on graduation, Miguel and Stacy found themselves taken by the thought of filling their empty nest with a new chick, then got busy making it so by having sex on the kitchen counter. Ben and Vivien stood unseen, watching and commenting. “I remember when we were like that. In the beginning,” Ben said. The Harmons had seen this story before, of course, and weren’t about to let it reach the same conclusion. “They seem like such a nice couple,” Vivien said. “They can’t have a baby in this house.” Moira entered the kitchen. “You’re going to need some help,” she said. Meanwhile, Miguel and Stacy ground away. Poor Moira’s going to have to clean that up, too.
NEXT: Freakshows and Kiss-Offs.
I loved all the ways in which “Afterbirth” tried to bring unity to the season by calling back to the pilot. Case-in-point: In the same way Tate and Violet tried to scare the bully out of mean girl Leah, Ben and Vivien and an all-star cast of reasonably benevolent house spirits worked together to pull a Beetlejuice and spook Miguel, Stacy and Gabe out of the house. Your actors: Beau Langdon (quickly becoming the Scooby-Doo of the American Horror Story mystery machine), Gladys, Moira Jr. and Sr. Elizabeth Short, The Black Dahlia (both halves), and Phil the Fumigator. A familiar horror story provided the script. Miguel was sent sleepwalking into the kitchen while Ben got dressed in the rubber man suit and mounted slumbering Stacy in her bed. Stacy awoke and shoved her would-be rapist away and tried to escape. Ditto Miguel, who was roused from his druggy daze — and saved from furious Lorraine’s stovetop firetrap — by Vivien. “Time for you to open your eyes and see what this house can do,” she said. Eventually, Miguel and Stacy both found themselves in the basement. Stop! Infantata time? Nah. Ben and Vivien handled the climax of this Scooby Doo scam – and got some catharsis for some unresolved bitterness in the process. Vivien rammed a knife into Ben’s chest and eviscerated him. “You don’t know how long I’ve been wanting to do that,” she said. Ben whipped out a gun and put a bullet in Vivien’s head and repeated her line back at her. They then fell down and played dead for the Ramos… then stood up and spelled out the moral of their shock-and-awe performance. “This is what it does to you, this house,” Ben said. Viven added, with her best horror movie growl: “Run.”
Meanwhile, Gabe was up in the room of smoldering children fending off Tate, who was trying to kill Gabe — for real — but as a gift to Violet; he wanted the lonely girl to have a “normal” and “average” boyfriend to keep her company for eternity. (This sentiment, from the guy who in the pilot wore a t-shirt that read “Normal People Scare Me.”) Tate: “I don’t want to hurt you, though I do have to kill you.” Violet materialized, lured Tate away and signaled Gabe to peel out with a sly eye-roll. Tate: “You told me to go away.” Violet: “Yeah, but I never said goodbye. Now let me say goodbye.” They smooched one last time, and then Violet said, “Goodbye, Tate.” POOF! She was gone.
Ben, Vivien, and Violet stood on the porch and watched as the Ramos family roared away to the tune of “Tonight You Belong To Me” by Patience and Prudence. The song AHS used in the first scene of the pilot, when the red headed mischief twins were gobbled by The Infantata and bound to the house, now used in the finale to play out a trio of souls who escaped the twins’ fate thanks to the spectral super-friends. I really liked the idea – the idea — that the Harmons now serve as guardian angels to future occupants, who work to protect the next generation from the pull and suck, taint and spoil of its haunted history. There’s a neat metaphor in there, I think, for our responsibility to society and culture, to overcome our pain and damage and guilt and whatnot to function as agents of redemption, yadda yadda high-minded yadda. That said? I’m not sure I really want to see that idea played over and over again. My gut says we won’t. Other reviews of the finale are suggesting that AHS was test-driving a template for seasons to come. To wit: The Harmons and assorted “good ghosts” helping (and probably occasionally clashing with) an endless succession of new owners, as well as fighting with any number and combination of “bad ghosts.” But again: Who says the Harmons will even remain part of the AHS mix moving forward? Regardless: I think it’s equally possible that AHS was telling us what it won’t be doing next season, that it was using the Ramos to burn out/burn through the most obvious option for the series, allowing/forcing the show to pursue bolder possibilities.
Scattered throughout “Afterbirth” we got a number of isolated scenes that tried to provide/manufacture something close to closure for a few other characters.
NORAH MONTGOMERY. Vivien’s stillborn child, the one that Dr. Montgomery turned over to his baby-hungry wife? Turned out the boy wasn’t DOA after all… though he did expire just seconds after delivery, thus binding his essence to the house forever. And so it went that Norah’s illusions/delusions about the fulfilling glories of motherhood were dashed by the prospect of eternal colic. The fussy babe also exposed the bitter old broad’s prickly pretentiousness when Vivien – taking a break from playing the cello (glad to see the artist back in action) — found her sulking in the basement, griping about the “weakling” child she got from her “genius” husband. Norah was too proud to simply surrender her “Little Noisy Monster” (which struck me as a great subtitle for all of American Horror Story itself) back to Vivien, so Viv – claiming she knew “some tricks” — offered to play babysitter for the night, which struck me as wink-wink/nudge-nudge for “forever.” “I’m not sure I have the patience to be a mother. Probably all those hideous nannies,” said Norah, retiring into shadow for what sounded like a long, looooong personal time out. “Mother wasn’t very good at it either, truth be told.” Clearly, Norah needs a little more work in the Taking Responsibility For Yourself department.
Vivien took the child up and out of the Murder House basement, and never looked back. She rehearsed some potential names for the boy. I heard “Nicholas.” I heard “Jonah.” And I do believe I heard Vivien say “Jeffrey.” A fine choice, if I say so myself.
NEXT: Merry Antichrist-mas!
MOIRA. Maid, no longer. Mournful Moira moved fully into the wisdom and maturity of her older visage by renegotiating her relationship to Vivien, and by extension herself, the house, and everyone else. She and Vivien were no longer servant and master, the two women became true friends and fellow travelers. Vivien asked Moira to begin calling her by her first name instead of Mrs. Harmon. “I would like that,” Moira said. Vivien asked Moira to be Provisional Jeffrey’s godmother and to join the Harmon family. She accepted. Suggesting she had achieved some level self-awareness and was beginning to take responsibility for her choices and mistakes (a major theme of the episode) instead of blaming men for her degradation, she even referred to herself as “a tramp.” Nonetheless, I was hoping to have learned more about Moira’s past by season’s end. I even felt that same touch of “That’s it?!” that I felt when Larry Harvey was abruptly sent to prison a few episodes back. Ah, well. There’s always next year. Right?
TATE. Abandoned by Violet, the lonely sociopath sought companionship from his old therapist. Ben shut him out, or tried to. He deemed Tate beyond saving. He claimed he couldn’t help him, even if he wanted to, because he had lost faith in psychoanalysis. Ben’s denunciation of his old profession was shocking, and I wondered to what degree the show actually agreed with his characterization of therapy as self-indulgent narcissistic blameshifting. “Therapy. Doesn’t. Work.” Ben declared. When Tate asked him why people even did it, Dr. Shrinker thundered: “Because they don’t want to take any responsibility for their crappy lives. So they pay a therapist to listen to their bullshit and make it all feel… ‘special’ … so they can blame their crazy mothers for everything that went wrong.” Ben’s cynicism seemed totally sincere, though I also think he was trying to hurt Tate the only way he could, given their undead state, with psychic torture, by convincing him that he was beyond redemption. But then Tate seemed to fry his grid when he said the words that Ben thought he couldn’t say, and did the thing Ben thought he couldn’t do. In a speech that began “In 1994, I set my mom’s boyfriend on fire,” Tate proved once and for all that he’s always been capable of recalling his sins, and confessed them all. Ben said he couldn’t play absolving priest. Tate could only get forgiveness from those he hurt. “Right. I get that,” Tate said. “But can you just hang out with me sometimes?” I don’t know about you, but I was rooting for some kind of truce here, some kind of hope for Tate. And Ben was uniquely qualified to give it to him. After all, Ben himself admitted to being not so unlike Tate – a “bad man,” a “fraud.” Still, in one of the episode’s best moments, Ben responded to Tate’s plea with silence, a silence that posed another question: Is an eternity of isolation fair punishment for a brief lifetime of evil, no matter how heinous the wrongs might be? A theme, perhaps, for next season.
We left the Harmons as they decorated and lit the Christmas tree, chopped by Ben from the Murder House yard. On the soundtrack: A choir, singing “Little Drummer Boy.” There was something subversive about closing out their story by watching them a celebrate the birthday of the Christian messiah, who promises his followers eternal life in heaven if they acknowledge him as lord and savior. But The Dead Harmons seemed perfectly content with their own kind of earthbound afterlife. In fact, they seemed never more alive, certainly never happier. Sartre said: “Hell is other people.” But so is Heaven. Meanwhile, on the porch, Tate and Hayden were out in the cold, on the outside looking in. Hayden busted Tate’s chops, told him that Violet was never, ever going to give him a second chance. “I’ll wait,” Tate said. “Forever, if I have to.”
In the epilogue, set three years later, we saw Constance hit the salon, wanting to get beautified for her long-awaited, long-deferred moment in the spotlight. For three years, she had been a veritable shut-in, raising Tate’s child, whom she named Michael. She believed the boy to be special, which in turn made her special, in a Lady MacBeth/Angela Lansbury-in-The Manchurian Candidate sort of way. Her mirror, mirror speech was chilling.
“Ever since I was a little girl, I knew I was destined for great things. I was going to be somebody. A person of significance. A star of the silver screen, I once thought. But… my dreams became nightmares. Instead of laurels – funeral wreaths. Instead of glory – bitter disappointment, cruel afflictions. But now I understand. Tragedy was preparing me for something greater. Every loss that came before was a lesson. I was being prepared. And now I know for what. This child? A remarkable boy! Destined for greatness! In need of a remarkable mother, forged in the fires of adversity. Who can guide him. With wisdom. With firmness. With love.”
In the moment, we were left to wonder if Constance thought she was raising the next great president or the next awful despot, if she was dreaming of being First Lady to an angel or a devil. What was chilling about what happened next was the realization that Constance – so starved for her “significance” — didn’t really care. She arrived home to find blood on the floor. She followed the trail of gore to Michael’s bedroom, where she found the nanny slaughtered and her Tate-lookalike grandson rocking in a chair, his hands bloody, a gleeful smile on his face. As “Twisted Nerve” began to play on the soundtrack, Constance’s airbrushed face wrinkled with a hint of terror, a touch of “My dreams just went up in smoke” heartbreak. “Now what am I going to do with you?” she asked. But as she gazed into Michael’s eyes, her worries vanished, and a chilling smile crossed her face a smile that said: This is my son, with whom I am well pleased. The evil whistle reached its crescendo, and the first season of American Horror Story cut to black.
It’s been great fun writing these recaps the past 12 weeks. Thank you for reading, and for putting up with my verboseness, tangents, and self-indulgence. (But only 3800 words this week! My Christmas gift for you!) In the days to come, I’ll try my best to interact with you guys in the boards. I’m looking forward to reading your reactions. Were you happy with the finale? Disappointed? What wasn’t resolved to your satisfaction, and what would you like to see from season 2? The floor is yours.
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.