American Horror Story recap: Booby Trapped
Twisted mother issues and bizarre baby trouble curdle the horror and spoil some heroic triumphs in 'Spilt Milk'
Johnny Morgan, the man who believed he was the son of Bloody Face, sat in the gloom of his suspected father’s old home stewing in his scruffy tank-top skank and toking on a hash pipe while waiting for something stronger to make the pain go away. She arrived in the form of a call girl named Pandora, a spirited treasure chest filled with playful vice, whose bulging bosom was more juiced than usual thanks to a recent transformation: She was a new mom. “New and improved,” she flirtatiously cooed. “Had my baby three weeks ago.” Johnny wanted to know for sure that Pandora was the good-time object he ordered off the Internet: The website marketing her services focused only on her bust, and didn’t show her mug. “Oh, you won’t be looking at my face, not once these triple Ds come out to play,” she said. “Trust me. I haven’t had one complaint yet.” Yes, Pandora’s milkshake always brings the boys to the yard…
Johnny pulled out a wad of bills. New mama was dazzled. “You understand what I want, right?” he asked gravely. Pandora could barely suppress a smile. “You were, um, very clear,” she said. “I’ve been saving up all day, honey. Even gave my baby a bottle of formula, so there’s no way I’ll run dry.” Johnny earnestly asked if it was true that lactating mothers leaked at the sound of a child’s cry. Pandora turned her affirmative response into a talk-dirty seduction. Nothing like a “soaking wet bra” story to get a client’s motor running! But sad eyed Johnny stayed cool, so serious, so sincere: “Breast feeding is so important for early development.”
She removed her top, sexy-like. “I’m going to take care of you, Johnny. All you need is a little mothering,” said Pandora. “But you don’t have to cry to be my baby. Are you hungry, baby? How badly do you want to taste this?”
“I’d kill for it,” said Johnny.
“Come to mama.”
Now that got the blood pumping. Like father, like maybe son.
He beelined for a boob. He suckled greedily, as if making up for all the lost time and nurturing he felt he never got from his cruel, withholding mother, that he never received from the cold, worthless institutions that raised him. He believed he was being loved in a way he had never been loved before…
But Johnny Morgan, one very wrong dude, might have been horribly mistaken about this, too.
Back to 1965. Back to The Asylum. Mother Claudia – charged by Judy Martin to help liberate the wrongfully imprisoned Lana Winters – followed through on her mission. Lana was understandably skeptical when the nun pulled her aside in the bakery and told her that a cab was waiting to take her anywhere she wanted to go. But the Mother Superior proved she was worthy of Lana’s faith when she revealed they shared a common purpose: Shuttering Briarcliff. “I want it burned down and the Earth salted!” Lana extracted the tape of Dr. Oliver Thredson’s Bloody Face confession from its hiding place, a sack of flour. She made a goodbye promise to Judy: “I’m coming back for you, Jude. I won’t leave you here.” And then she made her escape.
Or tried to.
“Spilt Milk” – one of American Horror Story’s best directed hours — was sprinkled with visual and thematic homages to director Brian De Palma, whose filmography is filled with homages to his idol, Alfred Hitchcock. A po-mo influence-wearing storyteller/imagemaker like De Palma was a fitting, ironic touchstone for an episode about fixations and fetishes, the legacy of horror, the echo chamber of pop culture, the warp of those who nurtured us, and that which we allow to have power over us.
One of “Milk’s” most overt nods to De Palma: The suspenseful split-screen staging of Lana’s exit. On one side, we watched her descend the Stairway to Heaven and slip by an oblivious Dr. Thredson, who, on the other side of the screen, stood halfway up those same stairs tensely negotiating a deal with Kit Walker: Freedom for Kit, Resurrected Grace and their alien baby in exchange for the tape. Kit’s distraction gave Lana the jump she needed: By the time her lunatic captor-rapist-tormentor cottoned to the proverbial Statue of Liberty play fake-out, she was out the door. I loved the shot overlooking the Briarcliff steps and the driveway curving away on either side of the icy grounds, the elements combining to form the outline of… a devil’s horned head. (Speaking of homage: The Asylum’s satanic silhouette was the same shape hidden within the stained glass in the front door of Murder House in season 1 of American Horror Story.)
Lana slapped the tape against the cab window, then flipped Thredson the bird. Loved that, too. Winters flew the coup. Bloody Face was sunk.
NEXT: Bomb Theory + Chekhov’s Gun = Suspense!
The cinematic allusions continued during the final confrontation between Lana and the monster that made her play surrogate mommy. The setting: Mad Men Misogyny Manor, aka Dr. Thredson’s swinging Mid Century Modern domicile. Winters – scrubbed clean of Asylum stink and dressed to kill – was waiting for Thredson as he came home. She cut the image of a film noir femme fatale as she held him at gunpoint, the long shadow of her armed hand cast against the wall. She had already sent the tape to the police, and she wanted to prevent Thredson from running away before the cops cuffed him. She also had a burning question: What did Thredson do with the body of her lover, Wendy?
Lana believed she was in total control of the situation. She was certain she had Oliver trapped. But Thredson knew something she didn’t, and AHS made sure we knew it, too: He had a gun. He lit the electric fireplace. He fixed a martini. He took his time telling Lana what she wanted to know, and many things she didn’t. He explained that he had chopped up Wendy and scattered and incinerated her remains… but not before using her body for sex practice, a sick feat he couldn’t accomplish without turning her face down. (He couldn’t look her in the eye while defiling her.) (Oh, and for the record: Ewwwwwww!). As Thredson drank and orated like a pulp serial villain explaining his machinations, our dread mounted as we waited for Thredson to make his move. It was textbook application of Hitchcock’s “bomb theory” rule for manufacturing suspense, plus Chekhov’s gun: You knew before the scene was over, one was going to shoot the other.
Making this sequence even more interesting was how it cut to more bits between Johnny Morgan and Pandora in the present. Despite filling his gut with Pandora’s milk, the scion of Bloody Face still ached with need, still smarted with disillusionment. His suckling laid bare his impoverished character, and of course, he blamed his (alleged) mother, Lana. Johnny was hopelessly fixated on “that cold bitch,” that loveless lesbian wrecker of horribly misunderstood and marginalized Thredson men, and worse, he knew he was hopelessly fixated. He was a rabid dog trapped in a psychic cage, and he raged. Our dread mounted, again per the rule of Bomb Theory: We knew everything Pandora didn’t — Johnny’s violent potential; the true extent of his perverse, possibly adopted Unwanted Child pathology – our awareness heightened by the switches to Lana and Oliver as they discussed how she intended to abort his baby as soon as she could. The intercutting was presented as fluid, blurring bleeds from one point in time to the next, and as such expressed Johnny’s unfolding psychic/psychotic breakdown and reinforced the idea of historical cause-and-effect, linking the sins of the father to the son, be he spawned from Thredson’s loins or just his cultural impact. And so Johnny began to eyeball the woman he had hired to play mommy with a different kind of awful desire. He grabbed Pandora by the neck and squeezed. “You know what the bitch did to me?!” Johnny seethed as we swooshed again into his (alleged) past, never to return again. Did Johnny go all the way? File not found. But we must assume that this next gen Bloody Face had claimed another victim.
To be clear, I totally believe that Johnny intended to murder Pandora the second he opened the door and let her inside. Sure, maybe he didn’t allow himself the conscious thought. But he should have recognized his pattern. He should have known what he was risking. Similarly, I think Johnny’s maybe-parents had agendas they weren’t acknowledging. I think Lana wanted to kill Thredson. Yeah, she said she wanted to see him fry in the chair. But she wanted her hand on the switch, and the closest she was going to get experiencing that sensational satisfaction was pulling the trigger on her gun. And you know, I think Thredson wanted her to do it – unless, of course, he could get the drop on her first. “I’m actually relieved. Living with secrets… Is…. Not… Healthy!” said Thredson with a smirk and exaggerated nods. His tone was disingenuous, if not condescending to an infuriating degree. But I would argue his conspicuous attitude was intended to manipulate Lana into making a move against him…
NEXT: Vulture Culture
Thredson goaded Lana by describing with sick relish how he repeatedly raped Wendy’s corpse (“It was a triumph! Better than I ever thought possible! Lana: Wendy allowed us to make this life growing inside you!”) (again: Eww!), and taunting her with the likely possibility that he’d be declared insane and sent to Briarcliff instead of imprisoned for who knows how long before executed. Neither scenario appealed to Thredson, given Little Orphan Oliver’s past experience with dehumanizing institutionalization, combined with what might have been some kind of resignation. It was over. He knew it. It was either kill or be killed now. With police sirens drawing close and crimson squad car lights strobing his home — the Bloody Face death pad, illuminated with hellfire — Oliver forced resolution with one last dig. After finishing his second drink and wrapping his I’m-gonna-cheat-Sparky soliloquy, the sinister shrink said: “As for you, Lana, I have no further use for you. Best you should be known as my last victim.” He reached for the gun – but slowly, haltingly. Lana shot Thredson in the head. His blood splashed on the camera lens – on us, the horror freaks.
“Prison’s too good for you,” Lana sniped, and walked away. To use the late doctor’s words: It was a triumph. Right?
We tracked the aftermath. The press ripped into the juicy tale of the “Sapphic reporter’s” heroic, traumatic clash with Thredson, thus setting the record straight about Bloody Face’s true identity. (Kit Walker: Exonerated!) Lana had much more to say about Briarcliff, but she was going to do it on her terms, in the most self-serving way possible. “All I can say is: Read my book,” she told the reporters chasing after her, shooting her picture, making her a tabloid star. We got the sense that American Horror Story was trying to make a point here, something about the emergence of a new era of sensationalistic True Crime pop, how it makes cash-grabbing multimedia celebrities out of its participants, etc. Lana Winters: The mythic harbinger of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, and all the Anne Rules and Nancy Graces that would follow, for better and worse. And yet, Lana didn’t cast herself as a victim. She even blamed herself for the horror that engulfed her and destroyed her true love. “It was the story,” she told friends Barb and Lois. “I was going to do anything to get that story. I just didn’t realize how much it was going to cost.” She identified with the very newshounds now hounding her. “We are vultures. Attracted to the scent of rotting meat.” (Of course, the same could be said of us, those who consume the pulpy carrion said predators bring back to the nest.) The confession spoke well of Lana. She seemed to embody an admirable model of cultural responsibility. But will she go next level and work to redeem it? Or was her admission also a confession of cynical resignation? Time will tell…
Or not. Because we quickly learned that regardless of her aspirations, noble or otherwise, Lana was going to have a hard time writing her Asylum-razing magnum opus. She had her Briarcliff case file, and she had her memories, but she needed corroborating testimony. Mother Superior/Sister Claudia had been transferred to Puerto Rico. Pepper had vanished. Again. (Boiled to death in the hydrotherapy tubs?) She needed a Deep Throat. She needed Judy Martin, and she was stuck inside The Asylum. Lana took her manuscript to those good-hearted keystone dicks, Detectives Bias and Conners, and convinced them to petition for a court order that would free Judy.
“You’re one tough cookie,” the slim one patronized.
“I am tough,” she said. “But I’m no cookie.”
NEXT: The Suckle of Disillusionment
And yet, when Little Miss ‘Damn Plucky’ and company barged into Briarcliff and demanded Judy’s release, Monsignor Timothy informed them that the former Bride of Christ had taken her own life – hung herself in her cell – just two weeks earlier. We later learned this was a lie: Judy was alive and not-so-well, languishing in a secret hold. Father Howard put her there for a few reasons. She had tried to rally the Briarcliff unfortunates to reject the meds (“horse tranquilizers!”) that were keeping them passive, numb, and dumb. (Judy’s trajectory: From Nurse Ratched to Randall McMurphy.) Then, during a verbal altercation with the Monsignor, Judy all but demanded that he renounce hits vows and resign from the priesthood because he had lost his virtue to The Devil. Timothy would not. Since he banished Satan from Briarcliff by throwing Sister Mary to her death, the Monsignor had become even more ends-justify-the-means cynical about advancing The Church, as well as advancing within The Church. “I have too much to give, too much too offer,” he explained. “I can’t just throw it all the way.” Judy was repulsed. She hated him for his “magic carpet ride fantasy” of becoming Pope — and she hated herself for believing in it. “Can you imagine the disillusionment, the shame, and the disgust I feel now that I see through your stupid, pitiful, naked ambition!” That was enough for The Monsignor. “Shut your filthy mouth!” he commanded, as if she were some hounding, tempting demon that needed to cast out and away. But Timothy couldn’t afford that. And so he made her disappear.
As the orderlies dragged her away, Judy Martin said, ominously, with an almost possessed air, “You will never prevail, Timothy. My god will never allow it.” My god? Did she mean the God that Monsignor Timothy believes he serves but truly doesn’t? Or does Judy now serve another deity? If so, what would be his or her or its name? Maybe it’s less of an entity and more an idea, like Faithlessness, Cynicism, or Disillusionment. Gulp. Could it be… Satan?!?
When I saw Judy rotting away, I immediately hyperlinked to the opening sequence of the very first episode, and the moment when Leo’s arm got ripped off by the mystery monster lurking within that Briarcliff cell. Has that dismembering demon ever been ID’d? Could it have been Judy? My prediction for one of the season’s final images: The present day Massachusetts PD will examine Teresa’s phone – the one Leo used to snap a pic of whatever was inside that cell – and the cops will see Judy’s furious, awful mug scowling back at them, and us.
The final beats of Lana’s story found her in the hospital, several months later. She had just given birth to Thredson’s baby. She almost had an abortion — performed in secret, in the home of a skilled female doctor using swiped hospital equipment – but she stopped the procedure when memories of her Briarcliff/Bloody Face ordeal many months earlier flooded her mind and overwhelmed her. So much violence. So much blood. No more. It felt to her – made sense to her — that if she wished to stand in opposition to the horror show of her culture, she should save the life inside her, not destroy it. “No more death,” she said. Did anyone see this as some kind of “pro life” endorsement? I did not. In fact, as much as I was expecting this about-face, I’m not sure I bought it. Was this something Lana would really do, or was this something the story needed her to do, for the sake of plot or theme? And yet, it makes total sense she’d shut down the operation, if only because the physical procedure itself was going to be too psychically painful, too evocative of the trauma and violation inflicted upon her by Thredson. In a way, you could say that Bloody Face still held her hostage. And yet still another voice in me wonders: Lacking clarity – what’s the right thing to do? – perhaps erring on the side of “keep” is better than “abort.” I’m of many minds on this. What did you think?
Back on point: Lana decided to bring the baby into the world. But she did not want to keep him. She didn’t even want to see him. So when a nurse entered with the wailing infant, and asked her to console the distraught lad by nursing him, Lana got huffy. “That’s not my problem,” she said. Oh, but it was, and she knew it. It just wasn’t in her nature to turn her back on a suffering innocent. And so, as the nurse was about to leave the room, Lana called her back. “Bring him here,” she said. She took the baby, brought him to her breast. Memories of another Thredson who wanted her in a similar fashion must have come to mind, and it must have been hell to fight through that sick static in order to give the baby what he needed. Damn that man for perverting and making painful every bit of her feminine being! The measure of her heroism – or her resignation – was seen in her free hand: From a fist, it opened, and then joined the other to reluctantly cradle the kid. As she nursed a baby who may or may not grow up to be the demented Johnny Morgan (what do you think?), Lana looked up, and saw the crucifix over her bed, upside down, and I was struck by the portrait of a woman trapped in a world gone topsy-turvy from the rape of meaninglessness. Hang tough, Lana. Hang tough.
The plucky heroine of American Horror Story wasn’t the only one juggling baby trouble. Kit Walker — his name cleared; his liberty restored — negotiated the same deal with Monsignor Timothy that Dr. Thredson tried to negotiate with him regarding the tape. He agreed to keep forever silent about the Briarcliff horror show, if Father Howard released Resurrected Grace (who was technically dead, anyway) and their miracle baby (whom Thredson and Howard tried to ship away to St. Ursula’s). Kit — who promised to make Grace an honest woman — brought his new family back to the home he kept with the woman who had been his late, great true love, Alma, who, according to Grace, had died during her epic ethereal captivity with the strangelove extraterrestrials who had impregnated both of them. I thought maybe Casa de Walker would have been sold to fund Kit’s defense, or become some kind of True Crime/UFO nut tourist trap, but no: The structure had stood empty and unmolested during Kit’s incarceration. Even the spare key was still under the mat. (Okay, we roll with it…) The Briarcliff lovers were going to make the house their own. Kit was going to buy Grace a horse. Happily ever after seemed to stretch before them… until they found a pair of complications sitting on the bed: Alma and child. What the hell, indeed. I find myself at a loss for theories when it comes to the Kit/Grace/Alma/E.T. intrigue, and I really don’t know how much I can trust born again Grace; there is something eerie and not-quite-right about her, as if this new Grace is the uncanny valley version of the old Grace. I really do suspect we’re headed toward some kind of nothing-has-ever-been-what-it-seems-with-Kit twist. He’s an alien, I tell you! An alien!
+Monsignor Timothy on the persecuting press: “Hopefully, if we remain resolute in our silence, they will eventually tire and go away.” His whole storyline: A metaphor for The Catholic Church poor, unacceptable response to the abuse scandal, which has cost it much credibility and integrity in the eyes of believers and non-believers alike. (Remember when I expressed some degree of admiration for Father Howard last week? Well, admiration gone.)
+Judy jamming to “Love Potion Number 9” on the jukebox, surrendering to Satan’s parting gift to Briarcliff: “She got one thing right. This jukebox, it has a strange healing affect. It keeps the joy alive.” Perhaps Judy’s new god is the golden calf of… pop culture?
+I want a Barb and Lois spin-off!
Your turn. What did you make of “Spilt Milk”?
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.