In the series premiere, the Unhappy Harmons buy a house over the Internet. Then they have sex. Complications ensue.

By Jeff Jensen
Updated October 06, 2011 at 01:06 PM EDT
Robert Zuckerman/FX

American Horror Story

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  • TV Show
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Los Angeles. 1978. The house stands derelict. Waiting to be possessed; perhaps waiting to do the same. Animal bones hang and clang from a gnarly old oak in the unkept yard like a morbid wind chime. A coded warning. No Trespassing. But it’s too late for that. A girl in a lemon yellow dress loiters in the weeds, giving the ivy choked façade the evil eye. Adelaide. She knows much about what has come before — and knows a little of what’s to come.

Two boys approach. Twins. A pair of pint-sized droogs out for a bit of the old ultraviolence. Orange hair, pale skin, keeping a clockwork beat by tossing firecracker Pop Its. Swinging baseball bats and looking semi-tough in high-waist blue jeans and matching, color-opposite striped shirts. Troy wears red and black. Bryan wears black and green — a color combo that will recur throughout the episode, in scenes about kids getting pumped-up kicks from violence. Baseball: “The American Pastime.” Firecrackers: Independence Day. The pasty boys in their stripes, color coded red, white and blue and snot-rot green. American Horror Story: What exactly is on your crazy-chaotic mind?

We hate these runty rotters. The show gives us no other choice. They taunt Adelaide by blowing her wet kissy-kissies. She has Down’s syndrome, so they call her a freak. But it’s the house they want to brutalize, not her. She tells them what time it is. “Excuse me,” the girl says. “You are going to die in there.” The boys try to bully her into silence. “We got bats,” Bryan declares. Apropos of nothing save their puffed-up petulance, Troy bashes a small tree next to the door of the house. “I hate trees!” Abby squawks. “You’re going to regret it! You’re going to regret it!” And they will.

Inside the house: Cobwebs and dust and things left behind. The boys gawk. Batter up! They go wild with their playthings of mass destruction, smashing light fixtures, windows, a television. Meanwhile, the thing that lives downstairs has a song on its mind: “Tonight You Belong To Me” by Patience and Prudence. We hear it. But the boys are oblivious. Smash! Crash! Blood rushes. Adrenaline surges. Chaos reigns. Reason has left the building.

There’s an eviscerated critter by the stairs. Freshly mauled. The twins ogle the dying animal’s oozing blood and heaving chest. “Awesome,” marvels Troy. They see the open door, leading to the downward stairwell. They should leave, but no: They pull out their flashlights and descend into darkness. Clearly they haven’t seen many horror movies. (It’s 1978. They probably don’t have cable yet.) But we have. Time for some ugly little Americans to get punished.

In the basement, in a far room: The workbench of some wicked mad doctor. Cutting boards. Cutting utensils. Cut-up body parts preserved in jars. A leg. A baby’s head. And more. BOO! One boy drops a jar containing a hairy scalp with attached ear. The boys catch a clue: It’s time to leave. They’re bugged by the fetid stench here in the bowels of the house. Like a dead raccoon stuck in a chimney, says one. “Smells like s–t,” says the other. “S–t” and “filth” and “dirty” — the buzzwords of the pilot. How did these boys get so foul and foul-mouthed? Who’s not loving them and nurturing them the way they should be loved and nurtured? Their parents? Our culture? Oh, wait: No cable. Or maybe we’ll never know.

The twin in green stripes ascends the stairs, but then realizes that the twin in red stripes is no longer behind him. He stops. Silly rabbit. Doesn’t he know you’re never supposed to look back on the hill-climb out of hell? Bryan’s flashlight beam finds a fallen Troy, bloody and terrified. And then we see it. Fleetingly. Pause: An overgrown child in a blood-splattered nightgown. He/she/it charges. Pause: The monster’s close-up — weathered skin; wispy frazzled hair; jagged teeth like shattered glass; puckered mouth. Kissy-kissy, you lispy little tree-hater. Tonight, you belong to me…

Bryan screams.

And outside, Adelaide stands alone.

NEXT: The new American Dream: When everything fails, Reboot!

“Your body is like a house. You can fix the tiles in the bathroom and kitchen, but if the foundation is decaying you’ll be wasting your time.”

Los Angeles. Now. The Harmon family arrives from the East, running away from their past like wusses looking for a fresh start. One year ago, Vivien Harmon, a former cellist, suffered a miscarriage during the seventh month of pregnancy. The trauma of giving birth to her son’s corpse haunts her. She yearns to regain control over a body — and over a life — that has betrayed her. Her husband, Ben, a psychiatrist, has not helped that process: Six months ago, she found him having sex in their bed with a college student. Much therapy later, the marriage still stands, but barely: Anger runs deep on both sides; forgiveness remains elusive, unknowable. Both want healing, but neither wants the pain and mess that comes with it. So Vivien waits in vain for natural restoration of mind, body, and spirit, while Ben is antsy to declare himself forgiven, his relationships fixed. Their gloomy, neglected teenage daughter Violet wonders: Why don’t you just get a divorce? And in the long run, American Horror Story may prove to be the tale of two people slowly coming to recognize the necessity of splitting up.

But here at the start, Ben Harmon has a big, bold idea for keeping the family together: Reboot. Make a clean break from the past by building a new life in a new city… in a scary old house with a bloody history that he purchased over the Internet. (!) With Ben Harmon, the producers have cleverly reformulated and combined two American archetypes: The Westward, Ho! land-grabber, and the starry-eyed dreamer seeking reinvention and good fortune in La-La Land.

What could possibly go wrong with that plan?

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“That’s your professional advice, doctor? Just… denial?”

Some specs and history about the house, per the property’s long-suffering (and not always forthright) real estate agent. The house is a brick Victorian, built in 1920 by “the doctor to the stars” at the time. The previous owners invested much time and money to restore the original Tiffany fixtures and many of the home’s original features. Agent: “[They] really loved this house like a child, they restored everything.” Vivien: “Gay?” Agent: “What do you think?”

But that parental love was conditional. In the living room, Vivien realizes that the wallpaper hides several murals that were original to the home. The agent gets nervous. “The last owners probably covered it up,” she says. “They were modernists.” Interesting: A gay couple that forced their “child” to mask the freakier colors of its true nature. And then the agent — citing a legal obligation — begrudgingly gives full disclosure. The former owners? They died. In the basement. Murder-suicide. Ben and Vivien go silent. Violet — dazzled by anything (and anyone) even a little unconventional and transgressive — lights up. “We’ll take it,” she says.

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“She’s a monster. She’ll always find a way in.”

The house is freaky enough to make Vivien question Project: Fresh Start, but it intrigues her, too. She wants to know what’s behind the wallpaper; she wants to restore the home’s true colors. (Also see: Metaphor for her own soul care.) Carefully ripping away the cover-up, Vivien finds a mural, the first of many. The painting is a portrait of a cretinous humanoid with hacked off limbs. Some homes come with wall-to-wall carpeting. This one comes with wall-to-wall horror stories.

NEXT: Jessica Lange’s Emmy campaign begins here.

Vivien is lost in the labor, happily oblivious. And then she’s not. Enter Adelaide. She’s 33 years older than when we saw her last but she’s still squawking the same old song. “You’re going to die in here!” The rude little home invader makes Vivien jump. Enter another trespasser: Constance, Addy’s mother, trying to wrangle her wandering girl back home to watch Dora The Explorer. Addy quibbles: Her mother had turned on Go Diego Go! not Dora. Constance doesn’t think much of Addy’s mental capacity, and isn’t afraid to say so. To her face. “Oh, all those cartoon characters, you don’t know the difference!” She’s an oracle who knows the future! Of course she knows her Dora from her Diego! Swiper no swiping!

As played by Jessica Lange, Constance gives American Horror Story its first jolt of genuine, enlivening electricity. She’s proud Virginian Southern — “Old Dominion, born and bred” — who runs a doggy daycare out of her home. Her teeth as pearly as her jewelry, her skin smooth and glowing, Constance looks 10 years younger than she is. Maybe she, too, is taking the regenerative meds that Vivien’s doc forced on her earlier in the episode — the ones with the unspecified, unpredictable side effects. She radiates an ethereal fairy queen glamour (though if only she had Vivien’s diamond earrings to accentuate it), but tinged with nasty, especially when she’s making snide asides about the house’s former gay owners (“I thought those people were supposed to be stylish”) and casually confessing that even though she considers herself a “good Christian,” she would have aborted Addy if she had learned during the pregnancy that the girl had Down’s syndrome. Boundary-challenged Constance is wayyy TMI, but dammit if she doesn’t have some modesty. She wanted to be an old-fashioned movie star, but she got to Hollywood just as movies stopped being old-fashioned. “Nudity was the big thing then. I wasn’t about to have my green pasture flashed 70 feet high for every man, woman and child to see. So I put that little butterfly of a dream and put it in a jar on a shelf.” Which I thought was an interesting choice of words; again, see: Basement. “Soon after came the Mongoloid,” she says, referring to her daughter, “and of course I couldn’t work after that!” Mongoloid. So wrong. And I laughed. Hard. (Constance’s rude regard for her daughter was softened later in the episode, after Addy trespassed again onto the Harmon’s property and Vivien got in the girl’s face about it. “You touch my kid one more time and I’ll break your goddamn arm,” Constance seethed.)

But points to Constance for bringing a housewarming gift: A wad of sage. For cleansing the house of its “spirits” and “bad juju” and “bad memories.” That night, Vivien burns and wafts the bushy clutch while walking through the darkened house. She goes into the attic and makes a discovery that makes her scream: A black rubber fetish suit, presumably left behind by the previous owners. Shock turns to giggles. Ben delights in the naughty-naughty and half-jokingly pitches Vivien on keeping it. “I bet I’d look good in it,” he says, making the first of many efforts to coax Vivien into resuming their sex life. Nope. Not until she can purge that visual of him rutting on a co-ed in their bed. Cut to: Ben throwing the suit away, a scowl of rejection etched on his face. The shiny black kinkatard is gone — but the image of the thing is far from forgotten.

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“The world is a filthy place. It’s a filthy goddamn horror show.”

After Constance, we get more colorful visitors/supporting characters — some invited, some not, most with “bugs up their butt” about the house, all carrying baggage that should be fun to unpack in the weeks to come. I did wonder, though, how “real” these people were. Might they be manifestations of the Harmons’ unresolved issues with each other and fears about themselves? Are they archetypal entities that take on characteristics of the home’s occupants? Is the house a creative mind, producing living works that respond to and reflect the culture of the time?

NEXT: Tate’s scary fantasy for fostering the people. Better run, better run!

Take Ben’s patient Tate, charismatic and disturbed, possibly psychotic. The very first thing I noticed about the kid: That he was wearing a green and black striped shirt, just like red-headed twin Bryan from opening sequence, but with long sleeves and without the collar. More early ‘90s grunge than late ‘70s prep. For two years, Tate has had the same fantasy: Going to school wearing skull-face make-up and murdering everyone he likes, so he can liberate them from a fallen world that refuses to fix itself. “The noble war,” he calls it. Way to foster the people there, son. At a point later in the episode, Tate expresses his admiration for Kurt Cobain — and we recall that 20 years and 11 days ago today, Nirvana dropped Nevermind on the world. Scary Tate: A synthesis of his generation’s most disturbing horror stories, from Cobain’s suicide to Columbine to a decade’s worth of questionably noble warfare and dark knight fiction. “It’s a filthy world we live in. A filthy goddamn helpless world. And honestly? I feel like I’m helping to take them away from the s–t and the piss and the vomit that runs in the streets. I’m hoping to take them somewhere clean and kind.”

Heavy. Outrageous. And maybe totally phony and certainly totally wrong. Behold the alt-culture anti-hero archetype gone hollow. I got the sense that even Ben had trouble buying Tate’s tirade. Crazy? “No, I think you’re creative,” Ben said. “And I think you have a lot of pain you’re not dealing with.” The whole tone of the scene took an odd turn after Tate made claims about his mother’s sexual behavior using aggressively coarse language. He also insinuated that he had been molested. Facts? Or outrageous fictions designed to get Ben’s attention, to get him to invest in him?

Moreover, the more he talked, the more Tate revealed a morbid “fascination with abomination,” to use a phrase borrowed from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. After Ben said he had heard worse stories than Tate’s claims of abuse, Tate leaned forward in his chair: “Cool. Can you tell me some? I like stories.” Ben cannot. Stymied, Tate started ranting again about our damn dirty culture, but adds a curious, self-conscious choice of words: “The world is a filthy place. It’s a filthy god damn horror show.” The scene then cut to a close-up of McDermott, listening — and the film went intentionally scratchy. The effect did three things for me: 1. It underscored what Ben was doing — watching and listening and absorbing Tate’s bleak narrative and worldview. 2. It reminded me, in retrospect, that the whole show contained the recurring motif of people consuming horror, from the twins gawking at the slashed rodent, to Vivien beholding the spectacle of Ben’s infidelity, to the show’s climax, with Tate and Violet becoming spectators to the monster’s assault on Mean Girl, complete with theatrical lighting effects — a real horror show. 3. Finally, it revealed that American Horror Story is self-aware and self-conscious. It’ll be interesting to see how they push that — if at all — in the weeks to come.

The implicit questions: How does the consumption of horror pop affect me? How could it not? Why am I even watching this show? What do I want from it? What does it want from me? Does it hold any valuable ideas for me? You know, besides a tutorial on how to slit my veins with a razor blade, which is what happens in the very next scene, when Tate walks into the Harmon family bathroom, where Violet is cutting on her wrists, and tells her that she’s doing it wrong… that is, if her intention is to kill herself. Tate seemed to be calling her out: Are you for real? Or are you a big fake?

NEXT: Some genuine jerking around. But first: The Housekeeper!

“Have you ever owned a house this old before? It has a personality and feelings. Mistreat it and you’ll regret it.”

We meet Moria as Vivien is hanging her linens on the line in the backyard. Moira is the housekeeper. She comes with the house. “They come, they go, I stay,” says the old lady with one good eyeball, buttoned up to her neck in restrictive black. Vivien — unnerved by the woman’s sudden appearance (no one on this show has any respect for Vivien’s boundaries and private spaces) — is initially cool toward Moira. She thinks she doesn’t need the help. And she’s a stranger. The turn begins when Moira suggests using white vinegar to clean the wood floors — an organic option that appeals to Vivien’s all-natural ethos. “Have you ever owned a house this old before?” Moria asks. “It has a personality and feelings. Mistreat it and you’ll regret it.”

Over tea, Vivien asks about the previous owners. Moira says the boys fought a lot. Money. She found the bodies in the basement. “I cleaned the mess,” Moira says coldly. “You’d never know.” (Shudder.) Vivien asks Moira if she ever gets tired of cleaning up after people’s messes. Moira: “We’re women. That’s what we do. I just get paid for it.” She makes herself sound like a prostitute. And judging from a later comment made by Constance, perhaps she once was. But again: Is Moira even real? Does she have independent existence outside the house? It was interesting that Moira identified herself in archetypal terms — as “Woman.” Does the Moira entity reflect back the observer’s notions and attitudes about womankind? To Vivien the cellist-turned-housewife, burdened by her age and her broken body, Moira appears to her as an old, used-up domestic servant…

But to Ben, Moira manifests as a sex object. Entering the kitchen, Ben doesn’t see Moira as 57-year-old actress Francis Conroy in buttoned up funereal wear, but as 29-year-old actress Alexandra Breckenridge decked in slutty-maid attire. Instantly we begin to fret that Moira Junior is going to cause Ben to hurt his wife all over again. Which begs the question: If the house truly has intelligence and supernatural properties, and if this Moira creature belongs to it, then what exactly is the house’s agenda? Is it a redemption machine that can heal owners through tough-love tests and trials? Is it a damnation machine that punishes its owners for their sins? Is it a devilish entity trying to tempt its owners toward ruin?

Finally, I can’t wait to get more info about Constance’s rivalry with Moira. In their one scene together, the vigilant housekeeper found the nosy neighbor in the master bedroom, trying on Vivien’s diamond earrings — “not that fake home-shopping s–t,” but real diamonds, the kind that her suitors once showered her with when she was young and pretty, so much so that she used to have a different pair for every day of the week. (But where did the rocks go, Constance?) Moira told Constance to get out. Constance told Moira she’d be wise to not get in the way of… whatever it is she’s up to in this show. Or else? “Don’t make me kill you again,” Constance threatened. Whatever that means. Please tell me what that means! The night’s best line and most capture the imagination moment.

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“Everybody can get better, Tate! Everybody! I just think you’re scared. Of what, I’m not sure. Maybe rejection. Certainly because of what your father did to you.”

Tate should be taking meds to be less psycho. He isn’t, but he tells Ben that he is. Leveraging a lesson learned in college from an intimidating CIA interrogator (a scary spook, so to speak), the well-meaning Doc exposes Tate’s fib. The boy feels burned. Betrayed even. He bites back by being outrageous, and more, subversively hurtful in a way Ben can’t yet see. He tells the doctor he didn’t take the pills because he was afraid the meds would make him impotent. Which would suck, he explains, because he’s met someone. He doesn’t name names, but we know it’s Violet, because we see her peeking around the corner, watching and listening as her crush coarsely brags on the size of his junk.

NEXT: The Taint of Violence.

We see what amounts to the Violet/Tate courtship — a secret post-therapy session rendezvous in Violet’s bedroom. They bond over cutting scars, gloom pop (she’s all about Morrissey; he’s a Cobain guy), and laughably banal self-loathing for white upper middle class West Coast living. Oh, and the weather, too. “I hate it here. I hate everyone. All their ‘boo-gee’ designer bulls–t,” says tough-talking Violet. “East coast is much cooler. At least we have weather.” Tate: “I love it when the leaves turn orange.” Violet: “Yeah! Me, too!”

And yet, an undercurrent of subversive intent permeates the scene. It comes from Tate, who has moved from wearing green and black stripes like the violent, monster-destroyed red-headed boy to wearing a solid shade of puke green. At one point in his flirting, he goes to the chalkboard on Violet’s wall, and writes the word TAINT in tall, capital letters. The creepy thing about this beat: Violet doesn’t react to it. Doesn’t even acknowledge it. Taint: To imbue with something offensive, poisonous or corrupt; to infect with decay. Taint: Take out the “n” and you have “Tait.” Like Tate. And when you give that “n” to Violet – infect her with it; taint her with it – you make her VIOLENT. Which is a long, rather ridiculously convoluted way of saying that yes, Tate is a bad influence. Memo to Violet: You’re going to regret it! You’re going to regret it!

Anyway, all of this unsettling nonsense comes to a screeching halt when Ben walks in. The doctor is not pleased. The daddy in him, even more so. Ben casts him out. Once again, Tate feels betrayed. He pouts. “That thing you said I was afraid of? Fear of rejection?!” He leaves the answer unsaid, but Ben gets it. Tate storms out, cursing.

From a scene that saw Ben try to rid his home of bad influence Tate, we segued immediately to Ben barreling out of the bathroom and wet from a shower, calling out to Vivien for razor blades. The transition/segue got me thinking: Is Tate an evil spirit or possessed by one? Think through what the pilot has shown us and told us. Razor blades: The preferred tool for teenage bloodletting. Bloodletting: According to the story Tate told (and don’t take this to the bank, kids), “the Indians” used to ritualistically cut themselves to exorcise the evil spirits living inside them, that have tainted them. Did you catch what happened in Ben’s office when Tate told that tale? At the mention of evil spirits, we got a shot of Ben in his chair — and a bloody-headed Ben standing behind him. Then he was gone. The injury looked consistent with the maulings by the monster in the basement. Was Tate killed or claimed by the creature? Is he a host body for the malevolent miscreant?

Regardless, Vivien doesn’t respond to Ben’s call for razor blades, and Ben’s about to turn back to the bathroom, when he hears sounds coming from another room. The door is ajar. He pushes it open. Moira Junior is laying on a couch. Touching herself. He watches. She watches him watching her. A mix of emotions take possession of him. Lust. Anger. Guilt. Loneliness. He storms away, retires to his study, and “pleasures” himself, breaking into a sob at the point of climax. A sad, pathetic little exorcism. The thing that initially struck me as most ridiculous about this scene now strikes me as most interesting: That he did what he did while facing a window. He wanted to be caught. Didn’t he? He wanted to be seen. In the profound sense. And then, when seen, dark parts and all, not rejected. You know: Just like Tate.

Ben is seen en medias masturbatorious, but not by the woman he loves. A second after finishing, Ben spots a man outside the window, hiding among the linens hanging on the line. And judging from the smirk on his burn-scarred face, the fedora’d voyeur was watching him the whole time. Unless… unless… the man didn’t materialize until Ben spilled his seed. So: Immaculate conception? Ben barrels downstairs and looks for the bogeyman amid the billowing white sheets. The man is gone. Was he ever there? Am I losing my mind?

NEXT: Ben’s horror story theory of culture.

Maybe. At the very least, Ben’s pain is beginning to get the best of him. Self-control: slipping. Another Thursday, cleaning day: Moira Junior enters his study. Unbidden. (?) Unwanted. (?) He wants her to leave. He never asks. She dusts. She flirts. She tells him she saw him watching her touch herself. She unsnaps a garter. Straddles him. You know you want it. “You’re going to regret it!” And at that moment: Violet. At the door. Watching. But she sees Moira the elder, not Moira the younger. The image makes Ben look exactly as weak and desperate and helpless as he must feel, and it fills Violet with same feeling that her mother must have felt one year earlier: Totally betrayed. She runs.

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“Something horrible happened to us. And we handled it even more horribly.”

The moment the Harmons have been aching for — and dreading — finally comes one afternoon in the living room as Vivien continues to peel away the layers of wallpaper and expose more of the home’s hidden, hideous murals. One painting has an oblique, unsettling narrative: An old man with a shepherd’s staff; a demon-creature clawing at his shoulder, whispering into his ear; a small child, hiding his face. Another painting seems to show a priest with a crucifix doing battle with a vampire-like demon. Proving yet again he got some value out of his education, Ben recalls: “One of my psychology professors told me that people tell stories to cope with their fears. All art and myths are just creations to give us control over the things that scare us. A fear of dying — create reincarnation. A fear of evil– create a benevolent God that sends evildoers to hell.” In other words: All culture is comprised of horror stories. Vivien’s typically wry response: “I just like that I don’t have to think while I do it.” You could say the same things about television. Some want to have undemanding, easygoing fun. Others want to ridiculously over-think it and produce 6000 word recaps about it. (At least this week they do.)

The fight begins when Ben once again makes a move on his wife. He finds Vivien so attractive sweaty and unkept. He digs her hot-mess. She just feels old. She rejects him. Again. Ben blows up. The argument isn’t pretty. She paints vivid word pictures — about carrying a corpse inside her, about watching Ben’s face as he screwed another, younger woman. He defends himself in various, self-serving ways, and he finally lets loose the anger he never shared in therapy. He lands a low blow by accusing her of replacing him with the dog. Which is true, but still. Ben begins to win the day when he reminds her of when they last had sex. To the point. Of everything. “Something horrible happened to us. And we handled it even more horribly. This place is our second chance. I just have to know that you want it, too.” Vivien responds with an angry push-punch. The another. She’s lashing out at him, the way she did with the knife on the afternoon that he did what did and she saw what she saw. Then she attacks him with a kiss. They fall to the floor. And it’s on. American Horror Story says that true intimacy means running the risk of looking like and maybe even acting like monsters toward each other. Here, at least, the result seems positive.

And now everything is all better now, right?

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“Hit the lights.”

Violet returns home from her rumble with the mean girls at school with a cut above her eye. Vivien plays nurse, and it provides an opportunity for a mother/daughter heart-to-heart. Violet asks her mom why she and her father never divorced. “We’ve got a lot of history. Your dad’s been through a lot, I’ve been through a lot. I guess we need each other.” Violet asks her mom about what scares her. “Lately? Everything. Life will do that to you.”

NEXT: The Rubber Man Cometh!

In a slightly discombobulating segue, the very next thing we see is an agitated Violet telling Tate: “I hate her! I want to kill her!” For a second, I thought Violet was talking about her mother. But Tate’s response clarifies that she’s talking about the ringleader of the mean girls that have been bullying her throughout the episode. Violet: mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. I also wondered if suffering her parents’ tsuris made her so unsettled, she needed to take it out on something to feel strong again, to regain a feeling of control over her chaotic life. In that sense, killing mean girl = slaying her mommy stress. Or not. Regardless: Time to take the offensive. Of course, Violet is no murderer. But Tate — a sinister glint in his eye — pitches her an idea: “Scare her. Make her afraid of you. It’s the only thing bullies relate to.” In other words: Spook her with a horror show. Who to play the role of bogeyman? “That’s where I come in.” Off that exact line, we cut to this:

The Rubber Man. It’s later in the evening and Vivien is moisturizing before bed when a man wearing the fetish suit found earlier in the attic walks into the room. Vivien assumes it’s Ben. The Rubber Man says nothing. Vivien’s afternoon delight has apparently rekindled her sex drive — or at least her desire for intimacy with Ben — and so she accepts the challenge of another, randier throw-down. As they start having sex, we get a shot that shows us the pills her doctor pushed on her a year ago — the experimental hormone treatment, designed to regenerate her womanhood, yet with unpredictable side effects. She had initially dismissed the treatment as unnatural; she wanted organic healing, on her own timetable. So here’s one interpretation of this scene: It’s just a vivid, metaphorical dream, with The Rubber Man embodying all of her fears about her more intentional, riskier journey toward healing that she initiated earlier that afternoon by having sex with Ben. Am I ready for this? Are we ready for this? Is this natural? Is this right? Can I trust this man? But here’s another interpretation of this scene: Vivien is really having sex with some guy in a mask and fetish suit! And if I had to guess the identity, I’d say the show was giving us a clue with the line that bridged this scene and the one before it: “That’s where I come in.” Yep: The Rubber Man = Tate.

But we know for sure it’s not Ben. Because as The Rubber Man and Vivien are upstairs, Ben is sleepwalking through his kitchen and turning on oven burners and thinking about setting himself ablaze. My dream interpretation: Similar to Vivien, an expression of Ben’s panic about the relational journey finally underway. What if this doesn’t work? What if she rejects me? Can’t we declare this over and done and won right now? Or: It’s not a dream, and dark forces are messing with him. Enter trespassing Constance to save him. She turns off the burners and purrs: “Now is not your time. Enjoy the house. Go back to bed.” It sounded vaguely menacing. And maybe it was. She clearly has an agenda. But her choice of words makes me doubt — for now — that the house itself is facilitating this madness. Enjoy the house, she said. As if it can be enjoyed. As if it wants to be enjoyed. Not fought or opposed.

Back in bed. The Rubber Man is gone. Just Vivien. Just Ben. “I love you,” she says. “I love you, too,” he replies. They both look and sound shell-shocked. So much for the afterglow.

NEXT: Normal people scare me, too. But Tate scares me more.

Meanwhile, in the basement, the Violet and Tate horror show is about to begin. The premise: Violet lures Mean Girl over to the house under the pretense of selling her drugs (Mean Girl is a cokehead), then lets Tate improv the rest. Why Mean Girl bit on this dubious bait baffles me. But why be a stickler for realism now? Tate is waiting for the girls in the darkest recesses of the basement. No more rot green. Just a black T-shirt now, with the words “Normal People Scare Me.” Tate says, “Hit the lights.” Violet complies. The basement goes disco from the strobe. Then Tate starts to writhe in his chair. Suddenly he’s gone — and for a flash, the monster that killed the twins takes his place. Was the miscreant trying to take Tate over? Or was the miscreant trying to get out of Tate, because the miscreant lives inside Tate?

Tate assaults the Mean Girl, taking her to the ground. Then Tate is no longer there. Again, he’s been replaced by the monster, who’s now chomping and clawing at the girl. Tate is now behind Violet, at her shoulder, watching. Mean Girl is screaming. Violet is screaming. Violet turns the lights back on — and the monster is gone. Mean Girl sprints out. Violet is on the verge of doing the same. What was that thing? Tate plays it clueless. The way he remembers it, Mean Girl kicked him in the nuts and ran away. But Violet trusts her eyes and demands that Tate leave, ASAP. Tate bellows back: “I thought you said you weren’t afraid of anything!” The camera stays on Tate as his eyes suddenly go a little wider, a little more nervous. Is he somehow psychically attuned to the events that are about to transpire in the next scene? Is Tate/Monster threatened by The Man With The Melted Face?

Ben is out for a jog when he realizes that someone is following him by car, then on foot. It’s the fedora’d man with the burned mug — the backyard voyeur. Ben gets away, then jumps him. Ben demanded answers, and the man named Larry Harvey tells him his story. Roughly 20 years ago, Larry moved his family — wife; two daughters — into the house. By the sixth month he was sleepwalking and hearing voices bidding him to do things. Awful things. Like dousing his family with gasoline and lighting them on fire things. He obeyed. “I was like an obedient child,” Harvey says. His wife and girls died. He did not. He suffered burns on 70 percent of his body and has no memory of how or who put out the flames. He was sent to prison and released just recently, due to the brain tumor killing him. Why is he stalking Ben? Simple: He’s convinced the house is evil. “Your family is in danger,” Larry says. “You have to get out of that house!” Larry gets touchy during his pleading, and Ben is skeeved-out by it, so he squirms away and tells Larry to stay away from him and his family. We get one last shot of Larry’s melted face — and the expression of panic has been replaced by a grin.

Was Larry’s story truthful? Who does he serve in the war for the Harmon family’s soul? And what part does newly conceived Baby Harmon play in this saga? Yep: As we learned in the very last scene, Vivien is pregnant. But whose the daddy? Ben? The Rubber Man? The House? Whatever the answer, Ben’s eyes summed it up: The horror, the horror…

Your take and theories about American Horror Story: Go! And for Tim Stack’s revealing Q&A with American Horror Story co-creator Ryan Murphy about last night’s episode, click here.

Twitter: @EWDocJensen

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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.

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  • 9
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