Ah, American Horror Story. I’ve been waiting for you my whole life these past few months! As a huge horror fan and a medium-sized Ryan Murphy fan (Glee is not really my style, but I could write you a paper on why Nip/Tuck is a modern gothic horror masterpiece) (granted, that paper would mostly consist of exclamation points and complaining about the McNamaras as a whole, but I digress), I was excited about it from my very first interaction with the viral marketing ARG.
This show has a lot of things going for it–an excellent cast, an intriguing premise, a safe-harbor airtime, and a spot on the best cable network for innovative original programming out there–but can it live up to the hype?
Spoiler alert: ayup. So we shall continue!
However, this show is basically made of distressing content and imagery, some of which will be screencapped and used as an illustrative tool in this recap. Please do not proceed if you think this is something that will disturb you. I mean, I don’t know why you’d read this without first having watched the episode, but this is a head’s up in case you watched the scary and gory bits through your fingers. Which is nothing to be ashamed of, I saw about 2/3 of the film [REC] because my hands were blocking out a third of the screen at various points.
Let us begin in 1978.
We start with a lovely, creepy house in an obvious state of disrepair. The music is nicely retro-eerie. There’s a wind chime made out of animal bones, which would be creepier if I hadn’t made stuff out of bones as a kid.
An adorable little girl with Down syndrome is standing in the front yard, staring into the overgrown shrubs until a rock going through one of the house’s windows startles her. It’s two obnoxious ginger tween-twins coming up the front walkway with bats, one of them throwing poppers on the ground. They call the little girl a freak and are generally awful little beasts. Ryan Murphy is really good at making an audience gleefully anticipate the horrible murder of children.
They head toward the house, and the little girl says “Excuse me. You’re going to die in there.”
One of the boys: “You shut your mouth, or we’re gonna kick your ass!”
The other boy, hilariously: “We got batsth.”
The first boy hits a tree next to the doorway with an equally hilarious “I hate trees!” as they walk inside. The little girl, cheerfully, repeats “You’re going to regret it.” several times. The house is as bad on the inside as it is outside, but since these are 12-year-old boys, they figure it can always get worse. They run around, smashing everything with their bats as go-to creepy child song “Tonight, You Belong To Me” by Patience and Prudence plays over the destruction.
They eventually find a barely-breathing opossum lying on the floor with its throat ripped out. They get bored with it when they find a basement full of THINGS IN JARS:
and rusty, bloody cutting implements. I. Uh. Really? Look, there was a creepy old abandoned barn I used to trespass in when I was about their age, and the day I went there and found a toolbox full of new fishing lures and knives to scale and gut fish, lures and knives that hadn’t been there the week before, was the day I stopped going to that barn. It had become a scary murder barn. You’d think a jar full of a baby face and a bone saw with red blood on it would be enough to scare these children the hell out of there, but I guess not.
One of the boys grabs the jar containing the ear/scalp and throws it onto the floor. Even the other boy is like “You idiot” and goes off to be stupid somewhere else. When the kid finally decides to go after him, the popper-throwing has stopped. He calls out for his brother, increasingly nervous.
And rightfully so. Reaching for him is his brother, throat ripped out and gurgling. The still-bethroated kid goes to run, but waiting for him is THIS FUCKING THING:
It’s out of focus here for all but two frames, but through my screencapping
program’s prowess, I managed to get both frames. That was the clearer one. Don’t worry, you’ll get intimately acquainted with this thing’s face later on.
It goes quiet and cuts back out to the front of the house, where the little girl has been standing the whole time.
In the present, the magnificent Connie Britton as Vivien Harmon (Vivien means life, Harmon sounds like harm, means warrior, and you bet your ass this is the kind of show where you should pay attention to the names) is talking about her period with her gynecologist. She gets it every other month, in case you were wondering. She’s glad about that, because of “all that blood. Ben hates blood.”
The doctor asks if she’s having issues with arousal. Not when she’s by herself, in case you were wondering. She puts her ankles in the stirrups and the doctor gets to probin’, both with a swab and with some vaguely misogynistic insistence that Vivien should start taking hormones, because her body “is like a house. You can fix the tiles, and the bathroom and the kitchen, but when the foundation starts decaying, you’re wasting your time.” She’s hesitant because he hasn’t told her about the side effects, and he says “It’ll make you look and feel ten years younger.” She informs him curtly that she’s not a house, and he writes her a prescription and asks what she’s so afraid of.
You can see the Ryan Murphy in all this if you’ve watched Nip/Tuck–in that show too, you could see a lot of his penchant for the grotesque, beautiful, and mysterious things that bodies, particularly women’s bodies, go through during the course of their lives. For all that Nip/Tuck could be seen as misogynistic, there was (usually) enough of an influence from complicated, interesting female characters that the misogyny was a reflection of the way the real world treats women and women‘s bodies, not a reflection of Ryan Murphy’s issues. The show had its problems (MCNAMARAS!), but it was good at distilling the essence of the strange and horrible things people do to one another and to themselves and then delivering it to the audience to chew on for a while. Even at this early stage, I feel like American Horror Story is going to be a pretty good continuation on this theme, plus ghosts and THINGS IN JARS and that goblin monster up there.
Vivien, wearing a cute burgundy beret and carrying a bunch of canvas shopping bags, arrives home and walks through her pretty kitchen. Like, damn. That thing’s the size of my kitchen and my living room. It’s snowing outside. She’s filled the prescription. Aw.
Vivien hears a noise, and immediately calls 911. She then…goes upstairs with a kitchen knife. Never do that! Go sit in your car! Bring a snack! Never go upstairs with the kitchen knife. Luckily, when she pushes open the bedroom door, it’s not a serial killer. There’s a scare chord or two. She drops her arm and walks back down the hall, devastated, as her shirtless husband yells no a few times and runs out after her, apologizing. He tries to grab her, and she turns around and cuts his bicep to get him away from her. It’s not very deep, but he probably passes out anyway, because he doesn’t like blood. The little girl’s “You’re going to regret it” runs us into the opening credits as he gets all woozy. He’s Dylan McDermott, so his “woozy” is mostly “handsomely confused.”
Titles. Oh, man, do you remember how you felt when you saw the True Blood titles for the first time? These are pretty awesome, too. Lots of old photographs and fire and things you can’t quite make out, even with your screencapping
We catch up with the Harmons a while later, driving on the freeway. They have some banter with the teenage daughter, Violet (Taissa Farmiga) (Violets are associated with young women and death/resurrection. NO I REFUSE TO STOP THIS NONSENSE), and everything seems pretty happy. Ben tries to take Vivien’s hand, but she pulls it away smoothly. There’s a funny dog in the backseat with Violet.
A realtor shows them around the house when they arrive. It’s gorgeous all cleaned up, apparently a “classic Los Angeles Victorian built around the 1920s by the doctor to the stars.” All the fixtures are Tiffany and everything’s been restored by the previous owners. “Gay?” Vivien surmises correctly.
The kitchen is, once again, enviably huge and wonderful. We are skillfully informed that Ben is a psychiatrist, and that he plans on seeing patients in the house so that he can spend more time with the family. Since people on t.v. never go to psychiatrists because they’re having a hard time and need a little support from an impartial, nonjudgmental entity, this does not bode well.
Vivien puts the dog down, and she immediately runs to the back door and starts barking. Violet goes after her, and the door to the basement catches her interest. She forces the door open and heads down, and finds nothing. She’s being shot by a shaky camera through a railing, though, so something has probably found her. She goes back upstairs.
We are once again skillfully informed that Vivien was a very good cellist once upon a time. The realtor asks why she stopped, but Vivien ignores the question in favor of pulling up some wallpaper. There’s a mural underneath, but she only pulls up a corner of the wallpaper and we don’t see what it is. The realtor says that she’s obligated to inform the Harmons about what happened to the previous owners of the house. Vivien jokingly asks if they died, and the realtor’s like “Yeah, they did. Murder-suicide. Bam. I sold them the house, too.” Ben realizes that’s why the house is half the price of the surrounding ones, and the realtor offers to show them another home.
Violet asks where the deaths happened, and the realtor tells them it was in the basement. “We’ll take it.” Violet says. Children make wonderful decisions.
Movers bring things into the house, and the realtor puts a SOLD sign on top of the FOR SALE sign, looks up at the house, and sighs. The camera cuts away, so we don’t see her raising both her middle fingers and telling the house to suck it.
Vivien is trying to move stuff around at night, and Ben suggests that they go to bed. They talk about how they’re worried Violet isn’t going to fit in, and how the house is creepy, but Ben says not to worry about it. Vivien gets flirty for a second, but Ben starts stroking her arms and saying that they deserve this house and this new start, considering “all the shit we’ve been through.” Vivien ices over and pulls her hands away from him, and heads down to unpack some more things in the kitchen. She tells him that she’s glad he’s trying, and that she’s trying too, but it’s going to take some time.
Violet smokes as she walks across the courtyard at her new school. Three girls are sitting on/around a bench, talking about how one of them let a guy snort coke off her nipples, and that they were numb for a week. Violet catches the leader girl’s attention, and the girl storms up and yells at her about the school being a smoke-free area. Violet, being reasonable, apologizes and steps on the butt. The leader girl, being a goddamn psychopath, starts shrieking at her. Violet says “You don’t even know me. Why are you doing this?” One of the flunkies says that the girl’s grandmother died of lung cancer so she’s totes sensitive about it. Things get scary when the leader girl picks up the butt and tells Violet to eat it. Even her friends are like “Dude, that’s fucked up,” but the girl tries to force it into Violet’s mouth. Violet spits in her face and runs away, and the girl screams “You’re dead!” after her. Ruh roh.
Vivien is scraping the wallpaper off from over the mural. She pulls one of the last pieces off to reveal a morbid-looking painting I can’t figure out.
Vivien hears “You’re going to die in here,” and whirls around, surprised. The girl from the beginning is older now and standing there. Vivien is like “The hell?” when neighbor Constance (Jessica Lange, looking fantastic and in top scenery-chewing form) comes in and tells her daughter, Adelaide (Jamie Brewer), that she put on Dora the Explorer so that Adelaide would sit there and watch it. Adelaide informs Constance that it was, in fact, Go Diego Go, which she hates. Me too, bro. Constance says that Adelaide can’t tell round (possibly brown?) cartoon characters apart, and to go back to the house. Adelaide obeys, and Constance says some fucked-up stuff about how she loves Adelaide, but if some of the tests available now were available back then…
Man. I like that Ryan Murphy actually remembers that people with Down syndrome exist–he incorporated characters in Glee to what I gather was a mixed reaction, and there was an episode of Nip/Tuck that focused on a patient with Down’s that I remember thinking was pretty good, but I don’t know about the general consensus on it. Here it seems that he’s going for the “mental abnormality=scary, resented harbinger of doom,” which is easy and lazy and not the way he seems to generally approach the topic. I mean, I guess we’ll see how things go as the series continues, but of all the ways I don’t want this show to disappoint, I really don’t want it to fall down on this.
Vivien is bemused with the whole situation. Constance is swanning about, telling Vivien that she has lovely things and does she have a dog? Because Constance runs a kennel from her house, and would prefer purebreds but won’t turn down a mongrel. I’m like “…for dinner? YOU MAKE NO SENSE!” but televisions are bad conversationalists. Constance steals a spoon when Vivien turns away for a moment, then gets up close to admire Vivien’s diamond earrings. And they are diamond, not “that Home Shopping shit,” as Constance says. Vivien, slightly spooked, asks if Constance is Southern. Constance tells Vivien she’s from Virgina, and “thank you for noticing.” She came out to L.A. to be a movie star, had some screentests, and then didn’t become a movie star because she didn’t want her “green pastures” being broadcast seventy feet high. She reminds me of so many people I know and love and sort of hate at the same time.
Constance says that she took that “butterfly of a dream and put it in a jar on the shelf. Then the mongoloid came along and of course, I couldn’t work after that.” WHAAAAAT OH MY GOD. Vivien’s had about enough of Constance, so she very unsubtly tries to shoo her out. Constance, being Southern, is probably okay with ignoring this in the most genteel way possible, but ends up leaving anyway. She leaves Vivien with some sage to clear out the “bad juju.”
Vivien burns the sage and walks through the house. The attic door catches her interest, so she ends up climbing up there to check it out. She gropes around for the pullstring, and screams when she turns it on. Ben comes running to help her, but she’s already figured out that there’s nothing to be afraid of, it’s just a gimp suit! They flirt a little about it, Ben offering to put it on, and they go back downstairs when Violet shows up. Ben throws the suit away after staring at it for a moment.
The next day, Ben has his first client, a teenaged boy named Tate Langdon (Evan Peters). Ben asks him about a recurring fantasy he has. It always starts the same way, and we get to see it. He has a skull tattooed on his face, and Bernard Hermann‘s theme music from the British psychological thriller Twisted Nerve, about a man who pretends to be mentally disabled to gain the trust and love of an unsuspecting woman. Or, whatever, it’s also that song Daryl Hannah whistled in Kill Bill.
Tate, voiceover as his skull-face fantasy self walks down the school hallway: I’m prepared for the noble war. I’m calm, I know the secret. I know what’s coming and I know no one can stop me. Including myself.
Ben: Do you target people who’ve been mean to you, or unkind?
Tate: I kill people I like. Some of them beg for their life. I don’t feel sad. I don’t feel anything. It’s a filthy world we live in. It’s a filthy goddamn helpless world. And honestly, I feel like I’m helping to take them away from the shit and the piss and the vomit that run in the streets. I’m helping to take them somewhere clean, and kind. And there’s something about all that blood, man.
His voiceover continues over shots of Violet cutting into her arms with a razor.
Tate: I drown in it. [Ben is obviously skeptical at the point]And the Indians believed that blood holds all the bad spirits. And once a month, in ceremonies, they would cut themselves to let the spirits go free. There’s something smart about that, very smart. I like that.
He looks up, and with no preamble except a low, gentle piano note, we see that he’s looking at a bloody version of himself standing over Ben’s left shoulder. He looks down quickly, and asks if Ben thinks he’s crazy.
Ben doesn’t. He thinks Tate is creative and sad. Tate tries to shock Ben by calling his mother a cocksucker, and telling him that his father left because of it, but Ben says he’s heard worse. Tate asks if he can tell him, but Ben declines.
Violet looks up from her arm to see Tate in the mirror. He tells her to cut vertically if she’s trying to kill herself, because “they can’t stitch that up.” When she asks how he got in there, he tells her to lock the door next time she tries to commit suicide. He leaves. This is bad news bears. So, wait, not only is Ben providing therapy to psychotics in his home, he’s also letting them wander freely? Worst psychiatrist since that one in Dexter who was convincing his patients to kill themselves.
That night, Ben gets out of bed and nude sleepwalks downstairs, following a whispery male voice. He lights a match and throws it into the fireplace, nearly immolating his junk, and stares down at the flames. Vivien comes down the stairs behind him and asks what he’s doing. Ben asks “Am I in a dream?” and end scene.
Vivien hangs sheets on a line the next day. A redheaded woman with a cataract in one eye, Moira (Frances Conroy), walks through the garden and asks why Vivien is hanging the sheets when there’s a perfectly good electric dryer in the house. Vivien says she doesn’t trust the chemicals in the fabric softeners, and that this works fine. Moira tells Vivien that she’s the housekeeper, and when Vivien says she doesn’t think they’ll need a housekeeper, Moira asks to come in so she can call another cab.
She’s creepy, but not as creepy as Constance. She has worked at the house for a long, unspecified amount of time, and was the one to clean up the murder-suicide of the previous owners.
Ben comes in, and Vivien introduces him to Moira. When he looks up at her, she is no longer old creepy Moira, but young hot creepy Moira (Alexandra Breckenridge)! The scene goes from weird but tolerable to extremely off-kilter and great, because with a single shot, our whole interpretation of everything that’s going on has changed. Even the character has changed in more than looks–old Moira is buttoned-up, and chilly but polite, and young Moira is snappish and wearing visible garters. Ben is discomfited that Vivien is so gung-ho about hiring a young hottie with visible garters since he so recently cheated on her, and nervously eats a banana before making out with her. She stops him, and he says that she has to forgive him sometime. Dude, no she doesn’t, shut your banana-eating mouth.
Ben is having another session with Tate, and asks if he’s taking his Lexapro. He catches Tate in a lie, and they talk about whether he thinks Tate can get better. He says he does, but he thinks Tate’s scared to get better. He just can’t figure out why. Tate turns a previously normal scene extremely awkward by saying he didn’t take his Lexapro because he was afraid his “big dick” wouldn’t work. Ben’s like, eh? and Tate repeats himself, and tells Ben he’s met someone, then very obviously looks at where Violet is peeking around the doorjamb. The very next scene is Tate talking to her alone, and they’re comparing self-harm scars. SERIOUSLY, BEN? I WANT TO CALL SOCIAL SERVICES BUT APPARENTLY THEY WON’T LET YOU REPORT FICTIONAL CHARACTERS.
Tate is very intense and Cullen-y with Violet, who tells him about Ben’s affair and Vivien’s miscarriage, and how there was a macabre funeral. Tate gets up while she’s talking and writes the word TAINT on the blackboard in all caps. I giggled because I’m too young to be watching this show without supervision.
Violet asks why Tate is seeing her father. He says “Don’t ask questions you already know the answer to. You‘re smarter than that.”
Ben appears, finally, and tells Tate to get the hell out. But like, really politely. My dad would have stormed in with a gun that shoots machetes; but my dad also wouldn’t have let his psychiatric patient with violent psychotic urges into his house in the first place.
As Tate leaves, string instruments of cray-cray going nuts on the soundtrack, he says “What’s that thing you think I’m afraid of? Fear of rejection?” Ben realizes he may have fucked up a little, but yells at Violet to stay away from him. Tate storms down the stairs, punching the railing and yelling.
Ben walks nakedly out of the shower, moving his towel JUST IN TIME, and asks if Vivien has seen his razor blades. The dog barks in the background. He notices a door cracked, and walks in to see young Moira just blatantly jacking it on the furniture. Instead of firing her immediately, he goes into a room to also jack it, in front of an open window. He cries when he’s finished. I laughed so hard, you guys, it’s a little embarrassing.
He stops weeping and looks out the window, where a burny-faced Russell Edgington, going by Larry Harvey (Denis O’Hare), has been watching the whole time. Ben throws on some manties and a shirt and runs down, but Larry is gone.
Vivien comes home with groceries, and hears a popper hit the ground. She turns around and sees that all the cabinets and the refrigerator are open, and is startled. She hears laughing at the back door. It’s Adelaide, but she’s laughing at the ginger twin ghosts who have flanked an unknowing Vivien.
Nothing seems to have come of that, but Vivien tells Constance in the next scene that she wants Adelaide to stay out of her house and quit telling her she’s going to die. Adelaide is only interested in petting the dog. Vivien eventually grabs Adelaide’s face and makes her promise not to come in without permission. She promises, and Constance gathers her up to go. Adelaide reaches down to pet the dog, but the dog snaps at her. Adelaide says “She shouldn’t have done that.” Once she’s out of earshot, Constance turns to Vivien and says “If you put your hands on my daughter again, I’ll break your goddamn arm.” Vivien and Ben are like ??????
In the next scene, Ben is like !!!!!!!, first because he’s trying to report Tate but getting nowhere, and next because young Moira comes in and gets all up on his jock. He resists pretty well until she’s on top of him, at which point he notices Violet watching. We see that it’s old Moira from Violet’s point of view. AAAHHHHH. He tries to go after her, but she’s gone, and he pounds the wall in frustration.
Violet takes a little bit of pounding at school, but manages to put a cigarette out on the leader girl’s hand and escape once again.
Vivien scrapes more wallpaper off the wall, revealing even more disturbing paintings. Ben comes in, remarks that the paintings are creepy, and tries to get in Vivien’s pants. It doesn’t work, and he loses it, knocking some stuff over and yelling. She’s shocked, but she’s prepared for it, and they argue–he wants to know how long it’s going to take for her to forgive him, he was lonely and depressed and it was a mistake and he deserves her forgiveness, and she’s like, motherfucker, I delivered a stillborn baby and you decided to put your dick in one of your students. Shut your mouth.
Both of them would have a point if he hadn’t actually cheated on her, but he went there and thus any point he could make is invalid, particularly when he’s like “I can bust out statistics about percentages of men who cheat after their wives have miscarriages!” Dude, she could bust out percentages of men who DON’T cheat after their wives have miscarriages, just stop it.
I don’t know, I just don’t like people yelling at Connie Britton and making her cry. She tells him to just lay it all out, tell her how he really feels, and he says he’s jealous of the dog. He basically says he cheated because she was giving all of her affection to the dog. You know when sometimes you’re trying to articulate something that makes sense to you, but it comes out sounding batshit? Yep.
He tells her he loves her and that the only thing he’s ever been afraid of has been losing her. She still won’t let him touch her. However, she shoves him across the room a couple of times, and in the course of him trying to make her stop without hurting her, they end up making out. Then they hatefuck (and maybe, just maybe…slightly lovefuck?) on the settee. I kept waiting for Violet to walk in and just immediately start screaming because everything really sucks for her right now, but fortunately, she didn’t. As the shot cuts away to the blazing fireplace (in the summer in Los Angeles?????), Ben whispers desperately “We’re gonna be happy here.”
Violet comes home later that night. Vivien sees her bloody face and asks for names, but Violet doesn’t want to narc. They have a nice conversation about Ben and their fears, which leads into a less nice conversation between Violet and Tate (HOW DOES HE KEEP GETTING IN?) about the girls at school. Violet hates the main girl (whose name is
Rita Leah) and wants to kill her. Tate’s like, “Do it. Or we can just scare her.” They decide to lure her to the basement with the promise of coke, and Tate will scare the hell out of her so she’ll leave Violet alone. Such a well thought out plan could not possibly fail!
Vivien, in a robe and lingerie, lotions up her legs. The gimp suit, occupied by a dude whose face is covered by a mask, pushes open the bedroom door and startles her. She says “Hot,” dismissively. He doesn’t say anything, so she interprets that as it’s bang time, and they do. Sometimes she sees Ben’s face, but it’s pretty clear that it isn’t Ben, because he’s downstairs about to light his hand on fire over the stove. He’s stopped by Constance, in a fabulous, diaphanous purple thing, and she strokes his face and tells him it’s not his time and to go back to bed. He goes back up, sleepwalking, and sits on the bed. Vivien is freaked out, apparently having realized in the interim that it wasn’t her husband she was fucking, and they robotically say “I love you” to each other. Eesh.
Violet lures Leah down into the basement. Leah’s bitching the whole time, and Violet’s making shit up about lobster boats and showing her boobs. When they get to where Tate is sitting in a chair, he tells Violet to shut off the lights. What follows is a freaky strobe-light-basement-goblin-what-the-fuck-moment in which Tate either becomes the basement goblin or is buddies with it or something, it’s impossible to tell. The goblin puts three deep claw marks in Leah’s face, and appears to go for Violet before it all ends abruptly. Leah runs away, and Violet, terrified, tells Tate to get the fuck out. He yells at her that she said she wasn’t afraid of anything, and looks heartbroken. This is going to end well. For those following along, the credits list this thing as Infantata. I have been reliably informed by our resident gladiator expert that the Infantata is a misspelling of infanta, the Spanish word for princess.
Ben runs down the street. He’s being followed in a car by Larry, then on foot by Larry, in a pretty weird chase scene that ends when Ben doubles back and grabs Larry. They have a chat–Larry has burns on 70% of his body because he burned his wife and daughters alive, but was let out of prison because of inoperable brain cancer. He warns Ben that it starts with sleepwalking, but Ben freaks out and runs away, leaving Larry to smile.
Constance goes through Vivien’s jewelry box, but she’s stopped by Moira. They know each other, and Constance tells Moira to step off, because it’s always the maid that gets suspected when stuff goes missing. Also, she refers to Moira as two people, and warns “Don’t make me kill you again.” WHAAAAAAT??????
Ben sits at the table, staring ahead. Vivien comes in and asks what he wants for dinner. He defers to her, and she says she wants Indian food. He’s reminds her that she only ever wants Indian when she’s pregnant. Um, yeah, about that…she totally is. They hug each other, but both of them look really worried about it, too. I don’t know why he is, but oh my god, what if the baby’s an s&m ghost?
That would be so awkward.