[WARNING – This review contains SPOILERS for American Gothic season 1.]
When American Gothic premiered earlier this summer it was an easily dismissed series. Its premiere was mediocre at best, only recommendable to viewers who’d enjoy any sort of murder mystery, no matter how campy or overwrought. Thirteen hours and roughly just as many suspects later, does American Gothic redeem itself with the reveal of the Silver Bell Killer’s identity?
A little, but that may be due to wanting the convoluted whodunit to wrap up more than anything else. After weeks of pitting the members of the elite Bostonian family against one another, the two-part finale finally sees the Hawthornes united and determined to keep their family safe as the SBK’s accomplice (yes, there was more than one murderer) hunts them down.
At one point or another, practically everyone was a suspect on American Gothic. It’s a tactic murder mysteries often employ to keep audiences on their toes, never letting viewers feel as if they’ve figured it out too soon. And to its credit, American Gothic didn’t make it easy to figure out who the SBK was – but that’s because it turns out the identity of the killer really didn’t matter. What mattered, it turns out, was that the SBK had attempted to murder a member of the Hawthorne family all those years ago but was thwarted when the youngest daughter, feverish and sleepwalking, pushed him down the stairs as he prowled the house.
Discovering the body, believing him dead, and realizing he was the SBK, the Hawthornes – specifically parents, Mitch and Madeline – decide to ask their oldest son, Garret to dispose of the body, not wanting to traumatize the young Tess or put their family under intense public scrutiny. It’s a terrible plan, and one that only gets worse when it turns out the fall on the stairs didn’t kill the SBK, forcing Garret to fight and kill him later on, explaining why he became so closed off and eventually left the family.
So they spared one child at the expense of another, which in itself would be enough to prove Mitch and Madeline are awful people even if neither was the SBK. But wait, there’s more! At the same time they were targeted by the SBK, the Hawthornes were also about to be exposed for some shady business dealings. To solve that problem, they murdered the only witness and framed it as an SBK murder, only furthering their entanglement with the now-deceased serial killer. The misdirect is interesting, but it only serves to further muddle the plot and, in the end, the reveal that Madeline is a murderer herself isn’t all that surprising since we witnessed her kill her husband in the premiere. (For the sake of a count, she kills three people.)
Still, this all only matters in how it connects to the Hawthornes now and the suspicion that one of them is the SBK’s accomplice. And the accomplice is related to the Hawthorne family… kind of. Turns out, the SBK had a daughter who he brought along with him; think of it like revenge-bonding for a father and daughter who felt their wife/mother died because of hospital negligence and being passed over for patients with more money. (A serial killer fighting for the 99%, if you will). After the murder at the Hawthorne mansion didn’t go as planned, the daughter pinpoints her revenge exclusively on the Hawthorne family.
To do so, she actually joins the family by marrying the middle son, Cam – yes, the SBK’s daughter and accomplice is Cam’s estranged and heroin addict wife, Sophia (which does sort of explain why their son is such a morbid little creep). And to be fair, the twist does come as a surprise, especially after a few other likely candidates come under scrutiny in the finale alone. But by the time everything unravels it’s hard to muster enough energy to really care. At one point or another, each of the Hawthornes acted in a manner that has them come across as aloof, privileged, and detached from those not living the mansion lifestyle. So who are we meant to root for? The entitled rich family full of awful people (some of who were also murderers!) or the woman whose tragic circumstances turned her into a serial killer? Frankly, just like the sleepy beat cop, I was kind of rooting for the killer, too.
Sophia does manage to enact some revenge by killing Madeline (come on, she had it coming), but even that isn’t the final twist! The finale goes on to reveal, after all the surviving Hawthornes continue with their happy go-lucky, carefree lives, that it was the oldest daughter, Alison, who actually arranged for Sophia to kill her mother. It’s just the latest in a long list of twists and turns the series introduces for the sake of having multiple twists and turns. Her actions only further prove what a terrible family the Hawthornes are, again using their privilege and proximity to power to get what they want with little to no repercussions.
As summer, fill-in programming goes, American Gothic is a ring or two above the rest. That’s mostly thanks to a few performances that manage to outshine the clunky dialogue and soap opera-like contrivances, plus the fact that’s there’s very little else on television at the moment. Fans of pulpy, melodramatic murder mysteries – and especially those that lean heavily on the crime procedural format – can certainly find something to enjoy in American Gothic, but considering the genre has offered much better (Broadchurch, Hannibal, The Killing, etc.), anyone looking for a unique and enthralling series should look elsewhere.
The entire first season American Gothic is available to stream on CBS All Access.
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