Over the past 12 weeks, FX’s American Horror Story has done a beautiful job at telling a really ugly little story. And now, the first season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s haunted house tale has come to a close, and strangely enough, after all the mystery and ambiguity that initially surrounded the series, we are left with a pretty clear picture of where AHS will be headed in future episodes.
At this point in the season, it would be something of a letdown if someone in the Murder House – preferably someone with the last name Harmon – didn’t end up a permanent resident of the real estate nightmare. Once Violet (Taissa Farmiga) said goodbye to this mortal coil during ‘Smoldering Children’ (arguably the high point of the season), her mother Vivien (Connie Britton) joined her in the penultimate episode ‘Birth.’ Now, as we venture into uncharted territory in the aptly, yet unpleasantly titled ‘Afterbirth,’ all eyes are on the philandering Dr. Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott).
Certainly, after the unbridled lunacy of ‘Birth,’ the expectation that Murphy and Falchuk would unleash the full fury of their twisted imaginations upon ‘Afterbirth’ was fairly high. However, the creators apparently decided to go in the opposite direction – proving once more how adept they are in leading the audience to an inevitable conclusion, but surprising them with the method of delivering said conclusion.
Case in point: the finale begins nine months prior, with Ben attempting to convince Vivien to give him another shot by moving to a house he found in L.A. While the scene seemed to suggest that the tragedy, which befell the Harmons, would have been avoidable with just a little more resolve on Vivien’s part – it really brought forth the clever notion that the Murder House had claimed the family long before they had ever stepped across its threshold.
The scene jumps to a rare moment of touching concern as Ben calls for his wife and daughter, aware they are in the house, but are unwilling to become corporeal enough to let him see and touch them once more. For a brief moment we are left to ponder if this will be the course on which American Horror Story sets itself. But no, before too long, Ben attempts to join Vivien and Violet by taking his own life, only to be stopped by the presence of his loved ones.
From there it’s hard to tell if the scene simply stumbles or purposely becomes laughable when Violet attempts to comfort her father by mentioning the load of cash he’ll save by not sending her to Harvard – to which Ben smiles and says, “You sure did.”
Possibly spurred on by the thought of all that money he doesn’t have to spend, Ben decides to head out, Antichrist in tow, but is instead killed by Hayden and her murderous friends in what ironically looks like a suicide. Meanwhile, the Antichrist goes on to live with his grandmother Constance (Jessica Lange).
So, in the first 10 minutes, American Horror Story manages to wrap up any thought of a Harmon escaping the house alive, and sets itself up to become a story of the Antichrist and the ghost family next door – sort of The Omen meets Parenthood.
Having Ben become a part of the ‘crew’ so early, the rest of the episode plays out like some may have envisioned season 2 getting underway – with a new family moving into the house, and the Harmons, along with the other “good ghosts” conspiring to scare them off, lest the house claim them too. The scene in which Ben and Vivien deal with their marriage problems while cathartically eviscerating and shooting one another is both hilarious and awful at the same time – meaning it's both delightfully gruesome and laughably bad all at once - And that’s a great way to think of American Horror Story as a whole. As often as the series came off smart, shocking and bold, it matched those moments with furious bouts of ham-fisted dialogue and unnecessarily large performances.
Yet somehow, without all of those elements in play, the series wouldn’t be the ridiculously entertaining bit of television that it is. More often than not, horror toes the line between being actually scary and snicker-inducingly funny – a notion that Murphy and Falchuk seem to understand all too well.
For example: while decorating a Christmas tree, Moira (Frances Conroy) explains to Violet that the term “ancient” will cease to have meaning, now that she’s on the long road to eternity. This line of dialogue comes off being rather poignant, and a little unsettling… until you realize you’re watching what amounts to A Very Special Dead Harmon Family Christmas – while Hayden (Kate Mara) and Tate (Evan Peters) quietly seethe in the background.
But even at its ridiculous worst, it’s hard not to like American Horror Story, or at the very least be entertained by it.
Thankfully, through all the strange, Lynchian aspects of the show, the performances manage to stand out and give something tangible for the viewer to latch onto. Extraordinarily, amongst Connie Britton, Dennis O’Hare and a myriad of guest stars, the two best performances came from the most seasoned and decorated actress, and the show’s most novice thespian. For much of the season, Jessica Lange and Taissa Farmiga managed to ground the series by somehow embodying the extremes of the storytelling. Lange’s larger-than-life, Tennessee Williams-esque performance was often tempered by the more subtle, subdued nature of Farmiga’s acting. Having that kind of talent will certainly go a long way in making American Horror Story last.
Even though it seems like the ongoing story of the dead Harmons and the Antichrist living next door might be something of a straightforward plot, there is still a chance that Murphy and Falchuk will further the thought that this American Horror Story isn’t solely about a family trapped in a haunted house. Hopefully, this will be the beginning of a much larger, ongoing story that explores the very notion of horror itself, with the events of this season acting as the catalyst for the terrors that are about to be unleashed upon the world.
We can hope, anyway.
American Horror Story will return for season 2 in 2012.