There was a two or three episode stretch earlier in the season (Chapters “2”-”4”) where the warning signs were beginning to rear their expectedly ugly head. Where a smart, intriguing premise and artful, ambitious introduction into the world cooked up on the fly by Ryan Murphy and co., as every season of this damn show since “Coven” has been want to do, rapidly deteriorates into a flailing mishmash of senseless plotting, character motivation, and world-building-by-way-of-exposition-dump; or otherwise known to the masses as “Bad ‘American Horror Story’ Syndrome”. And in the early goings-on of the season, the onset of BAHSS became mightily apparent. The high highs of the refreshing, never-before-tried show-within-a-show “My Roanoke Nightmare” conceit, narrated by the talking heads of the real-life victims, and the tense, uneasy atmosphere it wrung began to give way to the low lows of the erratic behavior of its main characters, its sloppy, at-times incoherent narrative, its baffling inclusion of “America’s Historian” Doris Kearns-Goodwin, etcetera, etcetera. But perhaps what the show began to feel most guilty of, the one thing it promised not to be from the onset of its ridiculous pre-season marketing campaign that it was slowly retreating into, was familiar and stale. We had seen this “American Horror Story” before.
But then “Chapter 5” aired, and it was really good; a narrow-focused, heart-pumping, bloody massacre of a conclusion to the first chapter of this fun, inventive, preposterous story. Now Chapters “6” and “7” have aired, and in addition to being genuinely scary, smartly written, and socially conscious in a less hamfisted way than usual for this show, they have also served the season’s first-half well by almost retroactively breathing greater purpose into the season’s more sluggish episodes. The new conceit – the follow-up series to “My Roanoke Nightmare”, “Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell”, which takes the “real-life” versions of the Roanoke victims, Matt, Shelby, and Lee, and re-places them inside the same haunted home with their fictional portrayers in a “Big Brother”/”Ghost Hunters”-esque faux reality show – works well in recontextualizing the bullshit aspects of the season’s first-half by portraying them as just that: bullshit, albeit fun, hammy bullshit. It also shines a greater light on the true star of the season, “The Butcher”, as played by Agnes Mary Winstead, as played by the Kathy Bates circa “Misery” we all love and are terrified by. This week’s “Chapter 7” served as the Kathy Bates Power Hour I’ve been craving since her initial introduction into the world of this series in “Coven”, and it was mostly glorious as a result.
“American Horror Story” is in the midst of its finest season since its Season Two, “Asylum”, and I think it’s because for the first time in a long while it’s finally presented a reason to exist. It isn’t going through the motions of a typical season of AHS in the way that “Hotel”, “Coven”, or at times “Freak Show” often did. It’s doing something radically different than anything it’s ever tried before, and mostly at a very high, narratively satisfying level. The scares are genuine and earned, the style refreshing and genre-bending, and the characters are… fine. BAHSS is always going to creep its way into any given season of this show – even my beloved “Asylum” is no exception – it’s just a matter of the writers limiting their laziest tendencies and tropiest excesses. This season has not gone unscathed by any stretch – problems still amass even in this rejuvenated second chapter (like why the hell did Shelby do that to Matt in “Chapter 7”?), but more or less the good has far outweighed the bad. Here’s to Chapters “8”-”10” not undermining the earned goodwill of these last three episodes and destroying the reputation of this otherwise pretty good season of TV (I’m blindly confident that it won’t)!