Dennis Cozzalio and I are going to recap American Horror Story's first season at our respective blogs. Each Monday, one of us will will start the discussion and we'll go back-and-forth on our respective blogs. I am posting Dennis's second post on "Halloween, Part 1" here, but you can also follow along with our conversation at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Read on for some more of Dennis's thoughts on the fourth episode of season one.
Whew. When they called it Labor Day they weren’t kidding. Oh, wait. The holiday is intended to be a break from work, a tribute to those who work their asses off all year. Yet unless I actively contrive to take some time off, it inevitably turns out to be a ludicrously busy weekend for me, work-wise and otherwise. On top of that, a family wedding-- a far happier priority, by the way—is taking precedence over everything else. So there’s not going to be a huge window of time to respond to your thoughts on “Halloween, Part 1,” but I’ll do my best.
Of course I’m disappointed that you didn’t care much for the episode. But in reading your post, and seeing the episode again for what now must be the fourth or fifth time, I was struck by how much of your reaction—specifically in regard to the general tone of (some of) the dialogue and how overwritten it tends to be at times, in this episode and in the series in general—I agreed with. I’d have to go back and look to be sure, but if I didn’t explicitly complain about it to you in one of the “Pilot” posts, this has been a sticking point for me from the beginning and at the risk of being slightly off-topic (or at least off-episode) I’ll bitch about it now in the hope of illuminating the current episode as well.
In interviews Ryan Murphy is understandably proud of his cast and likes to promote their talent and agility with the material, and I’ve heard him crow about how the vicious argument scene between Ben and Vivien that immediately precedes their passionate screw (the one we don’t see, which itself precedes the deeply disturbing screw Vivien has with the Rubber Man, which we do see) has been used in acting classes and how it wouldn’t be as effective without the element of emotional vitality that Dylan McDermott and Connie Britton bring to it.
My reaction to that is, well, of course studying actors who are looking for a good showcase scene would love this one, because it’s jammed to the rafters with opportunities to shout off outraged mouthfuls like “I’m not punishing you, you narcissistic asshole!” or “I can’t even look at your face, Ben, without seeing the expression on it while you were pile-driving her in our bed!” (McDermott’s lines aren’t quite as juicy—he’s left to just turn up the volume—and maybe this is more evidence of the theory that Murphy and Falchuk are initially stacking the deck in favor of the relative moral superiority of Vivien and the female cast.) As proud of Murphy is of it, I’d call this scene the worst moment perhaps in the entire series. The nadir of the nadir? Ben blurts out that Vivien’s not the only one who’s hurting, which gives her the green light to play the full-on self righteous anger card in referencing her miscarriage: “Oh, I’m sorry. Did the life that was growing inside you die, and did you have to carry that around in your belly… the dead corpse of our baby son?!” (In their zeal to give Vivien and Britton this big moment, I guess scriptwriters Murphy and Falchuk forgot that a corpse is usually dead and that they might be flirting with redundancy here, let alone going way over the top in the dramaturgy department.)
There’s a certain stridency in the writing on the show that reveals itself in big moments like these, and even in the way that Murphy and Falchuk occasionally wave the envelope-pushing sexual frankness flag, in dialogue and in dramatic action. It’s that stridency, that tendency to overwrite lines for the big effect rather than figure out a way to scale them down into smaller, more devastating bombs, which makes me recoil during Chad and Patrick’s final argument in the kitchen before they’re killed, rather than the miscalculated, button-pushing use of all the fairly graphic sexual references. Murphy and Falchuk obviously get off on flaunting the kind of gay sex talk that would have never passed Standards and Practices even just a couple of seasons ago, but again they seem to want to err on the side of excess. Maybe that’s easier than crafting an argument between two gay men that doesn’t seem exclusively devoted to one-upping the other in ever-increasingly provocative ways designed more to make middle America’s ears turn red as opposed to hammering on one character point over and over. This scene is the same-sex version of that argument between Ben and Vivien, and it’s written in almost exactly the same relentlessly showy way. (For the record, my objection is not a “gay thing “ either—I’m just as annoyed by all the incessant banter about boners and va-jay-jays on shows like How I Met Your Mother.)
The stridency extends to Murphy and Falchuk’s apparent inability to resist snappy comebacks and incongruously knowing dialogue, like that fluffer business or Larry’s “patients/patience” crack. I would defend, mildly, Larry’s moment based on the fact that he’s a would-be actor and such might be a little too in love with the wattage of his own wit, but that defense would admittedly hold more water if everyone on the show weren’t so faultlessly sharp and articulate at every turn. I agree with you that the show does tend to bash its way into the overwrought, in-your-face, on-the-nose department with annoying frequency.
That said, the very theatricality of Constance’s (self-created?) Southern gothic image, and the roots of that theatricality, to say nothing of Jessica Lange’s supreme confidence in the role, is what saves this character and her arc from succumbing to these tendencies, at least for me. I’ve already mentioned Lange’s apparent homage to Geraldine Page, and the far more obvious tip of the bouffant toward Tennessee Williams and Blanche DuBois could probably go without the slightest reference. But while Ben and Vivien and Violet, as the show’s primary representation of the living, those who operate in the Murphy/Falchuk-inflected depiction of our recognizable society (that is, Murphy/Falchuk’s assumed “realism”) and resist at least the surface stylization of their characters, and the undead— Moira, the twins, Nora, now Hayden, Chad and Patrick (and perhaps Tate?)—are of course heightened to the degree that any character with that status in the horror genre might be, Constance seems to operate on a different plane. She is conversant with the dead, yet her residence off the grounds of the Murder House, not to mention events that transpire in this episode regarding the fate of Addy, seem to cement her status among the living. Constance occupies space somewhere in between the two worlds. This is the evidence (or the rationalization, if you will) that I’d put forth in defense of Constance’s often show-stopping dialogue, which I would also characterize as deliberately stylized, as opposed to the more eye-rolling degree of knowing smarm that seems to be ladled onto the show’s most egregiously over-the-top moments.
I expect the flowery, overwrought language from someone whose theatrical roots and self-descriptive imagery show so obviously, and I may be more forgiving of the kind of grievances you register because of that. And maybe lines like “As if I had a choice!” that you point out don’t seem like howlers to me because I’m engaged and accepting of Constance’s largeness, which, however self-prescribed it is, however cartoony it may or may not come across, works for me on the level of self-pity and self-aggrandizement in which the character of Constance is clearly grounded.
I think that your characterization of Constance as an ostensibly “brave character" s perhaps precisely the way she sees herself, but I don’t think the show necessarily has to or does prescribe to that same point of view. Constance is the type of character who wears her burdens on her sleeve, or perhaps on the meticulously maintained hem of her outdated society dresses. I think she resents being tagged as “brave” by other parents because she wears that supposed bravery like a doomsday placard, yet she doesn’t believe it herself, and every time she looks at Addy she’s reminded of her own failing in this regard, her own failing as a parent. In that light, it seems utterly plausible to me that a woman like Constance might displace her frustration and guilt in the form of the kind of love/hate that manifests itself in her relationship with her Down’s-afflicted daughter. In her mind, as much as she may love Addy on purely maternal, biological terms, on some level it’s Addy’s fault for not being perfect, for putting her mother through this, for constantly (Constance-ly) reminding her mother of her own biologically and non-biologically related maternal failings.
Furthermore, I don’t see it as a failing on the script level that we don’t see more of the patience for Addy that Constance is always quick to allude to. We do see it—it’s there in that scene where she shows her the mask. But it’s Constance’s brand of patience, and it’s in service to an alarmingly myopic view of how to present a kind of helpful mirror unto Addy without sending the warped message that the best way to present oneself, if one is afflicted with a birth condition that makes other people uncomfortable, is to hide underneath a freakishly neutralized masked representation of acceptable beauty. The tragedy of Constance, one that will be amplified by the end of the episode and into the next one, is that she cannot see this for herself until it’s too late, assuming that even through tragedy she even sees it at all. To answer your question, no, Constance’s haranguing and belittling of Addy doesn’t accurately describe parenting as it is most typically, sensitively defined, nor it is a particularly “generous” interpretation of what a parent does for a child. Neither was Mrs. Bates, or Margaret White, or… But for Constance, enduring as she has horrors both self-imposed and by the world (whichever one we’re talking about), it may be all she has left in the tank.
Speaking of which, real world obligations are demanding that I stop for now. I look forward to your perspective on “Halloween, Part 2,” Simon, and what you think about it that redeems the trajectory, if not the flaws, of this episode. And have a great time at the Toronto Film Festival!