Dennis's Reply: American Horror Story 1.3: "Murder House," Part 2
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 first and only post on "Murder House" here, but you can also follow along with our conversation at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Read on for some of Dennis's thoughts on the third episode of season one.
“Murder House” was an compelling episode for me in that I liked the sense I got of some of the pieces falling into place re the house’s history and the implications for some of the characters—by now it’s becoming clearer as to the trajectory and logic of the story, and Mssrs. Murphy and Falchuk do a good job of keeping us interested and setting the hooks for the elements that beg further development. I’m especially anticipating the storyline involving Nora and Charles (Nora Charles? Hardly the upper-crust blithe spirits of Myrna Loy, or William Powell, in operation here) and what might come of their grisly basement abortion operation, to say nothing of the contrast between Nora’s apparent resentfulness of motherhood, (Nora disregards her own child, and she more or less forces the abortion scenario upon Charles) and the desperate maternal longing she displays when she shows up in the present day.
I like the impending sense of the walls closing in on Ben the way that they do—the pileup of circumstances is almost farcical-- the potential uncovering of Moira’s burial place (Constance tries to deflect Ben not because she fears her act being discovered so much as she wants Moira to stay right where she is); the missing patient (and Ben’s missing patch of memory regarding what obviously happened to her in his office, something that left a pool of blood for Moira to clean up); the ever-present outside force of Larry undermining Ben’s sense of stability—to what purpose we remain unsure, but we have to believe there is one, right?; and the unnerving sound of the almost constantly ringing doorbell, which brings not only reminders of the home invasion but now a police investigator into the picture, and also Hayden, who isn’t crazy (her assertion), she’s just angry at being left behind at the abortion clinic. The pitch-black farce hits high gear when Hayden reveals to Ben that she did not go through with termination the pregnancy but instead plans to move to Marina Del Rey and make Ben’s life in climes ostensibly sunnier than the ones he left behind with her in Boston, well, even a little cloudier.
(To get back to the crispiest male in the cast for a second, Larry gets one of the best laughs, or at least knowing grins, when it’s revealed, in a reach back to the previous episodes dalliance with themes of vanity and ambitions toward fame in American culture, that he’s going to try to extort $1,000 from Ben to finance the expense of a new bunch of headshots. That flip joke from the “Home Invasion” episode when Larry, in answer to Ben’s query as to what he wants, answers “I just wanna be on the stage,” turns out to not be just a flip joke. Larry would like nothing more than to stop Ben running around Macarthur Park in a daze of crushing conflict and get our beleaguered protagonist to run lines with him.)
But as you state, Murphy and Falchuk have shown a tendency to make a bit too much of a moralistic game out of encouraging us to shake our heads at the males in the episode. Ben’s sexual addiction, which is indeed an inflammation beyond the norm of a tendency that apparently all men have (“How do you get anything done around here with that thing around?” the policeman says to Ben upon noticing young Moira trouncing around in the background), is the big elephant in the room at play here, and I don’t have a problem with that per se. It’s a fascinating element on which the house is able to prey and exploit. Your objections based on the apparent biological imperative of men to behave exclusively like beasts and see women primarily as objects of lust are well taken, though. And it is curious that American Horror Story has so far found no other correlative character flaw in Vivien from which to draw out similar conflict that doesn’t relate in some way to motherhood or procreation. This has been true of the major adult female roles in the show so far (excepting Moira), even Constance, though her character has already been demonstrated as being the richest, or the most potentially rich, of the entire cast as she is clearly driving, or at least centrally involved in, events that will carry the plot further down the road. Vivien’s character is frustrating to me in that it seems like a potentially large opportunity lost to make her only a reactive presence—to the house, to Ben, to Violet, to Constance e and Addy—without further defining her beyond her relative moral high ground as opposed to those around her or her role as a parent. (She’s even a healthy eater, for Christ’s sake!)
But one of my biggest annoyances with the series so far remains the fairly obvious way that Murphy and Falchuk have conceived Violet, who has only a marginal presence in this episode but an irritating one. I have been allergic to all-seeing, all-knowing teenage characters like hers, who often have honor bestowed on them by their very sullenness, even since the days when I was an all-seeing, all-knowing teenager myself. But the level of articulate self-possession displayed by Violet has been extremely off-putting to me so far. Some of this is partially attributable to Taissa Farmiga, who shares the tendency toward smugness that ultimately upended the pleasing ambivalence of her older sister Vera’s performance in Higher Ground. But I lay the blame primarily at the feet of the writers (Murphy, Falchuk and the sole credited writer of this episode, Jennifer Salt*, who also wrote the “Spooky Little Girl” episode, one of the series’ best), who have allowed themselves what I would term the John Hughes Indulgence when it comes to conceiving and scripting dialogue for Violet.
Hughes specialized in pushing a generation’s most self-pitying buttons, getting them to respond with recognition when actors like Molly Ringwald and Jon Crier and Anthony Michael Hall expressed with preternatural awareness not only the insecurities and pain of their characters (which were meant to stand in for the sensitive, wounded, intelligent Everykid) but their uncanny ability to identify and eviscerate the foibles of the adults (of whose generation Hughes belonged) who had long since become inured to the teenage perspective, distracted and corrupted as they inevitably became by the apparently more selfish concerns of adulthood. Violet fits this paradigm all too neatly. I’ve already complained about her snarky tendencies in the “Pilot” episode—it was actually sort of liberating to see her cage get rattled along with Leah’s during their visit to the basement. But here, when Vivien takes her along to look at the apartment she’s considering moving the family into in order to escape the already terrible influence of the house (she ain’t seen nothin’ yet!), the writers dish up yet another chance for Violet to soapbox Vivien.
I bristle at the absurd level of knowingness and self-possession that Violet summons with apparent ease to flay at her mom’s character—“You don’t deal with anything—the affair, the miscarriage. For most people that’s just life, and they deal.” Incredibly, as events beyond this episode develop, the writers and Farmiga manage to keep us on Violet’s side. But at this stage I find myself looking for more opportunities for Violet’s self-assurance—which is, I understand, itself a defense mechanism—to get shaken up, if for no other reason than for her to begin to operate on a level beyond the conceit of self-congratulation that the writers display for attempting to access the worldview of a young person at the expense of the adults closest to her. I know plenty of kids who might feel this way; it’s the overwritten articulation, and the consequent reduction of the character to a convenient pose, that I object to.
There are a couple of things that I want to touch on briefly, perhaps more as fodder for further conversation before we move away from “Murder House” to the next episode than anything. I am interested, particularly in light of the ambivalence already shown toward the character of Constance, who clearly has some as-yet-fully-undisclosed sinister purpose, in the show’s attitude toward Nora, the society maven who makes life such a hell for her husband, the ineffectual Dr. Charles Montgomery, and exacerbates his plunge into madness. She is clearly someone who was not pleasant to be around when she was alive— to the hubby, the help, and probably not to her baby boy either. But when she reappears at the doorstep of the Harmon home some 80 years later and has her tour through the foyer and the kitchen-- Vivien mistakes her for a potential buyer, but doesn’t seem as confused as I certainly would be at her visitor’s apparent intimate familiarity with the details of the décor-- there’s a certain wistfulness that death has apparently conveyed upon her that is, to say the least, curious. We haven’t yet seen all there is to see of Nora and Charles’s story, but I wonder if you found it odd the degree of sympathy which the storytellers seem to have, at least at this point, with Nora’s now apparently unsuppressed maternal instincts. (She certainly didn’t seem to be anything like a natural born mother when she was seated with child and spouse at that big dinner table.) The last we see of her here, sitting at Vivien’s bedside while Vivien sleeps, unaware of the hand reaching out to, but not touching, her pregnant belly, is just one of the things that piqued my interest in what might be in store here regarding this new (and yet apparently oldest) member of the Murder House spectral ancestry.
As for Sal Mineo’s appearance, at first I found it kind of grimly interesting, but upon further reflection I’m come to see it as a bit more evidence of what you suggested in talking about the “Home Invasion” episode, in regard to Murphy and Falchuk’s somewhat winking attitude toward real-life tragedy. They are not done in this arena, and one instance I can think of that’s coming up works far more effectively as a bitter and vivid evocation of the emotional concerns the show is trafficking in—they actually take the time to integrate this future element into the action of the show rather than to just exploit the more prurient elements of a tragedy, as they do with the Mineo killing. To reference what happened to Mineo in such a casually brutal way (the actor’s come-on to his murderer even echoes one that will recur, in a completely different context, in the next episode, “Halloween Part 1”) seems to place the show more on the TMZ level of that morbid “Eternal Darkness” tourist tour of Los Angeles atrocities rather than anything like a serious consideration of American horror.
And to that end, one of the horrors referenced in American Horror Story most certainly has to be the stress and agony of the American homeowner in the 21st century, which I think Murphy and Falchuk have done a bang-up job in evoking with this temporally far-reaching tale. It reminds me of Stephen King’s story in his marvelous Danse Macabre on the “economic unease” reflected in the movie version of The Amityville Horror (1979)—when the walls start oozing blood and the place starts falling apart, King recalls hearing worried filmgoers whispering about the cost of all those home repairs the Lutzes were now facing. (I’ll look up the actual quote when I get home.)
Finally, I don’t want to make it sound as though my reaction to this episode is overly negative, because I actually like it quite a bit, and as I’ve already said, “Murder House” lays the groundwork and piques the curiosity as to the show’s direction more than ably enough. (Though I must say that the next couple of episodes are where I think AHS really steps up its game.) At one point Marcy, the hapless, somewhat unethical Realtor is out in front of the house repositioning the “For Sale” sign after Vivien demands that she put it back on the market. She sees Constance looking toward the upstairs window. Constance is waving to Tate, who stares back without emotion, visible only to her, of course. After she realizes that Marcy has been watching her, Constance gathers herself, looks at the sign and says dismissively, “Good luck getting rid of this lemon,” before continuing with her little dogs down the street. No need to worry. By this point I’m in for the long haul.
(*Yes, this episode was written by the very same Jennifer Salt who made a name for herself in the early ‘70s acting in movies like Midnight Cowboy, Hi, Mom!, Play It Again, Sam, Brewster McCloud and Sisters, as well as on the hit TV series Soap.)