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 opening post on the show's second episode here, but you can also follow along with our conversation at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule. Read on for Dennis's first thoughts on the second episode of season one.
As I said, back into the house we go. Not unlike the beginning of the pilot episode, which set us down immediately at the threshold of a key event from the past, specifically in 1978, once again we viewers find ourselves looking at the now familiar Harmon house as it was in 1968. The Fifth Dimension’s hit single version of “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In” is heard on the soundtrack as we come upon the outside of the house at dusk. It’s hard to tell if it’s just because we know we’re watching American Horror Story, but the use of the song takes on unaccountably, inevitably sinister vibes as we’re introduced to three young women descending the stairs, talking about being late and rushing out to see the Doors at the Hollywood Bowl. We realize, as they encounter two other women, Maria and Gladys, in the living room that the house is at this point in its history being used as a dormitory for nursing students. Maria and Gladys are invited to the concert by the three, but they opt to stay home—Maria is studying, Gladys (in uniform) looking as though she’s just spent a long day on an internship, is watching Laugh-In on television.
Sometime later (the TV is still on, but we’ve moved on to either an old movie or some generic drama) there’s a knock at the door. When she opens it (Yet another clue that we’re in the past—who would do such a thing in 2012?), a man, blood trickling from a wound on his head, pleads with Maria for assistance. “Excuse me, ma’am,” he says to her in a soft, sincere-sounding voice, “I don’t want to bother you, but I’m hurt and needing some help.” Maria hesitates but takes her calling seriously enough to allow him inside and begin treating his wound. While he lies on his back on the couch he notices the cross dangling from her neck and asks insinuatingly, “You think Jesus is going to save you?” She and Gladys, who is looking on, both smile and Maria responds that they’re both already saved. “We all are,” she says, implying that the school is obviously some sort of Catholic institution.
There’s a (quick) shot of the man’s somewhat untrackable reaction as he looks not to Maria, who is attending him, but instead across to Gladys, before Maria realizes that she cannot find the wound from which the blood on the man’s head is ostensibly oozing. Gladys registers this observation as something more than just curious, but by then it’s too late. The man picks up an ashtray, slams it against Maria’s skull and proceeds on what he has interpreted as an invitation to the slaughter of these innocent, “already saved” lambs. With Gladys knocked unconscious as well, the man forces Maria to put on a nurse’s uniform, hogties her on the couch and then sits back in the chair Gladys was seated in previously. “I told you,” she says, rephrasing his earlier question, “Jesus can’t save me.” Maria begins praying and the man approaches her, apparently curious about the woman’s acceptance of what she assumes is his impending death. He then retreats out of the room for a few moments, and Maria looks up from her position, as if to wonder, in terror, if this is an opportunity to escape. But before she has a chance to wonder further, the man reappears and begins stabbing her repeatedly in the back, her screams intercut with the innocuous drama playing out on the television.
There’s a quick cut to the present and a by-now familiar scene: Tate sitting quietly in the patient’s chair in Ben’s office, almost taunting Ben with a stare while Ben ignores his buzzing cell phone. The taunt is verbalized when Tate accuses Ben of thinking about sex rather than the needs of his patient. When Ben redirects the taunt and asks Tate if he thinks about sex, Tate seizes the opportunity to let Ben know just how much he thinks about it, especially what he wants to do with Ben’s daughter Violet, and how he jerks off as a way of distracting himself from the constant thoughts of blood and carnage conjured in his fantasies. Ben remains outwardly sympathetic, but when Tate reveals that Violet has told him about Ben’s affair with “the girl in Boston,” the psychologist abruptly ends the session. Immediately Ben’s phone begins buzzing again—it’s “the girl from Boston,” Hayden (Kate Mara), who reveals that she’s pregnant.
Violet has a conversation with her high school nemesis Leah, who is so rattled by the attack in the basement of the house that she has taken up smoking. (Her initial self-righteous snit began with her disgust at Violet for smoking in school.) Violet insists that the thing that attacked Leah was just Tate trying to freak them both out, but Leah remains shattered and unconvinced. “Do you believe in the devil?” she asks Violet, who says no. “Well, I do,” Leah responds. “I’ve looked into his eyes.” Later that night, the Harmons are awakened by the house alarm going off. Ben creeps, baseball bat in hand, into the basement, where he finds Addy, Constance’s Down’s-afflicted daughter, sitting and giggling and sends her home. Describing the situation to Vivien, he calls Addy “a little freak,” and Vivien’s emotional response (“You shouldn’t call her that!”) reveals that she’s worried about her new pregnancy because, unlike the others, including her miscarriage, she’s not been nauseous or otherwise incapacitated. Ben tries to reassure her that he thinks this baby is the reason the Harmons moved to Los Angeles, to this house, so that they could be reunited, healed, saved by another child.
We’re then introduced to Bianca (Mageina Tovah), a new patient of Ben’s who, after describing a recurring dream in which she is gruesomely bisected in an elevator door, reveals that she was attracted to his practice when she realized it was in “the Murder House.” He shrugs off her morbid interest and redirects the conversation to a rather banal interpretation of her dream, but she dryly responds that she thinks she’s just afraid of being cut in half. Ben steps into the kitchen to call Tate’s mother about ceasing his treatment due to Tate’s insinuation about Violet, but the call is interrupted when Bianca wanders into the kitchen, apparently having lost her way trying to find the front door. As she leaves, Ben resumes the conversation: “I’m just not comfortable continuing Tate’s treatment in my home.”
Cut to Constance, in her kitchen as she stirs up some cake batter in a bowl while Addy looks on. Addy is thumbing through a Vogue magazine and wonders aloud why she doesn’t look like the girls on the glossy pages. “Because you don’t,” responds Constance lovingly but matter-of-factly. “But you were hatched with other gifts.” Constance asks Addy for some ipecac syrup off the shelf to add to the mix, and when Addy asks if it’ll make the cupcakes taste good, Constance tells her, in tones reminiscent of a poison-laced Barbara Billingsley, “You can’t actually taste it. It causes violent stomach upset and sometimes… internal bleeding.” (Lange’s emphasis.) Then, reminding us of Addy’s own typical wrinkle on a recipe mentioned in the previous episode, she invites her daughter to spit in it.
While out on a run, Ben again meets up with Larry (“People will say we’re in love!”) who insists that whatever is eating at Ben, the house will use it against him. (Remember, Larry told Ben how forces inside the house drove him to set himself and his family on fire.) But ben responds that this isn’t about the house, it’s about his own guilt over nearly destroying his marriage over his affair with Hayden. Larry takes a surprisingly moralistic stance, telling Ben that even though he burned three people alive at least he was never unfaithful. Cutting directly to the heart of Ben’s current dilemma about Hayden’s pregnancy, Larry declares that Ben has no choice but to do the only honorable thing, which is to lie to Vivien about it. Ben proceeds to do exactly this, concocting a story for his wife about having to return to Boston to assist an ex-patient who is threatening suicide.
Vivien is soon interrupted in her own kitchen by Constance, who comes in the side door from outside with a plate bearing two enormous cupcakes-- “A peace offering for Addy disturbing your slumber—I think I’m gonna have to start strapping her in at night again.” Vivien thanks her but politely refuses (does she remember Constance telling her of Addy’s little baking proclivity?) on grounds that she’s “not much of a cupcake girl.” Constance reveals that the cupcakes are for Violet, then stops short, looks at Vivien with some sort of curious amazement, and says, “You’re with child.” Vivien, shocked, then invites her to sit down and asks her, revealing her own prenatal fears, about what Constance said in the previous episode regarding what she might have done had she known Addy would be born with Down’s syndrome. Constance admits to thoughts of abandoning “the little bug-eye,” but then tells Vivien that she ultimately did not because “a mother never turns her back on her child,” and then of the beleaguered history of her own children, of which there were four. All had Down’s “or some such other malady,” except one, a model of physical perfection who was “lost to… other things.” At this point both Ben and Moira enter the kitchen. When Ben makes a grab for the cupcakes, Constance pulls them away and hands them to Moira, again emphasizing that they are only for Violet and that sternly directing that they be delivered directly to her, but only after Moira has cleaned the table properly. “Moira and I go way back,” Constance reveals. “Why, I even employed her for a time. I hope her dusting has improved.” Then, as she leaves, Constance turns to Vivien, but also to Ben, who stands between them and says, “Is there anything more wonderful than the promise of a new child… or more heartbreaking when that promise is broken?” Ben laughs off Constance’s portentousness and hugs Vivien. “I wish you could come with me,” he tells her, but the look on his face reveals that’s the last thing he wants.
Vivien brings the cupcakes up to Violet, who’s studying in her room, and means to tell her about the pregnancy, but Violet has already guessed and openly, harshly questions both Vivien’s strength and the presumed idea that another child will be the Band-Aid that fixes the various rifts and mistrust in the family caused by Ben’s infidelity. Hurt, Vivien tries to call Ben, but he doesn’t pick up because he’s in Hayden’s Boston apartment, trying to support her and keep himself out of another sexual situation. Hayden claims she just needs him there to help her through the abortion she’s decided to have. She says she has resolved to refocus on her college classes (she’s a psych major) and relegate their relationship to the past. But when she catches Ben checking his phone messages she becomes irrationally angry, and her insecurities, as well as her continuing desire for his love, come exploding to the surface.
Back in Los Angeles, the doorbell rings and Vivien cautiously answers through the peephole. It’s a young woman: “Excuse me, ma’am, I don’t want to bother you,” she says flatly, “but I’m hurt and need some help.” Vivien presses for details and becomes increasingly suspicious when the woman flatly repeats the same phrase (“I’m hurt… and needing some help”) and becomes agitated at not being let into the house. Vivien eventually leaves to call 911 when the woman begins pounding on the door, shouting about how she’s fearful she’s about to be attacked. We see someone pass behind Vivien—there’s already someone inside beside Violet and herself. She tells Violet to hide in her room, and when she returns to the front door peephole she sees the woman now wearing a black mask. Suddenly we see someone behind Vivien wearing a similar mask. She screams.
Violet and Vivien have both been subdued by three home invaders, who have taken off their masks. One of them is revealed to be Bianca, Ben’s new patient, who has apparently used her therapy session with him as a recon mission for planning this attack. The three turn out to be thrill-killing copycat cult killers who intend to recreate the 1968 murders that opened the episode, with Vivien and Violet standing in for the nurses. The leader reveals that her obsessiveness goes so far that she has obtained (from eBay) the actual ashtray the original killer used to violently subdue Maria. And Bianca admiringly opines that the killer, R. Franklin (an obvious stand-in for Richard Speck), was the first great serial killer, before the great Charles Manson even. “He changed the culture,” she explains. “We’re paying tribute to him.” And that means assigning roles—Violet is Gladys, who was murdered first, drowned in the upstairs bathtub, and Vivien is to be the prayerful and violently penetrated Maria.
Violet manages to break away, and while running through the halls she’s grabbed by Tate, who is somehow inside the house already. (Was he the one we saw initially passing behind Vivien?) He tells Violet to get them to the basement, where he will presumably unleash on these invaders some of the same thrills he had in store for Leah. The killers catch up to her and drag her to the upstairs bathroom in preparation for their own twist on a “dramatic recreation” of the crime. While the leader Fiona, watches Violet run the tub water, Bianca walks in munching a cupcake she found downstairs and soon goes into unexplainable convulsions. Fiona is rattled, and Violet takes advantage, appealing to Fiona’s sense of egotistical completism in the knowledge of the murders by revealing that the upstairs bathroom had years ago been remodeled and that the actual bathtub in which Gladys died is now in the basement. Fiona senses a ruse, but the spell is broken—she takes Violet to the basement, her jones for historical accuracy taking precedence over simply getting the job done.
Meanwhile, Addy, having trespassed yet again into the Harmon house (Was it her who passed behind Vivien?) tries to tell Constance that something’s wrong next door, but Constance is entertaining a young man and does not want to be interrupted. When Addy insists, Constance takes her to a closet and locks her inside. We see that the closet, a place of punishment with which Addy is well familiar, has been lined with mirrors which reflect back to her not the Vogue-derived image of perfection with which she is clearly fascinated but instead the image of her imperfect self, the one that has been for so long the butt of her mother’s derision and misguided love, and she screams in terror and self-disgust. Constance hears the screams and on some level cannot abide her own actions, but she submits to her own desires and returns to the bedroom where the young man awaits.
Bianca roams the halls of the Harmon house, now in significant pain from the ipecac-laced snack, and she comes upon Tate, who slams her midsection with an ax. Bleeding profusely, she moves down the hallway, leaving a trail of blood on the walls which she leans against to keep herself standing. Vivien, taunted by Dallas, the lone male among the trio of killers, manages to knock him cold with the prized ashtray. And Fiona is led to the basement, where Tate has arranged a surprise that trumps even the one he sprung on Leah. She approaches the tub which, to her shock, inside which a victim is already floating. It’s Gladys, who sits up from her submerged position and glares at Fiona. Vivien hears Fiona scream, but she disregards it, having already discovered Violet not in the upstairs bathroom but instead on the staircase. They run out of the house, where Constance sees them flying down the street in a panic.
Dallas, still lying on the floor, wakes up. A figure in a white nurse’s dressed has passed down the hallway behind him, unnoticed. She addressed another unseen person. “What the hell? Why aren’t you dead?” He then proceeds down to the basement where he discovers Fiona lying on the pavement, her throat slit from ear to ear, at the feet of the erect figures of Gladys and Maria. We then see Dallas from the reverse angle, multiple knife wounds clearly visible through the back of Maria’s dress.
Back to Boston, where Ben sits waiting with Hayden before the procedure. As she walks away (“See you when I get out”), Ben gets another call, looks at his phone and sees the phone displaying 13 missed calls, of which this is the latest. Realizing that something’s wrong back home, perhaps with his wife’s pregnancy, he rushes out of the clinic, leaving Hayden behind.
Back inside the Harmon house, Tate, Constance and Moira preside in the basement over the corpses of Fiona and Dallas. “Was this your handiwork?” Constance asks Tate. (We’ve never seen them together before.) “No,” he replies, and Moira adds, vaguely, “It was them,” the shot cutting again to the corpses who obviously did not orchestrate their own grim demise. “We have to get rid of the bodies,” Tate intones, “if you want him to keep treating me.” Then, as a good housekeeper would, Moira adds, “I’ll get the shovel, you get the bleach.”
Ben has returned home, where it is revealed to him by detectives that one of the perpetrators, who was been found down the street more or less cut in half, was Bianca, his patient. One of the detectives surmises that Bianca couldn’t go through with it, so her friends went after her and “attempted to do a Black Dahlia on her,” and that the three were a “club” obsessed with recreating famous L.A. murders. Ben is also horrified to find out that Tate was in the house and helped Violet escape. When Ben pointedly questions Violet about why Tate was inside, she says she doesn’t know. “But I’m glad he was,” she retorts witheringly. “You weren’t.” She then turns to Vivien, as if in apology for her previous harshness, and says to her, “You were really brave, Mom.” She then shoots a glance at Ben and leaves the room. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here,” Ben offers to Vivien. She replies, “Me too,” and before the salt can creep entirely into the wound she adds, “But you’re here now.” “Ben, relieved, responds, “That’s right. I’m home.” “No, you’re not,” Vivien says as she gets up and walks away from him. “We’re selling this house.”
I’ve taken up far more space here than I expected I would, Simon, but I want to leave with a couple of questions to start the conversation. The first one is one I ended with last time that I will reiterate: What do you think it is about the way American Horror Story has been structured and played and has resonated so far that makes it a particularly American horror story? What do you think Murphy and Falchuk are up to with that appellation? Or are they just looking for a hooky title? And do the scenes with Constance and Addy make you think there’s something else going on here in regard to Addy’s affliction and Constance’s pointed ambivalence toward her daughter because of it? What about Constance’s line to Vivien about her own beauty and that of her husband (“He was a dead ringer for Van Johnson!”) being, as she puts it, “an affront to the gods”? (Lange, is, again, stupendous in her brief scenes here, and do remind me to tell you about my favorite line in the series so far, which occurs in this episode.)