AMERICAN HORROR STORY Recap: ‘Murder House’
October 20, 2011 by Ben Phelps
Although the AMERICAN HORROR STORY timeline is a little unclear, it seems safe to assume the Harmons have not been living in Los Angeles for very long; in any case, it has only been three episodes for the audience. Almost immediately, though, from the very beginning of the series, a large question loomed over the proceedings: Why would they stay in this clearly haunted house for even one more day, let alone a whole TV season?
“Murder House” tackled that question head-on, although your level of satisfaction with the answers may vary. We started off the episode (after the requisite flashback, which I’ll get to later) with Ben telling Vivien, “I was trying to protect you.” In a bit of misdirection, it sounds like the truth about Ben’s trip to Boston has gotten out, but really they’re talking about money, since Ben lost most of it and what they do have is tied up in their new less-than-desirable real estate. But after the home invasion, Vivien just wants to get out of there, and doesn’t want to hear excuses.
Excuses are basically all she gets, though. The realtor laments, halfheartedly, that the “housing market is dropping daily” (but then gets an earful from Vivien about lying to them about the house’s history; it’s always great to see the angry side of Connie Britton). Ben argues that he can’t lose his office space in the house, since he already is wanting for more patients. Violet later threatens to run away forever if they move, since she rejects her mother’s “victim” stance and views the house as “the place where we survived.” Vivien’s doctor tells her to stay put, since “death, divorce, and moving” are the three greatest stressors and this pregnancy needs to be calm (although it’s already too late for the first one).
The writers are obviously putting obstacles in the Harmons’ (and mainly Vivien’s) way in order to keep them in the mansion, yet these were still the strongest parts of the episode. As much as AHS likes to load on the “horror” elements, it really works best when it focuses on the family and the effects the house has on them. The mythology and history of the house can be fun, but seeing how it influences the characters is what brings the happenings to another level.
For that reason, “Murder House” was a mixed bag. Vivien continues to be the most compelling character on the show (largely due to her being played by Britton), and because she anchored the moving out storyline, that one worked best. A bit less so were Ben’s various dealings with his missing patient, the sudden arrival of his mistress Hayden, and his altercation with Moira, mainly because of Dylan McDermott’s being such a leaden actor. He yells and growls and cries, but does very little to give Ben any real emotion.
The missing patient was probably the most pointless piece of the episode, as it had virtually no payoff (and very little that it could have even paid off). Ben had a therapy session with a patient everyone described as “the most boring woman in the world,” but after nodding off, he woke up on the lawn, unable to remember what had happened. All we knew was his tape recorder was missing and Moira was cleaning up a bloody mess in the foyer. We later learned that the woman had tried to slit her wrists during the session and was found without ID in the hospital, but the only relevant character information that came out of it was, a) Moira was drugging Ben for some unknown reason, and b) Ben isn’t the only one who sees Moira as a young, attractive maid. I guess we need to be reminded that Ben is a therapist, but there must be a way to make his patients and therapy sessions better integrated into the ongoing story.
Ben’s other two story threads were at least better connected. Hayden shows up at the Harmons’ doorstep to tell Ben she is moving to LA and that she didn’t get the abortion, which freaks him out even more than anything he has dealt with in the house to this point, especially since Vivien told him in the beginning, “If you lie to me again, we’re through.” His problem is taken care of, though, when Larry whacks Hayden with a shovel as they’re leaving the house, and buries her in the hole Ben conveniently started digging earlier. Coincidentally, that hole is also the burial site of Moira (whom we learn Constance killed with a shot through the eye, when she caught her lover trying to rape Moira in 1983), and when Ben builds a gazebo on top of the grave, it ensures Moira will be “stuck there forever,” and thus able to continue tormenting Ben.
The stories of the house and its inhabitants are getting more fleshed out, but we still don’t really know the characters beyond their one-line descriptions (unless you argue that the house is actually the main character). For some, the acting makes up for that lack of depth — we all know Britton is amazing, but Taissa Farmiga is also doing some fine work as Violet, and, as campy as it is, Jessica Lange is a good Constance — but we’re still largely left with a lot of people and a lot of crazy events that don’t quite add up to a compelling whole.
Part of that problem stems from the fact that the Harmons get less sympathetic every day they remain in that house (and Ben is already fairly unlikeable — though, as the detective said, “it’s not a crime to be an asshole”). Obviously, there’s no AMERICAN HORROR STORY if they just leave, and some plausible reasons for them to stay were presented this week, but they need to find a permanent reason to stay, and soon, because it’s hard to root for your main characters when they come off as crazy and stupid.
A few other thoughts:
- In a piece published yesterday at The Atlantic, Alyssa Rosenberg discussed the series that, in her view, are in the running for “scariest show on television.” AMERICAN HORROR STORY was part of the conversation for being what she called “a veritable smorgasbord of horror tropes,” but it was interesting to note her argument that the moments that are truly most frightening are not those involving flashbacks to gruesome murders or unseen basement monsters, but those that push characters to new heights. I think it’s a great point, and a big part of the reason that the character-based plots work much better than those that are just thrills for thrills’ sake.
- Tate didn’t have much screen time this week, showing up silently in the window as Constance walked by, and to tell Violet (ironically, I’m assuming) that Ben is “a great dad; he really cares.”
- For having only one working arm, Larry sure is a fast shoveler.
- Similarly, Ben is quite the speedy carpenter.
What did you think of “Murder House”? Do you like just learning more about the mythology of the mansion, or do you want more character-based stories? Are you glad Hayden is gone already? Are you finding Dylan McDermott as dull as I am?
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