Sunday, December 16, 2012

American Horror Story: The Coat Hanger (2.9)

It's so easy to get swept up in this show that it's sometimes hard to recognize when things have hit a wall of sorts. Asylum is still fun and dense, but there's a repetitive vibe that kept perking up this week. It's almost like the show's violent, provocative imagery has become so routine that it's no longer surprising when we see it. Take the shot of Jude strapped to a bed in a Briarcliff medical ward. It probably ought to be shocking, but it lacks the immediacy that has made similar shots over the past eight weeks more poignant. It probably doesn't help, either, that this and last week's episode both seem to be reaching for delaying tactics. Just when we think we're moving forward, stories regress somewhat, or we get another cliffhanger ending. Most of the complaints leveled at American Horror Story this season relate to the sheer volume of stories flying all at once, something I've never really felt was a problem: a greater issue being the recent lack of surprises.

What made this season's first run of episodes go down easy was the burgeoning characterization. Sure, we were still getting the overarching narrative drip-fed piece by piece with every additional week, but there was some fantastic character work at the same time, brief bits of back-story, or a random moment that really explored the varying facets that has made this ensemble so absorbing. But since the Anne Frank two-parter, there hasn't been a ton of new information to discover about our protagonists, leaving the show feeling like a serialized thriller that's been grossly staggered to fulfill the 13-episode order.

Naturally, there are still brilliant isolated moments each week, mostly brought to life by the cast. Meaning that while Lana and Thredson seem to have the same conversation in every episode at this point, Sarah Paulson and Zachary Quinto do everything but literally tear each other's faces off, gritting more teeth and bursting more blood vessels than your average grizzly bear. So it's fun. Likewise with Lily Rabe. She hasn't done anything particular new for weeks now, but is such a delight on-screen that you can forgive that fact.

From a story stand-point, the continued shifting of character dynamics promise great things for the future. That initial feeling at the start of the season of a lack of one singular protagonist has been aggressively preyed upon ever since, so you can only hope that Jude and Lana's implied partnership can save the day when the season eventually wraps. Arden discovering he actually needs Kit's help is also intriguing, the alien subplot finally being tied together with greater ease than it has been in the past. There are still parts of it that feel crazily jarring (does the alien pregnancy thing have a connection to anything else? Or is it purely standalone?), but the show continues to have that ability to reach out and gain our collective trust that this is going somewhere grand and interesting.

But most of that greatness is about potential, and the possibilities of where this is all headed. Like last week, The Coat Hanger struggles to be much of anything on a purely episode-driven level, failing to build to much that is truly concrete except for a series of wacky cliffhanger endings -- Frances Conroy is lingering after the Monsignor, attacked and tied up to an enormous cross by Ian McShane; Kit is lying near death after an alien experiment instigated by Arden, who is all distracted by the sudden re-appearance of a heavily preggers Grace and a suddenly able-minded Pepper. And then there's the continued ambiguity of Lana's maybe-pregnancy, granted additional mystery with the now literal presence of Dylan McDermott in the present day sequences, his character claiming to be the son of Bloody Face and having problems matching up to his dad's legacy.

So there's still so much here that holds your attention, but we're very much stuck in a mid-season slump. It's absolutely an American Horror Story variation on the word 'slump', since little is ever boring or uninspiring, but a slump all the same. Hopefully January will bring a turnaround in propulsion. B-


- I really hope Lana's supposedly intact pregnancy is a fake-out. She and Jude are the two characters I have most sympathy for, and the idea of the two of them breaking out of Briarcliff but still carrying around all this evil baggage seems like a fate worse than death. Could Dylan McDermott be the progeny of both Thredson and Sister Mary Eunice? I'm sure the latter will get her claws all up in this pregnancy somehow.

- Gosh, Ian McShane is twisting his visage into the kind of face you really want to punch. I don't know how he does it, but that expression he's given Leigh ever since he's been all repentant and 'voice of reason'-ish is horrifyingly calculated and contrived. And everybody buys it! Ugh!

- Oof, Dylan McDermott. He's never been the world's strongest actor, but making him play anything but 'handsome guy next door' can only result in unintentional hilarity. I'm not sure I'm buying him as a skin-flaying serial killer, even if he's trying real hard to convince.

Guest stars
Ian McShane (Leigh Emerson); Frances Conroy (Shachath); Fredric Lehne (Frank McCann); Barbara Tarbuck (Mother Claudia); Brooke Smith (Dr. Gardner); Mary-Pat Green (Nurse Hicks); Cyd Strittmatter (Nurse Braxton); Rebecca Metz (Lorene); John Pleshette (Magistrate)
Writer Jennifer Salt Director Jeremy Podeswa


  1. I can't handle anymore mystical pregnancies from this or any other show. In fantasy storytelling especially, why are rape and demon pregnancies so go-to? Fuck, even Whedon pulled that shit more than once and it's hard to get any closer to feminist fantasy than from him. Uck. If all these dude writers could just stop, that'd be great. It doesn't help that this show in particular actually seems to center around torturing women.

    Anyway, I haven't seen this episode yet but I'm glad to have a bit of a warning beforehand. I was already prepared to be pissed if they went that way with Lana, but now that it's with Grace too... Oi.

    On a different note, it's surprising that the show is running out of steam so quickly considering how much material they have to work with. I don't know what's going on in the writers room that they can't consistently bring in new levels of characterization and twists with at least 7 main characters, God knows how many main storylines, and a time frame that spans 50-60 years in just 13 episodes. What in the world would they do if they actually had to fill up 22-episode seasons with one main lead AND have to snowball off of previous seasons as well? They'd never cut it.

  2. Great points, especially about the obsession with mystical pregnancies. Even more so considering last season had a whole Rosemary's Baby thing. And an even more interesting point about this season's reliance on lady torture. It's a recurring motif in Ryan Murphy's work, though. Women always seem to get dumped on during his shows, whether it's AHS, Nip/Tuck or friggin' Glee, heh.

    And to answer your last question: see Glee. That's what happens when events are stretched out for so long. I still adore this show, and it's really only within the last two or three episodes that things have gotten a little repetitive and dull, but it's a little denial-prone to not at least recognize it.

    Thanks so much for the comment, anyway.