Thursday, January 10, 2013

American Horror Story: Spilt Milk (2.11)

Back when season two began, it was marked by a lack of character-driven structure. There wasn't so much one singular protagonist, or even one singular threat, but instead a disparate collection of horror stories. Each involved a dueling sensibility, usually two characters up against one another in a kind of war or tussle. Then events began to converge, there was crossover between the separate sagas, and characters began to intersect. But as we reach the end of the season, the show has once again decided to split off most of the cast. Instead of trying to have all the stories overlap at the same time, however, Spilt Milk is designed almost as a series of vignettes, each additional chapter seeming to bring things to a close.

With that in mind, you have to wonder where we're headed next, or what really constitutes an ending. In the case of Lana, her journey has become so personal and self-contained over the past couple of weeks that the ending we all wanted was just for her to get out of Briarcliff alive. So when that happens midway through the episode, followed by the subsequent death of Thredson, it feels unusual to keep following the character even further -- the last two episodes presumably seeing her take down Briarcliff all-together.

If there's one complaint about this season, it's been the show's tendency to sometimes struggle to define the story it wants to tell. Watching Lana's repeated bouts of torture and misery over the season is very much a personal threat to her safety, yet the show is also aspiring to tell grander stories about mental illness and the asylums of the past. Telling this through one singular character feels crowded, as if the sole focus of Lana's character of late has been abruptly halted to fit time for the rest of the road she has to travel down, whether we're hugely invested in it or not.

Of course, all of this could be preconceived. I guess it just feels like the most interesting stories have already come to a natural conclusion. Sister Jude as a character has been a little directionless ever since she was institutionalized, while the alien subplot has never entirely come together, so leaving it to seemingly anchor so much of the next two weeks is concerning.

Talking about Spilt Milk on its own, it went where it had to go. Lana's final confrontation with Thredson was punchy and absorbing, if a little too reminiscent of every other of their recent confrontations. Lana's victory was rousing, but similarly undermined by choppy writing: this time her refusal to get an abortion. I get what they're trying to do with this, corresponding with the Dylan McDermott scenes and all the tragic irony that entails, but I get inherently frustrated when characters don't get abortions on television, especially on cable. You can only read stuff into it, and feel like its not at all organic. Blah.

What raised the bar, unsurprisingly, is the direction. The alien story remains illusive and few surprises are appearing elsewhere, but dammit if American Horror Story continues to be the most beautiful show on TV right now. Again Alfonso Gomez-Rejon tosses the entire director's playbook at us; insane angles, beautiful tracking shots, bizarre lighting. Watching Spilt Milk with the mute button on is still an experience like no other; the way he photographs a scene, whether it's Lana walking through that mausoleum, or the haunting scenes with Grace fading into black alien water -- it's unparalleled right now, and probably makes the show's recent lacking on a story level a lot more palatable.

I feel like I've turned on this show in recent weeks, at least in these reviews, but only because it's experienced a significant shift in quality from those initial opening hours back at the end of 2012. Early Asylum seemed to really be saying something, trying to push something sort of grand and extraordinary for the show, but the pacing has been slowed way down lately, and things are beginning to peter out instead of explode. It's an unusual tactic, especially for Ryan Murphy, but I continue to hope that there's some kind of turnaround when the year finally wraps. Or at least that they give Jessica Lange something to do instead of just shuffle around the same set getting angry at everybody. Ugh. B-


- So is the Monsignor the big bad all of a sudden? The lighting in his scene with Kit made him appear like some kind of garish amalgamation of Angel Heart Robert De Niro and Mr. Burns as Dracula in that old Treehouse of Horror segment. I --- I'm lost, frankly.

- Okay, it was nuts, but great work by Dylan McDermott and Jill Marie Jones in the breastfeeding scenes. I guess it's awful that I no longer find this hooey surprising and in most cases find it pretty funny (even Thredson's sex scene with Clea DuVall's corpse raised a snicker, which I find horrifying in itself), but it's hilarious that every season seems to require at least one moment of McDermott weeping over white fluids.

Guest stars
Clea DuVall (Wendy Peyser); Britne Oldford (Alma Walker); Barbara Tarbuck (Mother Claudia); Jill Marie Jones (Pandora); Naomi Grossman (Pepper); Kasey Mahaffy (Father James); Matthew John Armstrong (Detective Byers); Joel McKinnon Miller (Detective Connors); Jennifer Holloway (Barb); Vanessa Mizzone (Lois); Mary-Pat Green (Nurse Hicks); Gwynyth Walsh (Abortion Doctor)
Writer Brad Falchuk Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon


  1. I can't help but feel cheated that the whole demonic possesion was dropped, pun intended.
    I can only hope that we get more aliens at this point.
    Also, throughout the entire episode the getting-out-of-Briarcliff-motif seemed so much like dreamsequenses - mostly due to the fantastic camerawork you described.
    I'm very eager to see the last two episodes.

  2. It's cool reading these comments, as you're slowly piecing everything together as the season starts to wrap up. Very cool. And, gosh, beautiful camerawork. Best part of the whole season, in my opinion.