Every Sunday, we pick a new episode of the week. It could be good. It could be bad. It will always be interesting. You can read the archives here. The episode of the week for October 24 through 30, 2016, is "Chapter 7" the seventh episode of the sixth season of FX’s American Horror Story.
"I’m not an American. I’m not used to all this carnage," says Sarah Paulson's Audrey around the midpoint of "Chapter 7," the latest installment of American Horror Story and one of the finest episodes the show has produced.
Paulson is playing a Brit — with a somewhat unconvincing accent, I’ll add — and she’s gazing upon the dead bodies of the producers of the reality show she’s ostensibly a part of. (It’s a long story, but I’ll get into it later.) And yet all around her, everybody keeps filming.
It’s at once a sly take on the found-footage horror genre and a surprisingly nuanced political reading of same. It’s all making for an American Horror Story season that’s actually gaining strength as it heads toward its conclusion, rather than falling apart from how messy it is.
In short, if AHS can keep this up, this might be the best season of the show since its second.
A format shift helped American Horror Story immeasurably
This sixth season of American Horror Story has been trapped somewhat by an overstuffed story that echoes, in many ways, the series’ landmark first season. Both are about gigantic houses, bought for a song, which turn out to be haunted to the rafters. And while both haunted houses threaten the lives of their new occupants, said new occupants refuse to move out because, hey, where else are they going to go? (How about a Motel 6?)
But where season one was a fairly "traditional" horror movie — albeit one that kept pulling new ideas out of its head like a magician pulling a chain of scarves out of his sleeve — season six started out as one of those cable reenactment shows that pad out the wee hours of so many random channels.
Focused on Matt and Shelby, a couple who buys a home in North Carolina, the show within the show — dubbed My Roanoke Nightmare — chronicled their eventual flight from the house as spirits led by a woman known as "The Butcher" (played by Kathy Bates, our finest purveyor of wacky mayhem) threatened their lives.
The reenactment stuff was a little hard to swallow. The show never quite wanted to abandon its high-gloss production values, so the series within the series was always far more cinematic than what a real-world version of My Roanoke Nightmare might have looked like, complete with artistic camera angles, high-level performances, and pretty good costumes. (The reenactment effect the series best captured were the janky, jarring edits and cuts to commercial employed by all of these shows.)
But in episode six, the series simultaneously attempts to argue for the previous five episodes’ verisimilitude and invent an in-season sequel to those first five episodes.
See, it turns out My Roanoke Nightmare was a major network production (hence the higher level of production for the reenactments), and it was apparently one of the biggest hits in recent memory. The network, desperate for a sequel, agrees to send everybody involved with the production back to the haunted house, so the people who lived through the original haunting can hopefully experience another alongside the people who played them on TV.
It’s a completely goofy idea, the sort only a Ryan Murphy series would even dare try, but its execution has been surprisingly sound.
Found-footage horror hasn’t really worked on TV to this point — despite the huge number of "ghost hunter" shows clogging up cable — but it’s been rather thrilling to watch directors Angela Bassett (who also stars) and Elodie Keene figure out just why there’s a camera present to capture certain footage. (This works least in a sequence in episode seven in which three of the house’s residents are captured by a family of cannibals who are all suspiciously good cinematographers as well.)
But what’s been most shocking about these episodes has been the way they interrogate just why Americans are so interested in found-footage horror movies. These films are, American Horror Story argues, just an extension of how we live our lives.
Never stop filming, because if you do, they’ll get you
"Chapter 7" makes this all but impossible to miss.
Of the seven people in the house, four are black. They’re from all walks of life, all economic backgrounds. They have enormously different psychological profiles. And yet they all, at one point or another, view the camera as a lifeline, as the only way they keep their good names.
Nowhere is this more notable than in the life of Lee Harris (Adina Porter), the sister of Matt, who was all but accused of murdering her husband in My Roanoke Nightmare. She goes back to the house to clear her name — but she doesn’t trust the reality show crew to do so.
She keeps her smartphone’s camera running at all times, capturing the action as she sees it. This is how she’ll tell her story, she says, and then the public can decide just how manipulative the original series was.
These layers of storytelling play off each other in mostly satisfying ways throughout the series-within-a-series dubbed Return to Roanoke. But the series is truly fascinating when it turns to questions of how the camera can be both a predator and a savior for black Americans.
When others control the footage, they’ll use it to define black Americans as stereotypes or criminals. But when someone like Lee can turn her smartphone into an extension of her point of view, she can force everybody else to see the things only she does, a slight nod to the way videos shot on phones have helped bring larger attention to problems with police violence.
When the all-white production team (led by a hilariously oily Cheyenne Jackson) decided what Lee’s story would be, they painted her as an unstable murderer. When Lee has control over her own story, it will necessarily be self-serving — but it also might be more honest.
American Horror Story succeeds when it comments on America — but only obliquely
American Horror Story is always at its best when it brushes up against the political but doesn’t fully embrace it.
Season two, for instance, reimagined the struggles of LGBTQ Americans to have their voices heard as a literal escape from a mental hospital, but it never came out and said this was what it was doing. Season three, by contrast, turned the concept of intersectional feminism into a series of witch covens battling for control while always ignoring the "real threat." Its overtness eventually toppled everything else, and the season turned into a lengthy series of pointless, petty squabbles.
Season six is so intriguing because its central political metaphor works in a variety of ways. It’s about the difference between how we are in real life and how we are on camera — and what happens when we forget the camera is there.
It’s also about the "quick buck" nature of the entertainment industry, where all involved can know that lots and lots of people will die for their horror documentary, but they’ll release the footage anyway. And it’s also, obliquely, about being black in America and trying to keep the camera rolling so a systemic history of racism won’t catch up to you.
Of course, since this is a horror series, that "systemic history of racism" can be literalized as a mob of angry ghosts. The show never wants to forget its pure genre pleasures.
Lee knows that by keeping the camera rolling, she’s not going to fend off the ghosts or the cannibals or any other scary forces. But she also knows that when it all ends, people will know what happened to her — will know, on some level, who she really was. Having that camera in your hand at all times can be an inconvenience if you’re a TV star dealing with paparazzi (as at least one character is); it’s a lifeline when it provides you with the power of self-definition.
Of course, this is American Horror Story, so everything good comes shaded with two different colors of bad. The camera might be a lifeline to Lee, but its presence is also why she’s in the house in the first place, waiting for those ghosts to catch up to her. The camera and the pursuit of fame are, in the thesis of Murphy and his co-creator Brad Falchuk, the most American thing there is — and, thus, why Audrey can’t quite understand why nobody puts the cameras down.
Or, as one character puts it, right before a ghost splits her down the middle with a cleaver, "I just wanted to be on TV." In that moment, Murphy, Falchuk, and their team put the "American" in American Horror Story.