American Horror Story is about immediate and intense gratification. “True Killers” carries on that tradition, blowing through a lot of twists and turns. This is blood-splattered, burned, stabbed, shot, slashed, and smashed episode that unpacks the secrets of Camp Redwood.
After all, it’s a camp with a lot of secrets, most of which the viewing audience of 1984 has been wise to for quite some time. This isn’t a show that leans towards subtlety, and a lot of the twists in this episode are foreshadowed very effectively throughout the run thus far. That AHS isn’t even trying to extend out the plot suggests that they’re fine with burning off the incredibly long night of the killing spree and have something in their pockets for the latter half of the season.
And yet, even with the show burning through reveals and cast members at a very high rate, there are still surprises to be had, thanks in no small part to the greater American Horror Story universe being a place where the supernatural, while rare, does exist. The ghostly hitchhiker Jonas returned to life several times (possibly), and now Richard Ramirez is performing Satanic rituals in the woods and potentially tapping into supernatural powers for guidance, among other things. Ramirez, a real-life Satanist, would often credit the devil with giving him special abilities and guiding his murderous rampages, so it’s only natural that in a world in which Satan can take an active role in helping others, attention would be paid to ardent disciples like the Night Stalker.
Director Jennifer Lynch, one of the regulars on American Horror Story, seems to have a particular talent for creepy imagery, and making the most of her jump-scares. There are several moments during the episode where she pulls off impressive bits of visual storytelling. Xander and Bertie’s scene in the kitchen, for example, has one of the biggest jump scare moments of the entire season. Ditto Brooke falling into one of the many traps littering the campsite, which is followed by a second trap immediately going off.
Lynch has a talent for that sort of thing. She’s able to create tension out of dialogue-heavy scenes very well, as seen in the confrontation between Jingles and Margaret, and most of the flashback scenes carry a lot of weight to them as well, from the meet-creep between Ramirez and Montana to the replay of what really happened during the Jingles massacre, and the treatment that transformed a janitor from Benji to Mr. Jingles. She’s also able to turn pretty standard talk scenes into something more interesting, just by making choices like having Margaret stand with her back to a burning car, or the way she turns Margaret’s flashbacks into a scene that would feel at home in Carrie.
Admittedly, there’s not a lot of plot to go on in this episode. It’s mostly fighting, bleeding, and quipping, but Jay Beattie’s script does a solid job of peppering the quippy jokes throughout and keeping the laugh lines coming without sacrificing any of the scary business. Chet, of all people, gets two of the funniest throwaway lines in the episode, and when he’s given more dramatic fare, John Carroll Lynch proves why he’s the go-to guy for giant killers in Hollywood, because Jingles’s tragic origin story—not the lies Margaret told the world, but his true origin—hits like a ton of bricks, as does his response when he finally realizes that Margaret betrayed him. Margaret’s betrayal isn’t a huge surprise to anyone, except Jingles, but it’s effectively sold by Lynch and Beattie’s script walks the line between her completely being happy with her choices and justifying them through the lens of God wanting her to return to the camp and make things better.
That urge to make things better, or control one’s actions for the future even when they can’t take care of the past, is Bertie putting a nice lampshade on the whole point of the episode. Everyone in the show has either killed or caused someone’s death directly as a result of their actions. For some of them, that past trauma will define their whole future. For others, it’s possible that the bad deeds—while they can’t be undone—can be changed into something else, turned into fuel for more positive endeavors. It’s actually sweet; Bertie came back to the camp not because she wanted to, but because she wanted to help Margaret move on.
Sometimes doing good things can have terrible consequences. See also Montana’s brother, killed by a jealous friend while trying to do a good thing for an old roommate. Helping a picked-on counselor at camp. Trying to help a pledge get into your fraternity. Even trying to do a nice thing for your grieving girlfriend can backfire, even if that nice thing is killing someone who, for all we know, is an innocent person caught in a terrible situation. There’s no avoiding terrible situations at Camp Redwood, even if you’re already dead.
Seems like it’s far past time just to lean into things, grab a knife, and join the murder party.