This American Horror Story review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story Season 9 Episode 7
Camp Redwood, like every summer camp from every horror movie, has a tragic backstory. However, Redwood’s tragedy isn’t as recent as a ’70’s era slaughter of counselors and campers. Camp Redwood’s tragic history goes back to the camp’s very beginnings, as a post-war America looking for a place to send the Baby Boomers for the summer opened summer camps in droves, like Camp Golden Star. It’s great for all those kids of Gis who came home from the war, but for war widow Lavinia, the camp is a chance for her awkward sons Ben and Bobby to meet other kids, get some fresh air, and have a free place to live. The post-war prosperity that Americans would enjoy well into the ’60’s didn’t quite spread to single mothers, unfortunately.
Lavinia turns out to be a great role for the brilliant and much-missed Lilly Rabe, who absolutely storms onto the screen from the opening moments of the episode (where she up-charges a child for licorice and pockets the difference) and holds that strong performance throughout the episode as a grieving, vengeful spirit known as the Lady in White, who terrorizes not only visitors to Camp Redwood but also her fellow spirits, chasing them down and murdering those who aren’t fast enough or smart enough to get away from her. As it turns out, she’s got a great reason to hate counselors, almost as much as she hates her son Benjamin Richter.
It’s a ghost we haven’t heard about now, but the Camp Redwood ghosts haven’t really been a focus, just a throw-in. But by connecting Mr. Jingles (who put half of the ghosts in the camp), Margaret (who put the other half of the ghosts in the camp), and Lavinia (who is the reason all those souls are trapped in the first place), it elevates the camp simply from a place that’s evil to a place that’s tragic, after a fashion. What happened to Bobby is a gory set piece, but also a horrible accident. Everything since has been directly connected to that original incident, and sometimes directly influenced by Lavinia’s actions. She was a troubled woman even before Bobby’s tragedy, but that pushed her over the edge completely, and seeing her son flirt with a camp counselor was enough to cause her to push at Margaret’s fraying nerves and push her over the edge—she also apparently planted the idea in Margaret’s head to blame everything on Ben.
That’s a particularly cruel twist, and a brilliant bit of scripting from John J. Gray, who gives both Lily Rabe and John Carroll Lynch a lot of meaty material to work with. Rabe in particular leans into her material hard, and as an AHS veteran, she knows how to play up the campier aspects of her wailing widow character by chewing every bit of scenery she can find and spitting it back aggressively into the face of Lynch, who uses his considerable size to good effect by visibly shrinking in the face of his mother’s wrath, only to steel up when his mother (clearly always a manipulator) tells him that the only way to accomplish his mission to stop Richard Ramirez is to take away the one thing that makes him vulnerable, his life.
That’s just one half of the two-hander that is “The Lady in White.” The other half concerns Brooke and Rita and their brief road trip from whatever no-tell motel Rita brings Brooke to recover from the effects of the drugs in her system. The two women get a chance to make bygones bygones and to reconnect in after a fashion as friends following a prolonged detox and a trip to the roller rink to skate around and flirt in a cute Def Leppard-scored montage. In Liz Friedlander’s hands, roller skating actually looks like fun, rather than a great way to get battered.
That chance trip leads to a chance meeting with Bruce (Dylan McDermott, also returning to AHS and also having a blast playing a murderous sleaze bag), who sees two potential victims. That’s a very poor judgment on his part. Certainly, he’s able to get the drop on the two women, and he adds several victims to his budding serial killer resume, but he’s messing with two people who know serial killers like few others in the world do. Brooke is a much different person after spending 1824 days in the California penal system as a maximum security prisoner, and Rita knows more about the psychology of serial killers than anyone alive at this point. If anything, he’s the one in danger after his initial plan backfires.
The way the two turn the tables on Bruce is brilliant to watch, and it allows Friedlander to show off her ability to string together a compelling action sequence. Despite being taken to a second location, and despite being incapacitated and tied up, Brooke in particular comes up with a clever, quick way to turn the tables on Bruce and incapacitate him and leave him, sans thumbs, tied up on the side of the road with a half-loaded gun, a pickup truck, and a renewed sense of purpose with Rita as her sidekick to see this thing out. McDermott is great at going from aggressive and confident to a scared, sobbing wreck, and this role plays perfectly into his strengths as an actor. His talent is not obscured that much by his incredible mustache. He’s menacing when needed and pathetic when no longer in power, and he does a lot of little bits with his performance that make the character an interesting one-shot appearance.
At least, I assume that it’s a one-shot performance.
With American Horror Story, you never know when a character’s going to be gone and when a character’s going to return, sans thumbs with a taste for revenge. He knows that they’re heading to Camp Redwood, and he’s not so far away that he couldn’t track Brooke down at the worst possible time. Would anyone be surprised if he showed up again before the end of the season, looking for revenge on Brooke? He’d be a great third-act surprise, or a post-climax Friday the 13th/Carrie style stinger scene. People die, people come back, ghosts haunt a campground while thinking up revenge plots, and a one-hit wonder 80’s band is slaughtered, and even the most predictable aspects of AHS are still pretty wild when compared to everything else on television.