This review contains spoilers.
3.8 The Sacred Taking
Some television shows are nothing if not worthy of praise for their special effects. On a show like The Walking Dead, the special effects are obvious. Zombie rotting faces, impaling, and so on are the sorts of effects that attract attention and win awards, but there are more subtle sorts of special effects. In the case of this week’s episode of American Horror Story, it’s mostly makeup tricks and old-school appliances, but they’re very effective ones (like the self-lighting cigarettes so many of the witches smoke).
Jessica Lange is a very pretty woman, yet this show found several ways to make her look awful this week. In particular, her fantasy scenes about her slow death from cancer were really impressive, because she looked absolutely bloody awful. Cordelia’s acid-damaged eyes and face are also very impressive week-in and week-out, marring Sarah Paulson quite effectively without taking away from her ability to emote with her face. Ditto Frances Conroy, who gets an awesome-looking series of facial appliances this week that turn her face into brittle, wrinkly, very subtle scar tissue. It looks like she’s been slightly crumpled, and it’s a thing of beauty. There’s a way to do facial makeup that enhances or detracts from an actor’s physicality without interfering with their ability to act, a lesson that J. Edgar would have benefited greatly from.
Speaking of Frances Conroy, she was an unsung hero of the first season of American Horror Story, a great cameo appearance in the second season, and once again in the third season, she gets to show up and do great things. As the interesting Myrtle Snow, she gets to deliver some of the best lines imaginable courtesy of the pen of Ryan Murphy, and she’s back in full haughty form despite having recently been burned to death. A supply of bright red fright wigs from North Korea no doubt helps keep Myrtle appropriately sassy, but whenever Conroy gets to share a scene with Jessica Lange, it’s pretty magical stuff.
This week is no different, as Ryan Murphy and his crew of writers and actors decide to delve deeply into witch politics this week. Queenie has defected to the voodoo side. Cordelia is blind. Fiona is slowly dying (and spending more time in the arms of her ghostly lover the Axeman rather than taking care of business). With the center too self-centered to hold, the New Orleans coven is on the ropes, but the numbers are growing, if only because no one stays dead for very long when the lovely Misty Day is around.
I guess that’s another way the show is turning back around on itself. There’s no Dylan McDermott, but at least there’s the knowledge that anybody can die at any moment, and that just because someone does that doesn’t mean they’ll stay dead. Or just because someone dies, that doesn’t meant they can’t further interfere into the corporeal world. In a way, it takes a lot of the power out of death, but it adds a second bit of anxiety into the show when a character does die. Will they come back? If so, how quickly will they try to get revenge on the person who put them to death? The coalition of people Fiona has crossed keeps growing from week to week, and when they finally stand up to her—in a very clever manner, no less—all the death becomes that much more worth it. Probably not to the dead people, but it gives the New Orleans coven a fun sort of instability that external enemies like Hank and Marie Laveau can’t offer, even if both are used really well this week by Ryan Murphy.
Working hand-in-hand with the show’s great acting and special effects is director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, who is one of the most visually talented directors working in television today. His camera is constantly mobile, and he makes ample use of Dutch angles, depth of focus tricks, and the beloved fish-eye lens. However, the mobility of the camera is the star. Gomez-Rejon uses some great tracking shots this week, and while most of them are subtle, they’re more effective because of it. Just the way he frames certain scenes—Fiona staring into the mirror while her vision of breaking the news of her upcoming death to Cordelia is brilliantly done—can really lend punch to them.
The final scene of the episode, though everyone can see it coming, is executed so well that it’s hard to not grin in amusement of the way the camera follows Fiona through the halls to the table, then moving from a ground-level upward shot to an overhead shot to properly highlight the big reveal. American Horror Story is so good at dealing with cheesy craziness that it can make almost any of its choices work. Even when the show veers off in some crazy directions (like, say, the FrankenKyle threesome), it’s still a pleasant jolt of strangeness that will eventually be buried beneath the show’s many positive aspects.