This article comes from Den of Geek UK.
Warning: contains spoilers for American Horror Story: Roanoke and American Horror Story: Hotel’s premiere.
It’s easy for a show like American Horror Story to lose its way. Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology series sets itself the challenge of establishing a weird, off-kilter tone whilst also crafting an engaging and worthwhile story from scratch each year. Arguably since Asylum, that’s a challenge it’s struggled to achieve.
Freak Show, Hotel and Coven to a lesser extent all fell short of the mark, losing their audiences in a mire of confusing sub-plots, quirky yet inconsequential supporting characters and writing that felt self-satisfied at times. The departure of the show’s secret sauce, Jessica Lange, didn’t help Hotel, and the odds were stacked against it from the off.
The latest run, Roanoke, boded far better. With its theme engulfed in secrecy as part of an enigmatic ad campaign, it seemed like something different. One of the main benefits of the anthology format is that if one season isn’t your cup of tea then you can just return a year later and it’s a completely different show. Roanoke might be the best American Horror Story has to offer in a long while.
True crime was all the rage this year and peaked with The People V. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, the unexpectedly exhilarating dramatization of the ’90s’ biggest court case. Ryan Murphy was involved in it, oddly enough, and it’s not really surprising that he capitalised upon the resurgence of the true crime genre when crafting the sixth season of American Horror Story.
For the first half of its run Roanoke presents as a docudrama, following the lives of Matt and Shelby Miller, two L.A. yuppies who uproot to an eerie mansion in rural North Carolina, where they discover paranormal goings-on. The Millers are ‘real’ people and while the series spends most of its time concentrating on the dramatic re-enactment of their stay at the manor (where the pair are played by Cuba Gooding Jr. and Sarah Paulson), Roanoke often cuts away to talking heads of the real Matt and Shelby (André Holland and Lily Rabe). It’s an approach American Horror Story hasn’t taken before and Roanoke immediately feels like something new. Changing the genre and the way the show is shot is the perfect way to really establish a fresh tone, and since it’s not relying on grotesquerie, as seasons three to five did, it’s a genuine breath of fresh air.
When you compare Hotel and Roanoke’s premieres the contrast in quality is clear. In one, you have Schmidt from New Girl being violently raped with a drill-bit dildo by a goblin that lives inside a bed. In the other you have a creepy, slow-burning chiller with shades of The Blair Witch Project and plenty of questions in need of answers. American Horror Story is at its best when it reels it in and Roanoke is its most subdued run since Asylum.
The documentary format is a huge asset to Roanoke because it allows for narration, something extremely useful in a show like American Horror Story, which has a sometimes baffling narrative. It allows for explanations in the most organic way possible, with lots of room for the characters to explain their thoughts and feelings. The glossy, filmic re-enactment clearly diverges from what actually happened so there’s conflicting accounts from the real Matt and Shelby, and plenty of unreliable narration. Additionally, the writers somehow got noted historian Doris Kearns Goodwin to appear as herself, delivering some well-written, atmospheric lies about the Roanoke house.
There’s always been a distinct staginess to American Horror Story and the exaggerated documentary format is a great fit. The characters can have unrealistic reactions to things, fall foul of common horror movie tropes like investigating eerie lights in the woods and thuds in the basement, and rely on conveniences. My Roanoke Nightmare, the program that dramatizes Matt and Shelby’s experience in the house, is designed like a horror movie and the first five episodes of Roanoke are, more or less, a self-contained narrative. It would be considered predictable – Matt, Shelby and his sister, Lee manage to escape the house – if, initially, it wasn’t so hard to get your head around. Clearly, Roanoke had to move past the dramatic re-enactment, which could never sustain ten episodes, but how they were going to do it was the real puzzler.
My Roanoke Nightmare was terrific, Paulson and Gooding Jr. sold every moment of Matt and Shelby’s despair, and the series was enlivened by other American Horror Story alum dropping in. As the Butcher, a cleaver-wielding cult leader, Kathy Bates represented the forces of evil hoping to evict the Millers from their house. The Butcher’s armistice with the cannibalistic locals, the Polks, allowed for the wonderful Frances Conroy to pop up as a grubby hillbilly matriarch. Had My Roanoke Nightmare been the entire season it would have been great, an engaging, exciting mini-thriller with a coherent narrative. But, of course, conventionality has never been American Horror Story’s bedfellow.
In “Chapter 6“ (even the simple, stripped-down episode titles add to the grounded feel of Roanoke), we are introduced to Sidney Aaron James, an appropriately amoral, silver-tongued reality TV producer. He is the man responsible for My Roanoke Nightmare, which, like The People V. O.J. Simpson, became a ratings magnet and caused the show to go viral. The dramatic shift from the plight of Gooding Jr. and Paulson’s Millers to the “real” world was predictably well-handled, showing Roanoke to be a finely-calibrated beast. Those who feared the sixth season would descend into nonsense again were proved wrong – My Roanoke Nightmare was deliberately pulpy in parts and pulling back the curtain to reveal the behind-the-scenes affairs of the show was a terrific move, showing that there is a lot more to this story than first meets the eye.
So much of the storytelling in American Horror Story: Roanoke feels organic and we’re back to the Murder House stage where the twists aren’t ludicrous or contrived, and there are some genuinely sympathetic characters. As such, when Roanoke enters the real world its reasoning for returning to the house feels rock-solid. Sidney, being a savvy businessman keen on taking advantage of My Roanoke Nightmare’s success, gets another reality show, Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell, greenlit but rather than construct another narrative it’s more like spooky Big Brother. And so the cast of My Roanoke Nightmare are made to live with their real-life counterparts while Sidney films their reactions to some carefully orchestrated scares.
The rejigged narrative is just as compelling as the faux-Millers’ struggle, benefitting from an expanded cast and some much-needed humour. Paulson is especially great value as the plummy English thesp who played Shelby, mining all the comedic potential of her character’s “Dick Van Dyke from Mary Poppins“ accent (“I’m not an American, I’m not used to this carnage,” she shrieks upon the discovery of a corpse in the most recent episode). There’s also something darkly funny about Kathy Bates’ Agnes Mary Winstead, the delusional actress who played the Butcher. Before being Negan-ed by the real Butcher in “Chapter 7,” Winstead was on a killing spree through the Return to Roanoke set, seeking vengeance on Sidney and the production team for dropping her after My Roanoke Nightmare.
The dynamic within the Roanoke house is partly what makes the second half of the season so entertaining. Paulson’s Audrey enters the house newly married to Evan Peters’ Rory (who played a wonderful jumped-up aristocrat in My Roanoke Nightmare) and was still sensitive to criticism of their unorthodox age gap relationship, often voicing her thoughts in Return to Roanoke’s Big Brother-style diary room (smoothly replacing the talking head segments). The relationship between the real Matt and Shelby and the fictional Matt was deeply toxic. Shelby leaving Matt for the actor who played him was a particularly nasty twist in American Horror Story’s show-within-a-show format and it led for some heated, uncomfortable scenes. In “Chapter 7” Dominic, Matt’s actor, addressed the love triangle head on, acknowledging that Sidney put him in the house to create juicy melodrama and, consequently, trending hashtags and a spike in ratings. The second half of Roanoke has been a bitter send-up of reality TV amongst other things and Sidney, before his untimely, unexpected death at the hands of Agnes, bordered on caricature at times. But Cheyenne Jackson’s annoyingly charismatic performance endeared us to his character in a way few other actors could achieve. Sidney was a man who was just incredibly good at his job, lying and cheating his cast, but all with the desire to entertain millions, and secure himself a meaty paycheque.
American Horror Story doing Big Brother is as brilliant as it sounds but everything is never quite that simple. We discover almost as soon as the cameras start rolling on Return to Roanoke that we’re not just watching real life people interact, we’re watching a snuff film. An onscreen caption informs us that everyone involved in the show dies save for one survivor, and that gives the soapy melodrama a real edge.
It’s typical American Horror Story in that it’s a dark move for the show but it’s not preposterous, something Freak Show and Hotel’s twists were guilty of. “Chapter 6” ends with Evan Peters’ character being the first for the chop – oh, Rory, we hardly knew ye – and it seemed like American Horror Story was going to go the way of a slasher and have everyone involved in Return to Roanoke picked off one by one. In “Chapter 7“ Roanoke defied expectations once again by dramatically raising the body-count and scattering its characters: Shelby killed Matt; Audrey, Lee and Lee’s actress, Monet, were abducted by the Polks where Lee was skinned alive and fed to Audrey and Monet; Agnes was killed by the real Butcher; the entire on-set production team were murdered.
One of the big questions that needs to be answered or, at least, some light has to be shed onto it: Lady Gaga’s Scáthach, the Enchantress-like woodland witch Matt was hexed by. Scáthach has been, effectively, Roanoke’s big bad, lingering the trees and making cameos every few episodes. Ryan Murphy has already hinted at her origins, outright confirming that she is the original Supreme, a thread explored in Coven. He also explained that Scáthach will be back to have her wicked way with another unsuspecting man in future seasons of American Horror Story. However, the impact the witch will have on Roanoke’s characters remains to be seen. One popular suggestion is that Taissa Farmiga, a fan favourite who is set to return after her excellent performances in Murder House and Coven, is playing the real Scáthach (after all, Lady Gaga was only the actress in My Roanoke Nightmare). Will Farmiga be connected to her? Likewise, will Matt Bomer who is also making a reappearance this season?
In its last three episodes American Horror Story: Roanoke is going to have to find a way to tie everything up and put a bow on it. Each week it impresses, taking an increasingly left-field but – importantly – never indulgently unconventional approach. It has delivered literally two shows in one, both equally entertaining and it’s proved that with a comprehensible, engaging narrative and a clear story arc, American Horror Story can be truly incredible television. I’m over the blood moon.