This review contains spoilers.
With every episode of Roanoke, I’m again struck by the way it does such a great job of aping the source material which inspires the framing device for the horror show. For instance, take the show’s opening. We get a little blink of the television rating warning for American Horror Story, and then we’re thrown directly into the world of My Roanoke Nightmare. Specifically, the thing that caught my attention this week is the cold opening. It’s little bits of re-enactment, little bits of talking head, little glimpses of the events to come as an amuse bouche, which is a staple of every cable TV ghost show, because otherwise people might not stick around to watch the episode.
American Horror Story probably doesn’t have this problem, especially five episodes into the season, but it’s a nice tradition the show’s technical crew honours. This continues down to the editing before commercial breaks. It doesn’t just drop out with an American Horror Story stinger, they continue to maintain the fiction by leaving the re-enactment at a crucial point, cutting to a talking head who says something cryptic, and then we get the My Roanoke Nightmare bumper. It’s a little thing that they’re done, but they’re doing it consistently, and it helps maintain the immersion.
Even the appearance of Evan Peters as a distant ancestor of Dandy Mott doesn’t break that illusion, thanks in no small part to a very special guest. Edward Mott (Peters) has been mentioned as the home’s original occupant, and this week we see just how it was built by Mott, and to what end. He’s a social phobic and a collector of fine art, so he builds a giant house out in the middle of nowhere to house his artwork and be away from the Philadelphia party scene. Of course, he’s also involved in a long-term love affair with his servant (possibly slave) Guinness (Henderson Wade).
This story, which ends with Mott disappearing, Guinness arrested, and the house’s servants being imprisoned and left for dead in the root cellar Elias later moves into, is told to the viewer by none other than Doris Kearns Goodwin (who also appeared on an episode of The Simpsons this very same week). She’s a nice addition to the show; these sorts of programmes often have experts talking about the history of a place, but she’s probably a little high profile to be on any old ghost show—unless it’s a very popular one, which adds a little credence to the idea that it might be a Billie Howard joint in the making. She’s no great actress, but as a historian, she provides a lot of useful exposition and handles Akela Cooper’s script well enough (her one big line, about not wanting to stay the night in the Roanoke house, lands).
The use of the talking heads also adds some tension to the episodes, which already have some very tense moments. The most effective are the inter-cutting between talking head segments and the final confrontation between Matt and Shelby and the Butcher’s band of murderous colonists. After Matt and Shelby are terrorised by the Butcher and Flora is stolen away by some sort of scuttling monster, the three of them are herded down into the basement by the shot-up hunters and Pigman only to be saved by a very strange person: the servant-murdering ghost of Edward Mott, who has a very interesting reason for saving the lives of others: he’s really tired of having other ghosts hanging around.
Of course, he’s not the only one with a problem with the Butcher, as we find out. Ambrose turns on his mother, right as Lee shows up following her 48-hour hold at the police station. The Polk family, particularly Mother Polk (Frances Conroy) are there to help keep the ghosts happy and keep their spot on the land—the Polks made a deal with the Butcher two hundred years ago and have been keeping up their end of the bargain—and after Mott sends Matt and Shelby off to the forests and potential freedom, the Polks bring them right back to the Butcher (after a brief detour to eat jerky made from the still-living Elias, then to murder Elias for being rancid-tasting meat).
Cinematographer Nelson Cragg seems like he’s having fun with the gorier aspects of the production, particularly the scene involving Elias and his missing limbs plural. There’s also a really awesome shotgun death that’s a great reminder of the movie Maniac, when during a struggle Matt accidentally causes one of the Polks to murder one of the other Polks. He’s an experienced cinematographer, so everything looks great, except for perhaps the brief delay when Fiona is snatched away from Matt and Shelby. That sequence is a bit muddled and too dark—probably to hide some dodgy CGI—but aside from that, it’s a competent, well-paced episode with some great performances—especially Frances Conroy.
Like most seasons of American Horror Story, this one ends on something of a happy note. Granted, we’re not exactly done with the season—we’re barely halfway through—but from the way the show ends, closing the book on Matt and Shelby’s time in the TV studio, we’re going to be done with that. The story itself can’t be over, though; if anything, we’re going to get some sort of situation where Matt and Shelby—the real life versions—are going to be forced to go back to the house for some sort of séance, or some kind of something. Maybe to rescue the next group of people who move into the house?
I can’t even begin to guess what the next move for Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk will be, but I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of Murder House East. I’m sure we’re going to see a lot of returning characters, too. After all, isn’t Cricket now one of the ghostly group alongside possibly Elias? And might he want some sort of revenge? They both seem like they might be pretty vengeful, and the Blood Moon is approaching again.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Chapter 4, here.