This American Horror Story review contains spoilers.
American Horror Story: Apocalypse Season 8 Episode 3
American Horror Story‘s style of limited series has become one of the more influential aspects of the program. Unlike other countries, there aren’t a lot of special event programs in the United States. If something is successful, a network tends to run it into the ground, regardless of whether or not there’s enough material to justify another set of episodes involving those characters or their setting. Now, thanks to the success of American Horror Story, lots of other properties are getting single-season runs, oftentimes under a catch-all banner like American Crime Story or True Detective. Now, it’s doing something else new, crossing over two of its own anthologies in some sort of hybrid third story of witches and ghosts and the end of the world, and I am fully on board for this.
So far, aside from a mention of genetic perfection, there hasn’t been much of a tie-in to the world of the witches (or to the ghosts, for the matter, aside from Michael Langdon’s presence). However, that connection was made more openly this week, after a solid episode which featured some very impressive visual trickery from director Loni Peristere. From the cold opening to the surprise at the end, “Forbidden Fruit” is one of the most impressive editorial feats of the entire series, let alone this season.
The cold open, which starts with Michael Langdon closing the doors to his interview room, is mostly just a montage, but it’s edited together not with music, but with dialog cues. Timothy and Emily thank him for saving their lives, then we smash to Mr. Gallant talking about murdering his grandmother. He’s reassured, then Michael mentions his talent for peering into the darkness of someone’s soul while talking to Mallory. We linger there for a bit, but a mention of Coco’s helplessness leads directly to Coco confessing that she’s been trying to fire Mallory for years, adding to the codependency of that relationship. Michael dismissing Coco as being too shallow leans right into Dinah’s interview, and so on. It’s a really clever bit of television, jumping from character to character and conversation to conversation to keep the viewer from ever really getting a solid hold on just what Michael’s opinion of the survivors might be.
It’s also a great showcase for Manny Coto’s script. It’s full of amusing turns of phrases and little zingers, and the episode is structured mostly to serve the script, albeit with an excess of panache. Coco’s interactions, with Michael, Mallory, and a surprising return from Brock, fit Michael’s description of her. She’s not deep enough to have any darkness within her; Coco is just Coco, vain and petty and selfish (also hilarious). Mallory, on the other hand, is a girl with some deep, dark secrets inside her. Secrets she might not even be aware of, and those secrets come with powers.
In another visual stand-out, Mallory and Michael’s interview goes from standard to something out of a Brian DePalma movie. It’s stark, blood-red backdrop with Mallory usually shot by herself, framed in the middle of the screen. There are right close-ups of her face, cuts to her eyes, and the music becomes downright dangerous in its evocation of Carrie. When Michael pulls off the first surprise, lunging at Mallory with his face distorted into a demonic mask, he finds Mallory is able to push back, and how, with fire and a violent psychic outburst. In the words of Michael, she’s one of them, and they’re supposed to be all dead…
As it turns out, everyone in the building will soon be dead, thanks to Venable’s clever plan of poisoning a shipment of apples that arrived from the Sanctuary and a makeshift Victorian-style Halloween party. It’s a lot of fun—I especially enjoy Coco’s Marie Antoinette with hair like the Eiffel Tower—and it ties in nicely with the importance of the holiday in Mead’s life. Her back story is told in a very fun way, via Halloween montage, starting with her childhood as Rosie the robot maid (very clever) and a gropy first date through to her adventures as a Mossad agent hunting down terrorists before becoming the person, well, robot, that she is today. She has strong memories, memories from a human life, but she also has programming. That doesn’t really change Kathy Bates’ performance, but it does give her a lot of work to do finding that line between robot and robot with human memories. Bates handles this with aplomb, unsurprisingly.
Again, it’s style over substance, but there’s still substance to be had. Mead has such strong memories of her time as a human that her response to discovering her cybernetic nature is very effective; it makes her devotion to Venable more reasonable (she’s programmed to do it) while also making her reunification with Michael, who she raised when he was a child when she was a human, all the more touching. He loved her so much that he had her recreated, and had her memories restored to give her functional immortality.
There must be some sort of positive emotion in Michael after all. It’s just not his defining feature. He’s a creative of incalculable cruelty, given just how graphic and unpleasant a death apples poisoned with snake venom turned out to be, but if he’s capable of having love for a former caregiver, then there must be something good within him behind that layer of protective intimidation. Or, as with his interviews, he’s playing on Mead’s emotions to ensure devotion that even programming can’t replicate.
He’s going to need all the help he can get, given who he’s going to be facing off with.