This review contains spoilers.
8.6 Return To Murder House
The first season of American Horror Story came out of nowhere. With Jessica Lange in a great grande dame role and promising newcomers like Evan Peters and Taissa Farmiga, the show that would be called Murder House boasted a stacked list of actors, with every role seeming to go to someone either known or unknown but nevertheless gifted. Since then, Ryan Murphy has established his troupe of actors, and viewers have come to know them, but there’s nothing like the first time, and there’s still nothing quite like the first season of American Horror Story.
To be fair, American Horror Story had yet to really find the tone it would establish in later seasons, aside from Constance Langdon’s preternaturally catty attitude. With her, Behold Chablis, and Madison Montgomery on the screen at the same time, the side-eye and sassy comments simply do not stop, even as Constance discusses her biggest failing in life: Michael Langdon. And she’s not the only one who has something to say about the Antichrist: Ben, Tate, Vivian, and all our Murder House friends are back and ready to spill the tea about the fictional world’s greatest monster and all his terrible doings.
The reappearance of Murder House in the opening shot of the episode is a nice reminder of last week’s closing glimpse of the thing, but every time that particular house appears on screen, waves of nostalgia hit. Clearly I’m not the only one who feels that way, because the episode feels both like a love letter to the season that kicked off a mini-empire for Ryan Murphy and a way to push forward just how evil Michael truly is, as if we needed any reminder of that. Being hated by strange witches is one thing, but having your own family talking about how evil someone is carries weight, even in this world.
It goes without saying that Michael is beyond evil. According to Constance, he’s been evil since he was an infant, ripping the wings off flies in the crib before graduating to his first murder as a toddler. Remember that shot of that angelic infant sitting over the dead body of his babysitter? If not, it’s coming back, as one of many murders Michael Langdon committed before spontaneously growing ten years overnight.
And all the while, Constance covered for him, until she felt that her time with him was over, and she went to the house next door to rejoin her family with the help of a handful of pills and a glass of whiskey. The full depths of his depravity are revealed by the various occupants of murder house, with Ben, Vivian, and Tate all making their opinions felt on Michael while a group of Satanists show up to officially welcome their dark leader.
Return To Murder House crackles with energy and wit. Perhaps that’s just my fondness for the first season, and for the actors involved. Dylan McDermott has a great dry wit, dropping references to the now iconic crysturbation scene without even flinching, and his bonding moments where he tries to save Michael from himself are sweet. Jessica Lange slips back into Constance easily, with both the hair and the constant cigarette helping her lean back into the character’s powerful ability to deny the truth without actually losing awareness of the truth.
Ben’s moments are funny, but Constance feels almost tragic. She’s reiterating that she was born to be a mother to monsters, and yet her most perfect children—Tate and Michael—were monsters that she couldn’t redeem, or protect from their own instincts. She sees it, she struggles against it, and even though she tries to put it into a good light, even she can’t succeed at that bit of self delusion. The other returning actor from the first series, Connie Britton, also does a good job wringing emotion out of Vivian’s brief reunion with Ben, mending their broken marriage yet again.
I say yet again because at the end of the first season, I remember the Harmons being a happy family again, but when Madison and Chablis show up, they haven’t spoken in years. Ben continues to provide Tate with daily therapy sessions before retiring to the upstairs to stare out a window and cry while masturbating. Constance drinks and smokes and berates Moira, who is doomed to spend eternity having sex with Constance’s husband in the basement and cleaning in the main house.
They’re trapped, both in the house, and in a loop of their own worst instincts. It’s only through magical intervention, and some shovel work, that the characters find freedom from their loops. (Moira’s happy reunion with her mother brought tears to my eyes, and Madison’s sudden empathy for her and for the star-crossed ghost lovers gives the character just a glimpse of much-needed depth.)
However, Crystal Liu’s script is more than just the reappearance of familiar characters, but a familiarity in terms of tone. The first season was full of references to classic horror movies, and this return to Murder House is no exception: Madison Montgomery’s final line before the first commercial break is a riff on the classic Bette Davis line, “What a dump.”
During the Satanic sacrifice led by Anton LaVey (Carlo Rota), Naomi Grossman’s wide-eyed Satanist directly references The Omen before plunging a dagger into a kidnapped woman’s stomach, O Fortuna blaring on the soundtrack behind them. The story moves forward, and yet the ghosts of Murder House seem to finally get a happy ending, though Chablis and Madison are quick to point out that if they don’t stop Michael, no one will get a happy ending.
It’s a great episode that does more than trade on nostalgia. Certainly, director Sarah Paulson leans a lot on the first season’s tropes, like heavy use of Dutch angles, but she makes the episode her own. There are a couple of wonderful sequences, like Moira’s final walk into the fog with her mother, that are really well executed. There’s also a brilliant crane shot, and a great trunk shot of Madison and Chablis looking down at Moira’s bones.
The last shot of Tate and Violent, which pulls back through the window to show the two together, is simply lovely. Clearly, Paulson has enough visual flair for something like this, and knows when to apply style and when to go more straight forward with her shot selection. She also clearly has a good handle on the actors, since she is one and has worked with most of these people for the better part of a decade now. It’s a confident, skillful debut, and hopefully it leads to more work behind the camera for Paulson, who has a knack for it.
Return To Murder House is more than just a return to a location, or revisiting characters. It feels like something of a return to form. The season has been very impressive, and a lot of fun to boot. The shorter episode order seems to be beneficial to the pace of the show, and the merged seasons has given Apocalypse the best parts of both Murder House and Coven, with horror, weirdness, and wit in equal measure.
Read Ron’s review of the previous episode, Boy Wonder, here.