This has been a trying fall for American Horror Story viewers.
What started with so much energy and possibility turned out to be a long series of dramatic shifts and reveals signifying nothing. Millions of viewers dedicated hours of their lives to following every little detail, and the whole thing ended—somehow both unpredictably and with bland banality—in a mess of its own bloodied parts.
Wednesday night’s season finale began with another positional shift and, as it turned out, a flashback to happier times. My Roanoke Nightmare, the docuseries with vivid reenactments that we watched through the first five episodes of the season, has become a phenomenon, and the full cast is on stage at a fan event.
One of the big stars at the event is the flighty English actress Audrey Tindall (Sarah Paulson), who played the “fictional” Shelby Miller in the reenactment portions of My Roanoke Nightmare (which turned out to be the show within the show, or, more specifically, the first of numerous shows within the show). Paulson actually played two characters in this episode of American Horror Story: Roanoke—which we thought for several episodes this season was called American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare.
Her other character in the episode was Lana Winters, the lock-jawed host of The Lana Winters Special (another show within the show introduced for the first time in the season finale), who had been a character in American Horror Story: Asylum. Paulson had previously played a medium named Billie Dean Howard in American Horror Story: Murder House (which was actually called, simply, American Horror Story but was unofficially retitled after the fact to distinguish it from later seasons) who foretold the whole My Roanoke Nightmare backstory in that first season.
If that all sounds unnecessarily confusing and precious for a TV series, then you’re not watching like a superfan—that diehard breed of TV viewer who inhales recaps, Reddit threads, cast interviews and podcasts and goes to fan events like the one at the beginning of last night’s episode.
For everyone else—for those of us who just watch the show and maybe read a piece or two online the next morning—this season has been a solipsistic, self-indulgent commentary on TV culture and another log on the fire that American Horror Story is using to burn itself at the stake. The show has gone all-in on the idea that success today is defined in terms of brand impressions—repeat viewing, social-media discussion—and that the surefire way to drive up those impressions is to overdeliver on shocks and fan-theory fodder.
Last season, Hotel did that by casting social-media superhero Lady Gaga as a glampire version of herself and going big on lavish set-pieces and cinematic murders. Two seasons ago, Freak Show did it with stunts like a two-headed Sarah Paulson, a three-breasted Angela Bassett and a bearded Kathy Bates.
This season, the manufactured shocks and theory-baiting storylines have come from wild trans-genre leaps, like a not-very-funny (or at least not intentionally funny) episode of Kroll Show. The show started as a docuseries and revealed itself midway through the season to have famous “actors” in that docuseries. Episode 6 pulled back the curtain and showed Cheyenne Jackson as the Hollywood producer of My Roanoke Nightmare already at work on a sequel that would put the real people and the actors who played them in a reality series. The whole episode was fun and exciting, a clever commentary on reality and authenticity as conceptual frameworks that have real power to engage viewers—even when they manipulate viewers, and even when the viewers know they’re being manipulated.
Episodes 7, 8 and 9 played like a classic found-footage horror film, and it largely succeeded on that basis. The suspense was tight, the show stayed within the Blood Moon ghost story rules it had established for itself, and the series seemed to have course-corrected from the two previous seasons, which meandered toward their endings with too many episodes to fill up followed by lame, unsatisfying finales. Roanoke would have been my favorite season of the series if it had just ended after Episode 9 with Lee Harris (a never-better Adina Porter) as the lone survivor.
Where previous season finales had simply failed to bring together quality ingredients, Roanoke just kept adding mustard until the whole thing became inedible. The season morphs into a true-crime show called Crack’d—as in “crack’d the case”—that shows portions of Lee Harris’s criminal trial and ultimate acquittal with heavy overtones of The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story (produced, like AHS, by Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk) that American Horror Story simply didn’t need. Then The Lana Winters Special interview with Lee Harris. Then Spirit Chasers, yet another new show within the show, to get a new batch of people back to the haunted mansion for another Blood Moon.
The whole exercise was an inversion of that old design axiom: Always remove one accessory. The design approach for TV that fuels itself with social media is to just keep adding.