For a series with no qualms about killing its darlings, this season of American Horror Story has had a built-in and nearly fatal flaw. We’ve known all along that the main cast—the three storyteller leads and their re-enactment doppelgängers—were going to survive, because they were depicting events that had already happened.
No stakes = no suspense = boring horror story.
I got through the first five episodes of this 10-episode season largely because creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk said in an EW interview that the first half of the season was an elaborate construct that would pay off in the back half of the season.
So did last night’s Episode 6 deliver? I don’t know yet—I’m still a little woozy from the whips and turns even after watching it a second time—but the Magic 8-Ball answer would fall somewhere between “SIGNS POINT TO YES” and “REPLY HAZY TRY AGAIN.” After last season’s mostly terrible AHS: Hotel and this season’s shaky start, that is definitely progress.
The episode does make some things clear: This season of the actual FX series is called AHS: Roanoke. The My Roanoke Nightmare show-within-the-show was, as most people expected, a docuseries that aired on TV, and it was a smashing success. A helpful title card actually said so:
Ep. 6 opens with sleazy producer Sidney Aaron James (Cheyenne Jackson) pitching a follow-up series called Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell that would take the principals, and the actors who played them, back to the creepy house in Roanoke for a Big Brother-style reality show. By the end of the episode, it’s clear that all the crazy shit we learned in My Roanoke Nightmare—the Blood Moon, Mr. Piggy, the Butcher, the Murder Twins—is true.
The episode had a sense of frenzy and mischief that was almost wholly absent during the first half of the season, and most of that came in the form of the ridiculous backstories we got for the actors who starred in the re-enactment.
The actress who played wife Shelby is actually a giggly free spirit named Audrey Tindell that the real-life Sarah Paulson plays with energetic delight and a deliberately awful English accent. The actor who played Edward Mott—the 16th-century gent in the powdered wig who got impaled with a tree trunk and burned alive in the last episode—gets an equal dose of charm from Evan Peters as a bro-tastic American doofus with Bozo-red hair named Rory Monnaghan. Audrey and Rory are recently married, which was a deep bow by AHS to longtime fans who have seen Paulson and Peters in every season of the series but never as a couple.
Kathy Bates, Emmy-nominated the last three seasons and a winner for AHS: Coven, probably earned another one for this episode. She was already the best thing about this season in her role as the Butcher, and this week we learn that she’s a mild-mannered actress named Agnes Mary Winstead who went a little too deep into the part. And by a little too deep, I mean she went went stark-raving cuckoo, waved an actual axe at a crowd of people, stalked Sarah Paulson’s Audrey and spent six months in a psychiatric facility. She’s all better now except oh hell no she is definitely not better now.
Creator Ryan Murphy finally gets a recognizable AHS surrogate in the form of Cheyenne Jackson’s amoral, devil-may-care, series-within-the-series producer Sidney Aaron James, who made a hit series and walked right into that executive suite, demanded more episodes and a bigger fee for Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell, and got everything he wanted. It will unravel in spectacular fashion, of course, and that’s the subtle self-mocking that comes off in the episode more as a boast by one of the most successful producers working in TV today.
We also got some marching orders for how the remaining episodes will unfold in the form of another helpful title card:
AHS: Roanoke is an interesting commentary on where TV is and where producers Murphy and Falchuk see it headed. “People want the reality,” Cheyenne Jackson’s Murphy alter ego says while pitching Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell. He says the exploding windows and other gimmicks he has planned are not (or not entirely) to amp up the scare factor but to freak out Lee Harris (played by Adina Porter) enough to confess to killing her ex-husband and concocting the ghost story as an explanation.
Murphy is right: People do want reality. He served it up in heaping scoops with The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story, is shooting a second installment now about Hurricane Katrina and just announced a third, about the murder of Gianni Versace, who was killed by a serial killer in 1997. He is intensely interested in the interplay of art and life, the retelling of events we know but could come to understand in a different way, and the concept of art as a mechanism for revealing deeper truth.
I suspect Cheyenne Jackson’s Sidney Aaron James character is a nod to Neve Campbell’s Sidney Prescott in the Scream films, another self-aware mystery/horror series with darkly comedic notes. Prescott survives the Ghostface serial killings in Scream (1996) only to get pulled back into that world in in Scream 2 (1997) when the making of a film-within-the-film about her experience becomes its own mystery/horror story.
Sidney Aaron James could also be a nod to Sidney Aaron Randall, a 20-year-old awaiting trial for the bizarre 2015 murder of a Texas man with cerebral palsy. Maybe Murphy thinks it would make a great series, or maybe the name just stuck in his head.
What is clear is that AHS: Roanoke is a permutation of scripted and reality that we haven’t seen before, and the suspense that was frozen out of the first five episodes is now free to max all the way out. The final four episodes figure to be a high-wire act with a big, bloody finish.