Given its annual reboot, I felt comfortable leaping in to the third season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology series American Horror Story with no prior experience of the show. I had been a fair-weather fan of Murphy and Falchuk’s Glee, which seemed to alternate heavy-handed, preachy treacle (bullying is bad, guys!) with moments of delightful teen spirit. Glee had felt schizophrenic; American Horror Story is gleefully (no pun intended), anarchically messy. In its storytelling, its acting, and its directing, American Horror is an ode to excess.
Most quality television seeks order. Shows like Breaking Bad and Boardwalk Empire drop careful hints like a teacher preparing students for a pop quiz, and then later call attention to those clues, rewarding our devotion. American Horror Story is, in comparison, a splatter painting, its virtues to be found in its lustful overindulgence.
The camera cants sideways, swizzles upside down, rockets around rooms, bulges in fish-eye gawp. The plot wanders in every direction, scattering to the far corners of its resident creepy New Orleans mansion in search of diversion. Even the sound mix, all tribal drums and spooky echoes, underscores the aura of elegantly accented doom. This is everything-and-the-kitchen-sink television, with Murphy and Falchuk constantly remodeling their crumbling manse just to have another kitchen sink to toss in our general direction.
A brief recap: Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) is shipped off by her family to a New Orleans witches’ academy after a disastrous sexual encounter results in a boy’s death. There, she encounters a small coterie of witches-in-training, including bad-girl movie star Madison (Emma Roberts), who enjoys wielding her considerable powers against drunken frat boys and overprotective mothers a trifle too much, and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe of Precious). The school is run by the ineffectual, bumbling Cordelia (Sarah Paulson), who is bossed around in turn by her domineering mother Fiona (Jessica Lange), the Supreme of their coterie.
Meanwhile, trouble is brewing with the witches’ traditional rivals across town, led by the voodoo-practicing Marie Leveau (Angela Bassett), who pounds on drums and slices open snakes to summon her witchy powers. The show’s joys, such as they are, are to be found in its profound lack of subtlety. And I, for one, am glad of it. American Horror Story is hardly the stuff of classic television, but it is highly watchable in large part because of its trashy, campy aesthetic.
American Horror Story is, at heart, about the varieties of female power: emotional, sexual, extrasensory. The potential of developing extraordinary powers—the drapes set on fire and attackers slammed against distant walls and rapists literally done to death— are less terrifying portent than promising indications of burgeoning strength. We may not like the hard-ass Fiona, reluctant to the point of murder to give up her authority, but American Horror Story respects her steely authority.
It is a series in which men are an afterthought, present as occasional victimizers and regular eye-candy and little more. Interestingly for a show created by two men, it is perhaps television’s foremost exemplar of the female gaze: the pileup of shirtless men is practically Game of Thrones-ian in its gender-inverted gratuitousness.
Turning our perceptions of which gender should occupy the foreground, and which the background, inside out, American Horror Story proceeds to direct its attention to the past. American history, and particularly Southern history, is on display here, if foreshortened and trimmed for the needs of this show about zombie lynching victims and hairdressers with superpowers and butlers who slice out their own tongues for love. This is pulp history to match the show’s pulp fiction, with the past—particularly the unsettled racial traumas of the past—literally haunting the present. There are echoes of Emmett Till in the most recent installation, “Fearful Pranks Ensue,” and an implication that the sleeping ghosts of the past will not be made to lie still. What we get a glimpse of, in this Halloween-themed episode, is like Michael Jackson’s Thriller video relocated to Louisiana and infected with the rage of historical helplessness.
In the show’s most intriguing subplot, supremely evil 19th-century society hostess Delphine LaLaurie (Kathy Bates, swallowing the scenery whole without bothering to chew first) is buried alive, and reemerges in 2013 after Fiona disinters her, none the worse for wear. The topsy-turvy 21st century discomfits her terribly; she sits in front of the television, shaking, insisting that the “magic box” that shows a black man as president of the United States must be deceiving her. Delphine’s reign of terror had culminated in gruesomely forcing one of her slaves to don a bull’s head as punishment for some perceived crime. The bull-man returns, seemingly intent on killing Delphine, and is only put off by the sacrifice—sexually curious, self-serving, but sacrifice nonetheless—made by Queenie to put herself inbetween Delphine and her fate. History may be an insomniac, never quite willing to succumb to eternal sleep, but sometimes we can change the plot of the story we thought we knew only too well.