'American Horror Story' recap: Signs point to a show-within-a-show mystery

For The Baltimore Sun
'American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare:' Is there a show-within-a-show mystery?

"American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare" expanded its scope beyond a simple haunted house tale this week. The supposed “documentary” seems to be adding increasingly fantastical elements to its story, and this week we get a some psychic, some revisionist American history and what appears to be straight-up magic.

Chapter 3 opens with the continuing search for Lee’s missing daughter Flora. They’ve called the police and a manhunt is mobilized, complete with bloodhounds and volunteers to comb the apparently endless forest surrounding the Millers’ house. Everyone’s anxious, because the longer Flora is missing, the higher the chance that she’ll turn up dead.

Lee, Matt and Shelby stumble upon a heretofore-unknown ramshackle farmhouse deep in the woods. That supposedly no one knew about before, since it seems like roughly a dozen undiscovered creepy homes of various sizes just exist out there. (How did these people not have every inch of this property and the surrounding area searched the instant scary stuff started happening? Do they not watch horror movies? Or "America’s Most Wanted"?) Anyway, the house is empty, but it’s completely disgusting – full of flies, rotting meat and human refuse everywhere. In the dilapidated barn out back, they discover two teen boys, incoherent and covered in filth, suckling a pig that may or may not be alive. It’s SUPER disgusting, and a great reminder that just because the first two episodes of this season featured more traditional scares, that doesn’t mean we’re not still watching the grossest show on television.  Yuck.

The Millers call the cops – and hopefully child protective services – in the hopes these boys can tell them what happened to Flora.  But the only word they seem capable of saying is “Croatoan” repeatedly, which is something we’re going to be hearing a lot this episode.  Now that Flora’s been officially missing for over 72 hours, people start fearing that what they should really be doing is searching for a body. Of course that’s when Lee’s aggressive ex Mason swoops in, furious that Lee basically kidnapped their child and then lost her.  The two argue, and Mason accuses his ex of staging the whole thing, in some kind of crazy attempt to steal Flora forever. He even becomes physically violent at one point, and when Matt and Shelby intervene, he storms off.

Mason’s body is discovered later that night. He’s been burned almost beyond recognition and strung up on a wooden circle. Everyone is upset. Everyone gets even more upset when Matt’s surveillance system shows that Lee followed Mason out about 15 minutes after he left earlier, and didn’t return for four hours.  This is enough for Shelby, who now completely thinks Lee murdered her ex. Lee’s mad that Shelby suspects her, while Matt defends his sister, and insists that he trusts her.

Straight into the midst of all this drama steps “AHS: Coven.”  Sort of, anyway – as suddenly, Leslie Jones appears in the Millers’ foyer. Jones played Quentin Fleming, who was an author and member of the Witches’ Council, on “Coven."  Jones' “AHS: Roanoke” character is named Cricket Marlowe, who claims he was summoned to find the missing girl. But he goes on for a bit about being from New Orleans, so it certainly seems possible that Quentin and Cricket share some kind of connection, or at the very least have crossed paths. Anyway, Cricket picks up a “presence” in the house, and goes straight to the cupboard Flora once hid in. Inside is an old-timey bonnet.  Cricket says that Priscilla has Flora, and Lee has to take a minute to absorb the fact that Priscilla isn’t her daughter’s imaginary friend, but the ghost of a girl who died in the late 1500s.

The Millers agree to let Cricket contact the spirits of the house. But when he places his spiritual call to the afterlife, something else answers. This disembodied voice of Kathy Bates calls herself the Butcher and declares that she protects the land. She admits that if she had Flora, she’d have flayed her already, but stupid Priscilla has taken her outside the boundaries and she isn’t interested in stepping off her land again. Considering that all of this dumb, endless forest seems to be the Butcher’s land, Flora must be in Hilton Head by now.  Over the course of this talk, the Butcher gets angry, and magically blows out all the windows in the room. Cricket starts yelling "Croatoan" over and over again, in what I can only assume is meant to be some kind of version of the spell that the psychic Billie Dean told Violet about way back in “AHS: Murder House.” The spell is supposed to banish unwanted spirits and it seems to work here, unlike in Season 1. 

After all this, Cricket says that he can definitely find Flora for the Millers, but only if they give him $25,000.  Everyone is shocked, but he claims he’s just providing a service like anyone else. Even the FBI has to pay him, after all. Lee decides to pony up the cash after Cricket proves that he knows about the existence of her first daughter Emily, who also went missing under very mysterious circumstances and was never found. (Lee will definitely not be winning parent of the year anytime soon.) Cricket says they’ll only get Flora back if they understand their enemy, which means it’s time for a flashback.

What’s really interesting about this scene though is that the fourth wall gets broken pretty completely in it. During the interview with Lee about her first missing daughter, she gets pretty upset with the interviewer when he won’t stop asking about Emily.  She stalks off camera and we get a wider shot of the set she’s on. We also, for the first time, hear the voice of the interviewer who’s putting this story together. As viewers, we can’t see the man behind the camera (or at least not yet), but it’s a voice we know – “AHS” regular Evan Peters. This seems to indicate more clearly than ever that the documentary framework of these initial episodes isn’t meant to hold all season. All signs point to some kind of show-within-a-show mystery going on here – who is making this program? What’s their agenda? Can we trust their version of events? And why do they care about this story? At any rate, there’s some kind of reveal coming on this front, I think – after all, you don’t cast Peters to never show his face or give him a storyline of his own.

Back to the Butcher and the “real” story of Roanoke. She was once named Thomasin White and married to the governor of the colony. Her husband left her in charge while he went back to England for more supplies, but the other heads of Roanoke – one of whom is Thomasin’s own son Ambrose – don’t want to listen to her. They banish her and leave her in the woods to die. Joke’s on them though, because Thomasin gets rescued by Lady Gaga. Gaga is dressed like Enchantress from "Suicide Squad," and makes Thomasin swear loyalty and eat a pig heart in trade for her life. Newly empowered, the Butcher returns to Roanoke for some revenge on the men who opposed her. She lets her worthless son Ambrose live though, because he’s played by Wes Bentley and has his name in the show credits.  She decrees the colony will move inland after all – and guess where they go? Yup, the Roanoke colony vanishes right into Matt and Shelby’s backyard.

When the gang heads into the woods that night, looking for Priscilla and Flora, they find the Butcher and her flunkies instead.  Cricket offers up a deal – compel Priscilla to return the girl, and they’ll all just peace out and leave. They’ll even burn the house down to make sure no one ever comes back, an offer that Shelby protests. Apparently for some utterly incomprehensible reason, Shelby’s first priority is not figuring out how soon she can stuff every one of their belongings in the car and drive away from this place as fast as possible. In the midst of this argument, Matt disappears. Shelby finds him further in the woods, blindly having sex with Lady Gaga as two of the mountain men look on. She is suitably horrified. (It’s pretty gross.) When Matt returns to the house, he has no memory of wandering off or what he did while he was gone and doesn’t know anything about sex with a strange woman. Shelby accuses him of trying to gaslight her and calls the cops on Lee, who gets arrested. Matt gives his wife a horrified look as his sister is shoved in a squad car, and the episode ends. Yikes.

Odds and Ends:

  • What is with the pig imagery this season? It’s so pronounced; it has to mean something. It seems possible that this connects somehow to the urban legend of the Piggyman from back in “AHS: Murder House,” but that story originated in Chicago, not North Carolina. The consistent use of pig’s heads and entrails must have some significance though, right?
  • Why does Kathy Bates keep getting stuck doing the absolute weirdest accents on this show? Nowhere near as bad as her “Freak Show” one, thank goodness, but yikes.
  • No sign of Denis O’Hare this week, again. Sigh.
  • The Croatoan spell seems to work for Cricket. Possible evidence that he’s connected to witches or no? But then why were the wild children saying it?

Thoughts, comments, or elaborate theories to share?  Hit me up on Twitter: @LacyMB

 

 

 

 

 

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