"American Horror Story" is a pretty grisly show. No one should be too surprised by that revelation — it's sort of the promise implicit in its name, after all.
We should expect all the trappings of horror — from straight scares, to copious amounts of blood, to almost every major character probably getting killed before the season is over. But the show generally doesn't feel pointless in its violence and gore. Sure, there's a lot of it, but on some level it feels purposeful. Or at the very least, it serves to move the story along. Not so much in Chapter 8 of "My Roanoke Nightmare."
This is the closest that "Roanoke Nightmare" has come to feeling like a "Saw" movie, stuffed with largely purposeless violence and gore with minimal forward momentum. As an episode, it largely treads water, and for the most part abandons some of the more interesting "reality show" elements in favor of shaky cams and blurry monster footage.
We pick things back up this week with panic in the Big Shaker Mansion. Dominic and Shelby have just watched the real Butcher murder the actress who played Thomasin on their show. They're both pretty terrified that they're going to die. They try to escape through Edward Mott's tunnels again, but they're thwarted by the ghosts of the Asian immigrant family who died in the house. For some unexplained reason, now that they're in ghost form, the Chens can crawl around on the walls like they're in "The Grudge." Why? Probably because it just looks extra creepy like that.
Fleeing back into the house, Shelby declares that they're going to die there. She says she only survived the first time because of Matt. Dominic reminds her that Matt's dead, and the only way they'll survive is if they stick together.
Meanwhile, back over at the house full of hillbilly cannibals, Mama Polk is teaching her son Jether the particulars of slicing and dicing up a person. It's a family tradition, apparently. Back during the Great Depression, everyone was broke, no one had any food, and the only thing that was plentiful was the stream of itinerant hobos who wandered through their property. So the Polks started eating them.
This gives rise to a lot of weird family mythology about how the whole cannibalism thing lets them tap into their true power and it sounds pretty crazy. What's equally crazy is that they're simultaneously busy cauterizing more of Lee's leg and cutting off one of her ears. Gross.
For her part, Lee tries to talk her way to freedom with the promise of reality TV fame. Jether's not really interested in this, but he does offer her some coke to help her take the edge off impending death. Considering the circumstances, we can't fault Lee too much for falling off the wagon.
She also decides that she wants to leave a message for her daughter Flora. Jether helpfully records this for her, and even covers her torn up leg so her daughter won't see it. (This is a strange act of kindness that seems oddly out of place in this moment.) Lee tells Flora how much she loves her, and then confesses to the murder of her father. She claims she killed Mason because he was plotting to take Flora away from her, but she wants her daughter to be able to live knowing the truth.
Jether gets pretty excited — if you know what I mean — by Lee's murder confession, and unfastens her handcuffs so they can get busy. Lee responds by murdering him, which is probably the best thing she has done all season.
Shelby and Dominic are not doing so well back at the mansion. More ghosts have started to manifest themselves, including the Piggy Man and the murderous nurses. The two make the classic horror movie error of running upstairs instead of running out the front door, and barricade themselves in the bathroom. Shelby is in despair, crying again about killing the only man she ever loved. Dominic tries to tell her about all the good things life still has to offer, but Shelby says there's no place left in the world for her. She then slits her own throat. Seriously, how are enough characters going to still be alive to do two more episodes of the show after this??
Elsewhere in the torture house, the other two Polk boys are guarding Audrey and Monet. They're also talking about how they need more teeth, because teeth have some kind of magical protective properties that have to do with the ghosts on their land. Good news: Monet manages to escape while one of them is trying to remove hers. Bad news: That leaves Audrey with Mama Polk, who just starts pulling her teeth instead. Luckily, Lee appears to rescue Audrey before she loses all her expensive dental work, and the Brit manages to beat Mama Polk to death as they escape.
Audrey and Lee make it back to the mansion, and discover the bodies of Matt and Shelby. They also find Dominic, hiding in the bathroom. Lee's devastated over the fates of her brother and sister-in-law, and refuses to believe Dominic when he tells her that Shelby killed both Matt and herself. He insists that the three of them have to stay together to survive, but Lee's not having any of it, and locks him out of their room. She refuses to open the door to him again, even when he's under assault from the Piggy Man, and the girls listen to the sounds of his death as he gets hacked to pieces in the hallway.
Suddenly, it's the next day. And then there were three, assuming that Monet is still alive out in the woods somewhere. Lee decides they have to go back to the Polk farm to retrieve the video that features them killing several people (and also her confessing to a previous murder). Audrey clearly thinks this plan is crazy, and that they would never get in trouble for killing people who were actively trying to eat them. But for some reason, she eventually gives in to Lee's plan, even though she knows it's dumb.
The two women hobble to the front door, only to be confronted, again, by the Piggy Man. Only, surprise, it's not the Piggy Man. It's Wes Bentley, only this time he's playing a dude named Dylan, in a Piggy Man costume. I guess we all have to assume he's still playing the same actor who played Thomasin's son on the "Roanoke Nightmare" docudrama. Has he been there this whole time? Are there other costumed "extras" running around? Finally, at least it looks like we're back to some element of the TV show twist!
One of the things that made the "Big Brother"-esque reality show twist work this season is the self-awareness involved. It's why scenes like Audrey wailing about how she felt like a part of herself died with Shelby are so good. It's the open acknowledgment of the ridiculousness of both the people involved and their situation that makes the back half of this season feel so sly. If that thematic framework is largely abandoned for increasingly gratuitous torture and murder scenes, then, yes, "Roanoke Nightmare" remains a horror show — probably even a very good horror show — but it also sacrifices something that made this season special.
The good news is that the sudden arrival of another obvious cast member means that the show may be course correcting back toward the reality framework this episode largely ignored. Dylan is clearly not one of the real Roanoke ghosts, but it remains to be seen whether he's also just so much additional cannon fodder or not. But either way, he has to be more interesting than spending another half episode in the cannibal house.
Odds and Ends:
- I really didn’t like this episode much — the torture and cannibalism scenes just felt so gratuitous — and it’s been a long time since I felt that way.
- The big piece of "AHS" news this week in the entertainment press was Ryan Murphy’s announcement that Sarah Paulson would be reprising her role as "AHS: Asylum’s" Lana Winters on "My Roanoke Nightmare." This is exciting in that it clearly provides a direct connection between the two seasons, but confusing in the sense that Lana as a character doesn’t exactly fit in the "Roanoke Nightmare" story.
- During Lee’s horrible torture sequence, the Polks tell her a story about one of their relatives, a man named Kincaid who may or may not be the actual Piggy Man referenced by one of Dr. Harmon’s patients in "Murder House." The stories definitely seem connected, but I can’t tell if they’re meant to be the same person. Did someone else maybe figure this out? Am I just forgetting some piece of the original story?
Thoughts, comments, or elaborate theories to share? Hit me up on Twitter: @LacyMB.