“American Horror Story: Roanoke” recap (6.1): Southern Hospitality

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Hello, and welcome to the sixth season of American Horror Story, and to my improbable fifth season of recapping it. AHS is both one of the most surprising and most predictable shows on television and every season I struggle with how much of my critical attention to give it. Its surprising qualities include the fact that it continues to score massive ratings and armfuls of Emmys, the remarkable performances of its remarkable actors, its continual desire to one-up its previous displays of gore, and its occasional flashes of insight of which great horror is sometimes capable that reveal something about human nature and society in the form of our deepest fears.

On the other hand, every season of AHS follows an exhaustingly familiar arc. There are the first few episodes where you learn the rules of the new season, the next few when the pace slows and scope widens enough to allow for some real fun, and the last few, when the writers haphazardly try to stuff all the blood and guts back inside the patient. It is, unfailingly, a mess, but the ratings and the awards and the seriousness with which my fellow critics treat this show means it has little incentive to improve upon its formula.

And that means that we too must consider it with some seriousness. When I am asked (and I always am at least once a season) why I recap this show, my first answer is that it’s my job, and I have a serious addiction to lime-flavored La Croix that needs funding. But my second answer is that, for better or for worse, American Horror Story is a significant artifact in queer culture. Nearly every season, both queerness and gender dynamics are major themes, and the show is, of course, run by Ryan Murphy, who society has seen fit to hand one of the largest megaphones in all queerdom. I don’t find that position to be particularly well-deserved, but that’s all the more reason for dissenting voices within the queer community to offer criticism (and occasional praise; I love me some Sarah Paulson and Lady Gaga).

All that being said, I must confess that my dominant impression of American Horror Story: Roanoke was surprise, which, of course, is a double-edged sword. Tonally, it lacked the garish, gleeful, campiness that made Hotel and Freak Show so much fun; there was none of that immediate invitation for the audience to get in on the gory thrills. No, this episode, like the mysterious publicity leading up to it, kept the audience’s understanding at arm’s length. Whether that shift will be an asset or a liability remains to be seen.

Roanoke (presumably the entire season, which could get tiresome) is framed by an imaginary television show: My Roanoke Nightmare. Like many true crime shows, it relies on a mix of interviews with the people involved and re-enactments by actors. Unlike true crime shows, the re-enactors are Oscar winners and not porn stars giving their sphincters a vacation.

ahs1.1THE REAL AMERICAN CRIME STORY IS THAT I DIDN’T GET BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS FOR “CAROL.”

Our story concerns Matt and Shelby, an interracial married couple who claim to be nearly perfectly happy. Shelby played in the onscreen testimonials by Lily Rabe and in the re-enactment by Sarah Paulson. They are both perfect human beings, and you will never hear me criticize either one of them. Matt, meanwhile, is Andre Holland (who is soooo good on the criminally under-watched The Knick) in real life and is played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (who America has finally forgiven for Snow Dogs). The device of having two versions of the story, one narrated to you by “real people” speaking at a camera, one acted out before your eyes, presents viewers with two narratives that usually overlap but occasionally diverge, either in tone or content. (The best example is when Shelby loses her baby and the narration tells us it’s stress, but the re-enactment makes it look like the price exacted for Matt’s recovery. It’s a neat trick, but whether it will serve as more than an excuse to stuff the credits with as many of Murphy’s favorite names as possible remains to be seen.

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