AMERICAN HORROR STORY 1×08

"Rubberman"

Sometimes I feel like I'm simply expecting too much from American Horror Story. Yes, it would be nice if the show could manage to follow some kind of internal logic, or to maintain a consistent tone, or to remember who its characters are from week to week. It would be a pleasant surprise to have story revelations make sense with everything that has come before, or to have emotional climaxes feel both understandable and earned. If I could actually care about the characters, or be swept up in the plot, that would be an added bonus.

American Horror Story, alas, is just not that kind of show. What it is, on the other hand, is a show where one of our major characters can—with a totally straight face, and just a hint of impatience—say the following line to another:

"Fine, let's discuss the brain eating."

I mean, how can I hate a show where that line is possible? On what other show would it even come up? Go ahead, take a moment and try to imagine someone on Downton Abbey delivering that line, or any variation on it. ("My lord, the Dowager Countess of Grantham has arrived, and she would very much like to discuss the eating of brains." It just doesn't work, does it?)

So, I'm trying to see the glass as half-full. I'm trying to celebrate the unique charms of American Horror Story, and acknowledge that the price other shows pay for featuring realism, intelligence, and believable characters is that they don't get to say "Fine, let's discuss the brain eating."

I'm willing to adjust my expectations for this show accordingly. I'm willing to see American Horror Storys not as an ongoing series at all, but as a horror anthology show that just happens to use the same characters week after week. Imagine if The Twilight Zone featured a regular cast of characters, so that the same woman who begins life as a store mannikin one week also sees a demon on the wing of her airplane, while traveling to have plastic surgery in an alien hospital, where she gives birth to an all-powerful child, to whom she will give a demonically-possessed doll.

The inherent absurdities of such an approach are obvious, but so are the charms, and I'm willing to meet American Horror Story halfway. The problem is, the show isn't willing to meet me halfway, because these episodes aren't working even as individual homages, let alone as segments in an ongoing story.

"Rubberman," for example, has nearly every one of our characters acting in ways that make absolutely no sense, and which more or less totally disregard their established characterizations and motivations. Why? Because Falchuk and Murphy have once again spun the Magical Wheel of Horror Homage,TM and this week they landed on Gaslight. And what this means is that Vivien (Connie Britton), who has been our calmest, most stable character, now has to suddenly become convinced she's going crazy, and everyone else has to think so too.

Not that she doesn't have plenty of reason to go crazy—I found myself becoming a little unhinged myself during this episode. It turns out the babies she's carrying are the children of Tate (Evan Peters), who is now revealed to be Rubberman. Thankfully, the episode doesn't try to drag out this promised unmasking, because—in true Scooby Doo fashionthere really weren't any other available suspects. ("And I would have gotten away with it too, if it hadn't been for—Oh, wait, I guess I did get away with it.") I mean, we knew it wasn't Ben, or Larry, or Chad, or Patrick. (I suppose it could have been the ghost of Dr. Charles Montgomery, or the ghost of Constance's husband, but since we hadn't seen either of those ghosts yet, they seemed like unlikely candidates for the big reveal.)

Let me see if I can summarize this turn of events: bear with me. Nora Montgomery (Lily Rabe)—despite being the first ghost in Murder House—has apparently spent nearly a century not realizing she's a ghost. All she's been doing is wandering the halls looking for her baby, not remembering that her baby is dead, or that she killed her husband for reassembling said baby with duct tape, staples, and spare bat parts. Six months ago, Tate happened to bump into her in the basement, and promised to help her get a baby—just because he's a nice mass murderer with mommy issues, I guess. ("I think you should get over your compulsive need to please the ladies of this house," Moira tells him later, a line of dialogue meant to paper over this otherwise incomprehensible behavior.)

Around this same time, Chad (Zachery Quinto) is trying to patch up his relationship with Patrick (Teddy Sears), and so ventures into an S&M shop to buy some things he thinks Patrick might like. Bypassing the spiked, stainless-steel ball-stretcher (good call) and the "apple of anguish" (don't ask), Chad settles on the Rubberman suit as the right device to spice up their love life. This is admirably GGG of him, but alas, Patrick prefers leather to latex, and so cruelly rejects Chad's advances. ("Depressing sex is even more depressing when you try so hard," he says.)

(I would feel ridiculous pretending to take this show seriously enough to complain about its depiction of a gay relationship—so I won't. But, Jesus, Falchuk and Murphy, I expect a little better from you.)

Tate—a subtle and sensitive judge of relationship dynamics—determines that these two lovebirds are somewhat unlikely to bring a baby into the house for Nora to cuddle, and so dons the rubber suit himself to kill them off. Later in the episode, Tate will complain to Hayden that he's "tired of hurting people," but here he seems to throw himself into the role with vigor and enthusiasm, beating Patrick brutally with a fireplace poker and then—somewhat gratuitously—shoving said poker up Patrick's…well, you get the idea. (Wrecked ’em? Damn near killed ’em.) Because Jessica Lange had this episode off, it's up to Moira to help Tate make this outtake from Seven look like a murder/suicide—though one wonders exactly why they bother, because—between the full-body rubber suit and the fact that Tate is a fucking ghost—there probably wouldn't have been a lot of DNA evidence for the cops to work with.

It is the desire to get Nora a baby, too, that prompts Tate—a few months later—to put on the Rubberman suit again and rape Vivien, as seen in Episode One.  In the present day, Hayden (Kate Mara) also bumps into Nora, and promises to help her get a baby. After all, Hayden wants one too, and hey, what a coincidence, she happens to know just where to find them. All they need to do is drive Vivien crazy, so they can…

OK, I admit it, I'm really foggy on the logic here. Why do they want to drive Vivien crazy? How does that help? And isn't there already a whole other evil plan for Vivien's offspring? "We need that baby," Constance said a few episodes ago (before the writers decided that Vivien was having twins). And isn't Vivien psychically tied to the house? Doesn't she get sick every time she tries to leave Murder House? Haven't Constance and Moira been feeding Vivien raw meat and brains to make her demonic offspring strong and fearsome? The implication all along has been Vivien was going to give birth to Satan's Little Helper—but, of course, that was when the Magical Wheel of Horror HomageTM was on Rosemary's Baby. (It's a direction towards which we'll probably turn again next week, when the MWOHH seems to be pointing towards The Omen.)

This week, however, the MWOHH landed on Gaslight, so Gaslight it is, so let's forget all that crap and work on driving Vivien crazy and getting her out of the house.

So Hayden starts knocking shit off shelves—ooh, spooky!—in order to drive Vivien crazy. And Ben (Dylan McDermott)—despite having seen a lot of weird shit, including Hayden, who he knows is dead—can't believe Vivien when she tells him she saw Hayden, or when she says she saw characters Ben doesn't even know to be dead. (When his wife and daughter have already been attacked by home invaders, you wouldn't think he'd be that quick to dismiss the notion that those home invaders could come back.)

And Violet—who not only knows there are ghosts, but also hates her father and loves her mother—suddenly decides to turn on Vivien anyway and help get her institutionalized. "When she's not in bed, or worrying about absolutely everything, she's eating raw brains," she rats to her father. (How does Violet know about the brains?)  "Maybe she thinks that the twins are stealing hers, because that's kind of how it seems…I'm saying mom's crazy, and it's your fault." Then she tells an outright lie, claiming she did not see the ghosts of the home invaders that her mother saw.

The only plausible motivation for this behavior is that Vivien threatens to take Violet away from her ghostly boyfriend—to whom, ew, Violet surrenders her virginity this episode—but there's no imminent threat to justify her betrayal, and no earthly reason for her to side with her father against her mother. She just comes off like a little bitch, because the plot requires her to. (Formerly the most sympathetic character, Violet has now taken such a sharp left turn into dislikability that my girlfriend—who doesn't usually use this word—now refers to her as "that little cunt." Which I think is a bit harsh..but only a bit.)

And so Ben confronts Vivien, leading to that immortal line quoted above: "Fine, let's discuss the brain eating. Let's talk about the dangers of ingesting raw organs. Mad cow disease: have you ever heard of that, Vivien?" Ben, who we've already established is the worst shrink in the world, has now decided his wife is insane. "You're mentally unstable, Vivien," Ben tells her. "You're seeing things." (Yeah, I'm seeing the same endless steady stream of ghosts who parade through this house like it's some fucking Undead Ellis Island. What are you seeing?)

And, worst of all, Vivien, who has been tough as nails all along, and whom we've seen stand up fearlessly to home invaders, crazy decorators, and apocalyptically prophetic sonogram technicians, now freaks the fuck out when a couple of vases crash off the mantle. I will love Connie Britton until the day I die, but the normal indignities she suffers on this show are bad enough: to see her collapse into a quivering mass of hysterical jelly over some broken tchotchkes is really too much. As I keep arguing, this show has no idea what to do with an actress of Britton's caliber, or how to give Vivien an identity beyond wronged wife and worried mother. (Does she have a job? Has she ever had a job? Does she have any identity or interests of her own?)

Anyway, after Vivien steals Marcy's gun—through an incredibly laborious and unnecessary ruse—she accidentally shoots Ben, believing him to be Rubberman. Normally, I'd say that putting a hole in Ben was the very definition of sanity, except that she didn't kill him. Instead, this turns out to be the final straw, as Vivien gets hauled off to the bughouse, while Ben and Violet—both of whom not only should but do know better—watch.

Sigh. I'm trying, I really am. But here's the thing. (One thing. There are so many things.) I can get on board with American Horror Story just being a giant random-plot-generator, moving from horror homage to horror homage without any particular bridge between them. But it's not working. Doing an episode that plays on Gaslight—and tying that into Vivien's pregnancy fears and mood swings—is not a bad idea at all. But Gaslight is actually scary: moody, atmospheric, it's a masterpiece of psychological horror. "Rubberman" isn't the least bit scary, which is a cardinal sin for a show that has no other raison d'etre.

In fact, American Horror Storyisn't scary in general: there are moments that shock scattered throughout, but there is no sustained suspense, no ominous mood, no real terror being generated. I have never finished an episode of American Horror Story feeling genuinely unsettled, and that's a problem: there are troubling scenes (like the school massacre in "Halloween, Part One"), but they are always surrounded by too much goofiness and clutter. (These have to be the least scary ghosts ever assembled—of our entire cast of undead characters, only Infantata remains even vaguely creepy.)

I'm wishing that American Horror Story really were an anthology show, focusing on one scary story per week. (One ghost is scary. Seventeen ghosts bickering with each other are not scary.) If American Horror Story could settle on a mission statement, and commit to simply producing a frightening, atmospheric hour of television every week, I could stop complaining about the consistent inconsistency, and the show could focus on doing justice to whichever horror tropes it decides to explore from week to week.

Additional Thoughts:

  • An episode in which neither Constance (Jessica Lange) nor Larry (Denis O'Hare) appears is a total waste of an episode in my book.
  • Can someone, anyone, for the love of god, explain to me just what exactly Moira's motivation is? It seems to change from week to week, depending on whomever she happens to be talking to. What side is she on, and what does she want (besides getting her bones dug up)?
  • I enjoyed this exchange between Vivien and Hayden, about Ben:
    Vivien:
    "You can have him all to yourself."
    Hayden:
    "I don't want him. He's pathetic."
    Vivien:
    "I know. I totally agree."
  • Things it seems churlish to complain about: Why is Nora the only ghost doomed to wear the wounds of her death openly for all eternity? Moira just has a glassy eye (instead of a full-on skull-crater), Tate doesn't seem to have 43 bullet holes in his hairless chest, and Patrick sure doesn't move like he's got a four-foot iron poker shoved up his ass.
  • More pedantic nitpicking: why does Tate tell Violet that the ghosts can't really hurt them, when he himself seems to be capable of kicking some serious ass? If he's just lying, why does Hayden limit herself to throwing geegaws around instead of throwing down with Vivien?
  • One final question: why do I care? Anyone? Anyone?

The Unaffiliated Critic

Michael G. McDunnah is a freelance writer, a recovering lit major, a pop-culture junkie, and an unaffiliated critic. He lives in Chicago.

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Comments

  1. It's GOT to be amusing to kvetch about this show (if only for one season). I'm sure if I were an actor I'd dress up in a rubber S&M costume just to be associated with American Horror Story. But my duration of commitment would be limited.

  2. For me, the strangest part about this episode is how no one thought it worth while to ask, "What kind of brain?"

  3. Maybe Nora's wound shows because she doesn't realize she's a ghost?
    Strange logic, but who knows?
    I think Moira keeps her eye the way it is as a reminder to Constance.

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