by Rita Aresta
* WARNING: spoilers ahead *
American Horror Story is a horror television series in which what matters the least is how frightening it actually is. Since its convoluted debut in Murder House, and definitely from Asylum onwards, AHS has been more about the “story” than the “horror”. What tends to define the quality of each season is how much Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk et al engage with it and its main themes, which represent the fears and anxieties of Western society, not just North American.
Over the first five episodes of Roanoke, the sixth incarnation of the series, a large audience was proclaiming it to be AHS’s greatest season ever, however just as many others weren’t so convinced. There had been a few scares, but the storyline seemed somewhat slow and its format not fully developed. Essentially, it seemed like it wasn’t really talking about anything.
To break the cycle, off came “Chapter Six”, an exceptional episode directed by Angela Bassett (who portrayed Monet Tumusiime, the “fake” Lee), which turned the season’s premise upside down by ending the dramatisations of “My Roanoke Nightmare” and dived right into the backstage of a new production, “Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell”, which took both dramatisation actors and “real” characters back to the season’s Murder House v2.0 cursed house. A vignette kindly informed us that only one of the characters has survived by the end of it.
AHS: Roanoke – the infamous house
From there onwards, Roanoke started to make more sense. The reason for the sixth season’s success has everything to do with the fact that it’s a parody of itself, as it forced the audience to root for this or that character to be the winner of a reality show – only the losing characters got killed off in a plethora of horrible ways instead of being sent home.
Roanoke is most likely the darkest AHS season since Asylum. It’d be odd for the reality show to end with the classic “final girl” heroine, the virtuous woman that manages to escape from a terrible end, as she’s the sweetest and most innocent character. Instead, the end result was reasonably satisfactory – and the ultimate survivor unexpected (unless you were paying close attention to “Chapter Two”) – for a horror story.
That’ll do, pig. That’ll do.
When looked at superficially, Roanoke comes across as a season whose main concern is to tell a story about violence, without really exploring the characters’ psyche or the evils of society. If we don’t think too hard, we risk ending the season thinking that its only pretention was to be a classic horror story and nothing else: grotesque deaths, scares, expendable characters and experiments with different ways of filming to enhance the audience’s immersive experience. The writers and directors clearly tried hard to come up with a legitimate entertainment product within this genre. However, on a deeper analysis, we also have metafiction, and a critique of media, audience, television and Internet celebrities and wannabes.
Ultimately, there’s an analysis on how narratives are made and assimilated. It’s easy to take news pieces, conversations, books or films at face value; generally speaking, we’re wired to perceive things as being mostly true. However, there’s such a figure as the unreliable narrator. They’re manipulative and present throughout a wide range of works, such as Lolita, Fight Club, Rashomon and Mr. Robot. We develop a love-hate relationship with such characters, because they’re both fascinating and extremely challenging. And it’s only too easy to forget they exist in real life too.
Roanoke draws our attention to this fact by displaying a programme that simulates being based on real events, and then confronts those events with a different reality. Most of the time, we see characters telling their version of the story. Lee (Adina Porter) presents herself as a well-intentioned person, incapable of killing. Shelby (Lily Rabe) doesn’t appear to ever lose control or resort to violence. Matt (André Holland) hides the fact that he remained hypnotised by Scáthach (Lady Gaga in the dramatisation) – which unfortunately doesn’t get nearly enough attention.
Where Asylum brought forward our fears about the banality of evil and Catholic guilt; Freak Show was all about rejection, pride, oppression and the illusion of superiority of the so-called “normal” people; then Roanoke is a satire on the obsession for celebrity status and media culture fed by a 24/7 news cycle. In its final episode alone, premiered on the 16th November, Roanoke went through a series of reinventions – from a documentary programme detailing Lee’s post-Roanoke life, to an interview with Lana Winters, and a ghost hunter show.
In each renovation within itself, Roanoke comes across as wanting to show us that our obsession for a consumer society has reached a level even larger than expected. Social media success, audience ratings, it all seems to matter more than human life itself. What Murphy is trying to tell us is that the lines between reality and fiction are getting blurrier every day in a post-reality television show world, to the extent that sometimes we forget to take into consideration concrete consequences that stem from actions designed to support a fictional narrative, whether it’s the deluded idea we have of ourselves, or quite literally a television show.
It’d be neither possible nor fair to talk about Roanoke without taking a moment to applaud Sarah Paulson’s performance across three different characters in one single season: her Shelby Miller was the perfect and subtle parody of the character wonderfully played by Lily Rabe, and is predictably magnificent when playing an older Lana Winters, but it’s when portraying the actress Audrey Tindall that Paulson really shines with all the glory of her exaggerated British accent and beautifully inappropriate remarks (“Oh, leave me alone! I’m not American, I’m not used to all this carnage!”), as she perfectly understands the tone and underlying messages of this season.
Sarah Paulson in her portray as Shelby
With an equally impressive performance, the magnificent Kathy Bates portrays The Butcher as well as the actress playing it, the disturbed (and disturbing) Agnes Mary Winstead – taking great care not to overdo it. Bates has the ability to provoke fear, but also pity and some degree of fascination. Frances Conroy is memorable in her (sadly) single episode as the “fake” Polk family matriarch. Taissa Farmiga is very briefly back since her last appearance in Coven, as a millennial fansite owner, but manages to deliver a far more natural performance than she did in Coven. As far as the cast goes, the weakest elements generally ended up being the males – from a histrionic Cuba Gooding Jr to an inexpressive Wes Bentley and an ultimately wasted Evan Peters.
Kathy Bates as The Butcher, leader of the Roanoke colony
Paulson’s role in the season finale, as Lana Winters from Asylum, summarises well the spirit of Roanoke, which finds in her language and attitude a way to express her message: Lana appears to be fascinated by Lee, but annoyed at all the attention that Lee is receiving. The not at all subtle sarcasm she uses when being interviewed herself is the certain sign of an American Horror Story that looked within itself and the commotion it caused, and didn’t like what it saw.
The (arguably) good news is that, like it or not, there’s more coming up next year. So what’s next?
As expected, hardcore AHS fans everywhere are already searching for clues for the next season. It’s almost certain that Roanoke is hiding some visual clues – Murphy tends to do that. The only problem is that usually these clues are only noticed retrospectively, once the new theme has been announced.
In a recent Entertainment Weekly interview, Murphy revealed that he’s producing an AHS season in which the characters and stories Murder House (season 1) and Coven (season 3) will crossover, although he also stated that it wouldn’t be the very next season.
Some fans are very intrigued by one of the final Roanoke scenes, in which the camera very explicitly focuses on a model ship, knocked over by one of the characters. The somewhat abrupt Roanoke finale has given substance to some theories that the seventh season could possibly be a direct continuation of Roanoke, involving the original colony, their transatlantic journey, and Scáthach. That’d probably satisfy a lot of fans, as a lot of questions about Roanoke were left unanswered in its enigmatic finale. I guess we’ll have to wait and see.
Best episodes: “Chapter Three”, “Chapter Six”, “Chapter Ten”.
All pictures credit of FX