Surprises don't actually have to be surprising in order to surprise. (That made sense right? No?) To put it another way: We may know with certainty that someone's throwing us a surprise party, but the fun part is seeing just how they pull it off, when and where it'll happen, and the volume at which everyone jumps out and screams at us. Those are the surprises that count; even if we knew what to expect, we didn't know how to expect it. This week's American Horror Story contained a twist that many of us had seen coming, yet it still felt surprising and even a little shocking. Other basic cable dramas, take note: THIS is how an "I'm dead" twist is done.
Because, ladies and gentlemen, Violet did not survive her suicide attempt from a few weeks back. We'd suspected this was the case when all her subsequent scenes were restricted to the house, but especially when Ben found out she hadn't gone to school in two weeks. That thread continued in "Smoldering Children" when an LAUSD truancy officer showed up at the door and threatened to take Violet to juvenile court. Now, I realize this show operates on dream logic, but this still begs the question: How did Ben (and Vivien) fail to notice Violet wasn't leaving the house? Ben works from home. Vivien is a housewife. Anyway, if they didn't notice that, it stands to reason that they also wouldn't notice the flies seeping up through the floorboards or the presumably awful smell.
In a scene that brought to mind John Goodman's exterminator character from Arachnophobia, a blustering, comical man in a hazmat suit made the unfortunate choice of investigating the crawlspace of the Murder House with a tiny flashlight. Again, we knew he would find something horrifying down there, but his genuinely terrified screams and his subsequent murder (via bug spray) by Tate all made the scene truly scary and piqued our curiosity about what exactly he saw.
Which, as we eventually discovered, was this:
The actual reveal came later in the episode, after Tate decided Violet needed to learn the truth about her condition. The sequence played out brilliantly, which began with Tate attempting to convince Violet to "commit suicide" with him, causing her to flee from the house only to mysteriously re-enter it like she'd stepped into some kind of M.C. Escher drawing. In order to assuage her confusion and terror, Tate led her under the house and showed her her own corpse. That's when he revealed that though he'd tried to prevent her suicide attempt two weeks earlier, he'd been too late. (His attempt to get her to "commit suicide" was intended to help her adjust to the idea of being dead.) Again, while Violet's fate wasn't necessarily a surprise, its implications packed a huge emotional punch, both for her and for us. Putting aside the fact that Ben and Vivien had been living in a house with the rotting corpse of their daughter beneath the floorboards, now we're looking at a story in which our protagonists' daughter has died. What kind of emotional impact will this have? Will the Harmons ever escape from this house? Will they ever be happy again? And shouldn't we be disturbed by the fact that Violet is now destined to spend eternity as the girlfriend of a known psychopath who raped her mother?
It's definitely a matchup that Ben won't approve of, now that he knows Tate is the Rubber Man. Because in a truly bizarre move, Tate decided to attack Ben in retribution for looking into boarding schools for Violet. After a fairly brutal towel-clad tusslin', Ben de-masked the Rubber Man (who by then he knew had raped his wife), and now that he's discovered it was Tate will probably not be as interested in continuing their therapy sessions. Poor Ben!
In last week's writeup I opined that Ben was the villain of the season, but this episode caused me to backtrack on that idea when Ben more or less came to his senses, visited Vivien, informed her of the twins' dual paternity, admitted he believed her story, apologized profusely, and attempted to bring her home. In a tart exchange during which Vivien sort of accepted Ben's apology while remaining furious at him, Vivien finally regained her credibility in Ben's (and our) eyes. It definitely helped that she just straight-up refused to entertain the possibility of returning to the Murder House, which was made all the more hilarious by the idea that Ben would even consider that in the first place. I mean, what would it take for Ben to realize that house is not a great place to be? Was he that against sleeping in cars or, you know, visiting family?
Although the confirmation of Violet's death was the most notable event of the episode, the episode mostly belonged to Constance, who'd suddenly fallen under police scrutiny after the discovery of Travis's bisected corpse. Termed "Boy Dahlia" by the press, he had indeed gotten his fame, but the fame only lit a fire under the LAPD to finger a killer, and Constance was their number-one target. The most amusing scene from this thread came when investigators pointed out all of the various murders and disappearances she'd been surrounded by for the past several decades. These included being the mother of a mass murderer; the smothering/"natural causes" death of a deformed son; the hit-and-run death of her daughter; the "disappearances" of her husband and maid; and not to mention the time three of her neighbors had burnt to death next door.
The latter incident proved important for Larry, whose storyline was more or less concluded this week. First we learned the original nature of his burns: The morning of his school shooting, Tate had first swung by Larry's office with a can of gasoline and a book of matches. Ugh, Mondays! Later in the episode, when Larry returned to the Murder House basement to recover some of Travis's things (or, actually, evidence), he ran into the ghosts of his dead children and wife, still glowing like burnt embers from that fateful night when she'd exacted her revenge on him. In a disturbing yet poignant scene, he seemed pretty floored to see them all, and his wife mentioned that they had finally appeared to him because he was now "ready" to see them. When he said he was sorry for having cheated with Constance, his wife awesomely responded, "prove it." And when he suggested that he'd frame Constance for Travis's murder, she instead pointed out that he'd been the only one to wrong her, and that Constance hadn't "broken any vows." Larry took this as his cue to confess to Travis's murder, and in a great final scene, he pleaded with Constance through jailhouse plexiglass to admit she loved him. For a second it looked like she would, but then she silently hung up the phone and walked off. Yikes! Oh well, bye, Larry. Enjoy your life sentence in an Illinois (?) prison!
Not gonna lie to you, this was one of American Horror Story's finest hours. A great, pulpy, terrifying and enlightening episode that left us with as many questions as it answered. You know a show is good when your primary concern is just how it'll keep this up for future seasons, but that's a surprise for another day.
... Larry's original backstory: Intentional misdirection or just straight-up ret-conning?
... Did Constance keep six dogs and a meat grinder in the basement for the purpose of disposing of corpses, or was this just a happy coincidence?
... Is Constance's casual racism hilarious or offensive?
... How bad does the Murder House smell at this point?