Ryan Murphy’s television series — Popular, Nip/Tuck, Glee — have a tendency to start out campy and delightful before taking a turn toward campy and overstuffed. At some point in his fictions, an ever-increasing cast of characters with yo-yo-ing motivations begin to do-si-do in haphazard configurations through one ludicrous or slapdash plot twist after another. Murphy’s newest show, the gonzo FX ghost series American Horror Story, which finishes its first season tonight, seemed to hew to this pattern, even starting pretty far along on the Ryan Murphy Outlandish Continuum. The first episode contained dozens of allusions to other horror films, man butts, and a rape by a ghost in an S&M suit. The episodes that followed piled more on: more allusions, more butts, more rapes — one with a fire poker, one under ether — and lots more dead people. (There are now at least 24 ghosts living in the show’s haunted house that we know of. There are certainly more to be added, and likely some this evening.) After the first few episodes, it seemed clear that to enjoy AHS one just had to strap into the Ryan Murphy wackadoo train, leave one’s quibbles, common sense, and pleas for logical restraint at the door, and enjoy the over-the-top, well, everything. And then something really crazy and unpredictable happened: It all started to make sense.
[Spoilers ahead! (Though not from tonight's finale.)]
The turning point appeared to come in Episode 10, when, in a well-executed, supremely melancholy surprise, it was revealed that Violet, the teenage daughter living in the house (played by Taissa Farmiga, a grounded yet eerie actress with almost as good a cry face as Claire Danes), had been dead for four episodes, and was now a ghost. Given that we live in a post-Sixth Sense universe and that from the beginning AHS has been presenting us with people (Tate, Moira) who seem to be alive, but aren’t, the fact that Violet’s corporeal condition came as a jolt at all is because the surprise worked on an emotional level, not just a plot one. In the scene in which Violet desperately tries to leave the house, and finds herself instead running back into it, like some trapped cartoon character come to horrible life, you could feel her panic: By the time she was whimpering over her blow-fly-covered corpse, you could feel her regret.
But the groundwork for this revelation was actually laid all the way back in Episode 6, when Violet took too many pills, and only appeared to be resuscitated by her psychopathic, mother-raping but nonetheless dedicated ghost boyfriend, Tate. In Episode 7, Violet started skipping school and holing up in her room; in the eighth, her mother, dead-set on leaving the house, stashed Violet in the car, but before they could drive off the property, ghosts popped up in the backseat; in the ninth, Violet didn’t appear; and then, come Episode 10, the audience — and Violet — found out she had been dead for weeks. Holy Ryan Murphy: There had been a plan.
More plans were in evidence in last week’s episode, the season’s penultimate. Vivien Harmon (Connie Britton) finally went into labor with the twins — one a ghost-human demon hybrid, one just a human-human weakling — that she’d been carrying since she made love twice in the first episode: once to her husband and then to ghost Tate in a rubber suit. (And in all the post-premiere snickering about ghost rape, who thought that the rubber suit was just a shiny object that had momentarily fascinated Murphy, and that he would soon lose interest in it and find something else shocking to dwell on? Be honest!) During the birth, she was aided by the ether-addicted late abortionist and the two brutally murdered young nursing students whose death scenes we saw in Episode 2. When the first child was stillborn, the addled ghost played by Lily Rabe (the abortionist's wife, who has been looking for a child ever since their son was kidnapped and killed) walked off with the fetal corpse. When the second baby, the healthy blond demon spawn, arrived, three women — two dead (Ben's late mistress, Hayden, and the housekeeper, Moira) and one living (Constance) — all with well-established child issues, fought over it. Meanwhile, Vivien died, only to be very sweetly reunited with Violet, her dead daughter. So many of the characters, living and dead, and so many of their desires came together in the culmination of the season’s major story line.
The best part of all this sense-making is that AHS doesn't really have to make sense. It’s ridiculous! It’s fun! It’s got Dylan McDermott running around without his underwear on! Mena Suvari dropping by to play the Black Dahlia! Bored ghosts fucking and then killing each other and then fucking again for want of anything better to do! Zachary Quinto spewing acid and stereotypical one-liners! Jessica Lange doing the best impersonation of Blanche DuBois come through a séance that will ever be! Admittedly, these sort of camp pleasures may not be to everyone’s taste, but they are exactly the sort of hyperactive entertainments promised in the first episode. The fact that beyond the eye candy and absurdity, the gore and the sex, the guest stars and the gimp suits, the show has amounted to something more emotionally substantial feels like a bonus. Whatever happens in tonight’s finale, we’re looking forward to a second season where a cast of dozens can pop in and out, say and do hilarious, absurd things, and sometimes have all that saying and doing be in the service of a larger story line. Oh, and, of course, the ghost sex. We're looking forward to that too.