I know that showrunners don’t have much of a say in when a particular episode will air, but it’s always nice when the setting and general theme of what you’re watching matches the time of year — and nothing marks the end of what has truly been the longest summer of all time better than a good ol’ fashioned spooky lake story.
“Lake,” the final episode of season two of American Horror Stories, feels very purposeful in that it joins together some of the best elements often associated with the horror genre. It offers several cautionary tales (don’t be a “slut” / greed is bad / your husband will probably kill you); it’s set in a town with a dark, supernatural, and loosely explained history; and it has a cast comprising hot new faces for the youths and nostalgic stars of the not-too-distant past for fans like me who would, at all times, prefer to watch the original Scream movie over just about anything else.
Alicia Silverstone has gracefully aged out of her days of playing virgins who can’t drive, but seeing her in the role of Erin, a well-to-do mom willing to slap on some diving fins to retrieve the corpse of her dead son from a lake, is delightful. While most remember Silverstone from her role as Cher Horowitz in Clueless, she is definitely not new to horror. Spanning from her breakout role in the 1993 film The Crush to a brief nod in 2022’s Scream as Tatum Riley in the movie-within-the-movie, Stab, she has proven that she can run and yell with the best of them. As with other actresses of her time, her horror roles often crammed her into the easily marketable box of “unhinged woman freaking out about something,” but in “Lake,” she’s the one who’s in charge. She’s the one who gets to save the day. Nice to know that after almost 30 years of women pretty exclusively being used as screaming pieces of meat, they get the chance to be saviors every now and then. And sure, Silverstone’s character, Erin, is gaslit through the majority of this episode by her husband and local law enforcement, but the story wouldn’t feel as true to life without those elements, would it?
“Lake” opens on a familiar horror scene of a bunch of teens in a boat on a lake. In what is likely a nod to the Scream franchise, this particular lake is in a vacation town called Prescott that got the majority of its money from the building of a dam strong-armed into existence by the nefarious Wrede Prescott. The building of this dam, championed by Prescott and nameless others seeking to profit from it, flooded a town once known as Reedsville, and it’s above this town that Erin’s two teenage children, Jake (Bobby Hogan) and Finn (Olivia Rouyre), are bobbing along in this boat.
We don’t get to learn much about Jake until after his death, because he’s almost immediately killed. Before diving into the lake in an attempt to explore the sunken ruins of Reedsville, he explains to his crush, Hayley, that drought has decreased the water levels to such a degree that what was once a depth impossible to plunge to is now, thanks to the wonders of climate change, easily accessible. He tries to get her to dive down with him, but his sister, Finn, cockblocks the situation with a warning that Hayley is a slut, which is rude all around, sure, but ultimately saves the girl from seeing this poor young man get gripped by the bloated arm of a doomed lake ghoul.
As Jake is exploring the lake with his sister swimming behind him, he finds a rusted tricycle, then fixates on a sign for some store or product from long ago. As he’s showing his sister the sign, something grabs onto his ankle and won’t let loose. Finn swims to the surface and yells for help, but it’s no use. As she swims back down, she catches a final glimpse of her brother as he’s pulled by unseen forces to his death.
Flash forward four months, and we learn that this experience caused Finn to spend a bit of healing time in a mental clinic. Even when she’s back home with her family, things are not going well. She’s fixated on the loss of her brother, as anyone would be, and asks her mom what was buried in the casket at his funeral, since his body was never recovered. “Mementos,” Erin says. What kind of mementos? Brown Crocs, Pokémon cards, and an essay about Disneyland, as it turns out. Way to just call this guy a dork right out in public after all he’s been through. Poor Jake.
With no help, mental or otherwise, from Erin’s husband, Jeffrey (Teddy Sears) — whom AHS fans will recognize from his role as Patrick, half of the gay ghost couple in American Horror Story: Murder House — Erin can’t help but fixate on the details of her son’s death. This is made all the worse when she starts seeing murky lake water in what should be a freshly drawn bath and is visited by the apparition of her dead son by their pool.
Having now seen every episode in the world of AHS, I find myself, with each viewing, reminded of a series of books I used to read as a kid. Of course, I can’t remember the name of the series, but they were thin books that each told the tale of an animal and that animal’s friends going through some manner of experience that would lead to a big moral at the end. Not to discredit American Horror Stories in any way, because the format is proven to be one that works, but each episode of both seasons one and two are in the same vein as those books — with the twist or “moral” coming in the last ten minutes. If I had to give a note, it would be that the timestamp could get pushed back a bit to even out the windup with the pitch. The beginnings are great. The endings are usually great. But a lot could be gained by the more frequent addition of a middle.
By the time Erin and Finn determine that the lake is seeking revenge on anyone in the Prescott bloodline, and that Jeffrey and Finn are (somehow) secretly part of that bloodline, there are mere minutes to wrap everything up, and it feels a bit rushed. Fun? Always. But rushed. The format of American Horror Stories — cramming a whole-ass narrative into less than an hour — must be difficult, but maybe in season three, some fat can be carved to make way for that missing middle. Still, I look forward to next year and wouldn’t dream of turning my back on this show, no matter what. As if!