This week on American Horror Story: In 1994, Constance, Addie and Tate, having moved back into the Murder House, celebrate their first Thanksgiving with Constance’s lover Larry, whose family recently died. Things don’t go well. Some time later, Tate visits Larry at his office, dousing him with gasoline and setting him on fire. In the present day: Ben, understanding that Vivien was raped, works to have her released from the institution; an exterminator is hired to take care of an insect infestation at the Murder House; the police suspect Constance of Travis’s murder; Ben, discovering Violet’s truancy, plans to transfer her to boarding school, and Tate attacks him to keep him from doing so; Larry retrieves the evidence of Travis’s murder, planning to use it for his own ends; Violet learns a devastating secret.

Okay, so let’s start with…

ZOMG VIOLET HAS BEEN DEAD SINCE EPISODE 6 HOLY FUCKING SHIT!!!!!

…deep breath…

(Do you remember the <BLINK> tag? Because if browsers still supported it, I would use it here. Seriously.)

I’ve repeatedly expressed my distaste of OMG shock twists!!! for their own sake, starting with…well, the very first review I published on this site. Let me tell you, folks, this here episode is how you do OMG shock twists!!! properly. There have been subtle hints since “Piggy Piggy” (for example, hasn’t it been a while since Violet visited the skate park?) but there’s none of the obvious telegraphing that other suspense-based shows and films rely so heavily on these days. The revelation scenes are written beautifully, directed brilliantly and feature tour de force performances from everyone involved–not just Taissa Farmiga and Evan Peters, but also Connie Britton and Dylan McDermott. If there’s one complaint I have, it’s that guest star W. Earl Brown (aka Dan Dority of Deadwood fame) is severely under-utilized as the doomed exterminator, but whatever.

If this particular subplot were the only thing in the episode that were any good it would still be an impressive overall finished product, but the other two main subplots are strong as well. Now that Vivien and Ben have put the pieces together about Gimp Suit and the parentage of the twins, they’re finally getting their shit together, kicking in motion a relationship-redemption arc that will feature heavily in the last two episodes. I’ve already praised McDermott and Peters, but I want to give them props again for the scene where Ben unmasks Tate.

But the real surprise of the episode is the Larry/Constance subplot. Larry wasn’t a particularly strong character at the beginning of the show–honestly, I have a feeling that Murphy, Falchuk didn’t always know how to keep him busy until he became more important towards midseason. He definitely plays his own game this episode and when his ultimate plan (to take the fall for Constance, the prime suspect in Travis’s murder) is revealed it’s a moment that’s almost as awesome as the one in which I finally figured out that

HOLY FUCKING SHIT VIOLET IS A GHOST etc.

…sorry, got a bit carried away with myself there. Won’t happen again.

Anyway, Denis O’Hare gets two great moments here–the reunion, of sorts, with Lorraine and the girls (who are seen having a tea party with Travis), and the final, devastating final conversation with Constance. It’s a fitting end for Larry, who started off as a twisted form of dark comic relief and turned into one of the series’ most tragic characters. He’s definitely changed over the course of the season, but it’s also nice to see that his recognition of the need for redemption doesn’t erase his prime motivation: his sick, unrequited “love” for Constance…who remains cold to the bitter end. So kudos to O’Hare and Jessica Lange.

And kudos to the episode’s writer, Jim Wong (co-architect of The X-Files’s early seasons), for delivering what is definitely the best-written script of the season. “Smoldering Children” is the finest segment of the Murder House story, demonstrating how scary, emotional and effective this show can be when it’s firing on all cylinders.

(And thanks Amber…you were definitely right!)

MVP: Finally, Denis O’Hare!

My rating: 9 of 10.

Season 1 episode ranking

  1. “Smoldering Children” (ep. 10)
  2. “Piggy Piggy” (ep. 6)
  3. “Murder House” (ep. 3)
  4. “Home Invasion” (ep. 2)
  5. “Rubber Man” (ep. 8)
  6. “Spooky Little Girl” (ep. 9)
  7. “Halloween, part 1” (ep. 4)
  8. “Pilot” (ep. 1)
  9. “Open House” (ep. 7)
  10. “Halloween, part 2” (ep. 5)

2 thoughts on “Television review: American Horror Story, “Smoldering Children”

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