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'American Horror Story' Characters Die So That It May Live -- Anew
December 28, 2011  | By David Bianculli

It's been a week since American Horror Story concluded its first season -- more than long enough, in my book, to talk about it. But if you want to protect yourself from exposure to what's happening on that fine, bold FX series, then stop reading. Especially since I want to talk not only about what happened last week, but what's going to happen next season...

First, the first-season finale.

American Horror Story may have set a record, as it neared the Season 1 finish line, by killing off the three members of its central family in as many weeks.

First, in a shocker, daughter Violet (Tessa Farmiga) was revealed to have killed herself, with a drug overdose, and not been aware of it. So when we were seeing Violet interact with her family, and with other ghosts in the house, she, too, had become a restless spirit, doomed to reside in the house forever.

Then, the next week, Violet's mother, Vivien (Connie Britton), had her twin babies in a home childbirth -- one child angelic, the other demonic. Another surprise: Vivien didn't survive the delivery. She, too, was now a ghost.


That left Violet's father, Ben (Dylan McDermott), as the family's sole survivor -- until, in the first-season finale, determined to leave the "Death House," he was attacked by malevolent spirits and hung from the rafters.

That's three weeks, three deaths. Violet, Vivien, Ben -- dead, dead, dead.

Yet in one of the show's most warped twists of all, in death those troubled characters all found happiness. So much so that, with help from the housekeeper Moira (Frances Conroy), they put up and decorated a Christmas tree, to the tune of "The Little Drummer Boy."

Vivien had been reunited with her "good" baby, and finally gotten the baby she had desperately hoped for all along. Violet was away from the bullies at school, her insane ghostly ex-boyfriend in the house, and happy to just hang out with her parents. And Ben, while being well hung from the chandelier, had managed to reunite his nuclear family.


We knew Ben, like his family, was "healed," because when he looked at the housekeeper, he now saw the elderly Moira -- not the sultry, sexual-predator younger version played by Alexandra Breckenridge, who appeared only to men with unchecked libidos and unfaithful pasts.

And then, as a three-years-later postscript, we check in on Constance (Jessica Lange), who's been caring for a young one -- the satanic evil-twin spawn from Vivien's womb -- and finally goes out to get her hair done, leaving the child in the care of a housekeeper.


When Constance returns, the woman is dead, lying in a pool of her own blood in the boy's room. The boy is there, too, greeting Constance with a wave of his bloody hand and a wide, wicked smile.

"Now what am I going to do with you?" she asks, revealing an expression that is more smile and anticipation than fear and revulsion.

It was a fabulous set-up to Season 2 -- except it won't be.

Series co-creator Ryan Murphy revealed last week, just after the season finale aired on FX, that Season 2 of American Horror Story would take place in a completely different locale, featuring a completely different set of characters.

He was not, however, wiping the slate clean completely. He hinted that some, or many, of this season's actors might return for Season 2, just playing different roles, supporting a newly hired core group of performers.

How audacious is that? And yet, how very, very interesting.

It appears, now, that Season 1 of American Horror Story is a closed book, with its story line not to be revisited or fully explained. The unanswered questions will linger, tantalizingly, for fans to argue about, like the true meaning of the blackout ending of The Sopranos.

Why was Moira, alone among all the ghosts, allowed to age in one spectral form (the only spirit to do so), while retaining a second, slinky alter ego occupying the same space? Why, if some ghosts sported traces of their fatal wounds, did Ben not have a broken neck? And why...


Oh, but why go on? It's more fun, now, to look ahead.

Because if Murphy indeed does what he suggests he and series co-creator Brad Falchuk may be planning, American Horror Story is about to go into largely uncharted TV territory.

The risk, of turning a drama series into a sort of repertory company, is that familiar faces in new roles may lessen the inherent drama, tension and danger. The reward is the sheer fun of it. Imagine: If Connie Britton played a morose, increasingly pregnant, unhappily married woman in Season 1, think of how much fun it would be -- for her, as well as for viewers -- to see her do a complete about-face for Season 2.

There have been drama series on TV with recurring players before - but not many. In fact, I know of only two -- though I'd love to be corrected and learn of more.

The first was NBC's The Richard Boone Show, a one-season anthology series from 1963-64. Boone was the host of all shows, and star of many, but sometimes other members of his repertory company would take the lead, or swap out supporting roles.

Among that pioneering show's regular company of rep players: Harry Morgan, Robert Blake and Bethel Leslie.


The second series to take a rep-company approach, from 2001-2002, was A&E's A Nero Wolfe Mystery, which had a pair of stars -- Maury Chaykin as Rex Stout's well-heeled detective, and Timothy Hutton as Wolfe's assistant, Archie -- who played the same leading roles each week.

They were surrounded, however, by a rep company of actors who would play different parts in different episodes. Kari Matchett, for example, played 11 different roles, from loyal girlfriends to femmes fatale (one of whom is seen at right).

That's two rep-company TV dramas in more than 50 years of television.

And now, American Horror Story may make three.

Given its enviably talented cast -- everyone from Britton and Lange to supporting players Denis O'Hare and Conroy -- I hope it does.




James J. Troutman said:

While not really a repertory company, having the same actors playing different roles in different stories in a horror series sounds a lot like Dark Shadows...

Comment posted on December 28, 2011 2:00 PM

Sarah said:

I just have to say that as soon as all the main characters were dying off my mom thought that the idea of having a new cast/new characters living in the house each season was her GREAT idea. Once again I have taught her well.

Comment posted on December 28, 2011 2:22 PM

Dan said:

What an absolutely fabulous television program. If Lange isn't nominated for an Emmy and rewarded with one as well, then the Emmys mean nothing. I predicted half way through the last season of JUSTIFIED that Margo Martindale would win an Emmy for her amazing performance on that show. Let's hope I am right again!
The possibilities for this show to run forever, being new and refreshing every year are endless.
Can't wait until Halloween 2012!

[You're right. The Halloween show WAS a stunner... and good call on Margo. - DB]

Comment posted on December 28, 2011 4:49 PM

Roger Caine said:

Didn't you see "Homeland"? Don't know if Jessica and Claire Danes will be in the same catagory but that is one tough choice! Thought I heard that "Revenge" may do something similar with their storylines and wrap up this season before moving on to another locale and characters? Any info on that David?

[Not yet -- but we'll see. I don't think "Homeland" is an exact parallel, but you're right -- they certainly have painted themselves into one heck of a corner for Season 2. - DB]

Comment posted on December 29, 2011 9:46 AM

Mark N said:

Dear David

I was hoping you would post as regards this remarkable show. Please forgive if I ramble as I have the flu. Look...it's like this. Year after year, we are fed the same generic crap, warmed over. And then when a new show delivers impact and stimulus to the audiences, you can count on it that the usual bad copies are to come.
Now, suddenly, I find myself involved with a show that actually keeps me guessing (after decades of experience with watching TV plot development that always harkens back to what we have felt and seen before.) Well, THIS was not that show. I noted in an earlier post that this show actually scared me....its deep set feeling of dread against the slowly unraveling unknown sub-plots just transported me. The fact that I loved the main cast was just a bonus. I was truly satisfied by the conclusion of the season. LOVED them finally happy together in death and joining up to scare the new family away. And the last scene was such a beautiful harbinger of horrible wonders to come....BUT...this is not where these clever gentlemen are taking us, it appears.
The idea of a kind of ensemble is so brilliant and encouraging to me. David...I'm old enough to actually seen some the Boone Show because my of allegiance to Paladin when I was even younger. I welcome the bringing back of this concept and this show appears to be a great vehicle for it. Anyway, to sum up.... my favorite show of the season and the one I gotten more of my friends to watch through endless promotion. Ready for next year's ride.
As always, thanks for your recommendation which led to my watching TV truly worth watching.

[My absolute pleasure. And if it's the flu that makes you "ramble" like that, I'm gonna go kiss some people with colds. By the way -- if you're that good at promotion, please spread the word about Dick Smothers wanting to be on "Dancing with the Stars." I'm just saying... - DB]

Comment posted on December 29, 2011 1:09 PM
Eric said:

Not quite what you're looking for, I know, but the only thing that comes to mind is Garret Dillahunt playing two distinct roles in separate seasons of Deadwood.

(Moment of silence for the passing of Deadwood.)

I checked out of American Horror Story after three or four episodes, because I didn't care about the characters. Also, there was plenty of "plot" but very little story. And the dangers seemed fairly arbitrary, while the stakes were unclear, at best. I couldn't imagine sticking with these characters for seasons to come. This news (a complete series reset to a new story) gives me some hope that I might enjoy later seasons--and it makes me want to try again with this first season. I don't mind the spoilers, because telling us that these characters will die is about as stunning a surprise as the sun going down in the evening.

[Great call on the dual Dillahunt. He was sort of a one-man rep company, wasn't he? And only Milch would think of pulling that off just because he liked an actor so much. And both roles were so great, and so completely different. It does, indeed, hint at what a well-cast rep drama could offer.

Oh, and if you're still missing Deadwood, as am I, stay tuned for HBO's Luck. That's the new David Milch show for HBO, and it's not long at all before some familiar 'Deadwood' faces start to appear. - DB]

Comment posted on December 29, 2011 1:13 PM
CM said:

@ Sarah - According to series co-creator Ryan Murphy, it will not be the same (fabulous) house in Season Two - reread the article above.

I agree that Jessica Lange was outstanding, but I hope there's a future role for young Taissa Farmiga. For me it's nice to see young people in roles that are complex, neither Disney nor "Twilight".

Comment posted on December 29, 2011 3:33 PM
Rich said:

I am equally intrigued & confused. Same actors but in different roles? Like an alternate universe? or perhaps another time-line all together?

Case in point it's the 1880's and the house WE (the viewers) know is not yet built yet but maybe it's the town that's freaky? It would be a splendidly spooky idea to have an "origin season arc" about How the house or the land it sits on got turned into a "spiritual hot-spot" - maybe all of season 1's characters are reincarnations of spirits caught in a similar "horror story" occurring 120 years prior to season 1? - This could easily go into "Dark Shadows" territory as James Troutman (from comment #1 ) suggests.

Maybe it's not even the house? Maybe the bricks or stones are from a "Haunted Home" somewhere prior that holds this spiritual energy? The exploration of "How the house became 'Bad'" could be fun. Maybe season 2 ends with Constance (Jessica Lang) arriving at the house on day 1. I will say I like that season 1 is for the most part self contained.

I like that we'll be able to see all these actors interact again for another season.

[We can hope. It's not definite yet -- but it IS intriguing. - DB]

Comment posted on December 29, 2011 11:59 PM

Frank said:

I have an actor who appeared in the same series as two different characters, Garret Dillahunt (Currently Bert on Raising Hope). He played Wild Bill's killer, Jack McCall in season one and then returned in season two as Francis Wolcott. He was terrific in both roles and also has proven himself to be quite the comedic actor on Raising Hope.

Good call -- or McCall! You're the second reader to mention this, and it's a smart reference point. Thanks. - DB]

Comment posted on December 30, 2011 10:01 AM

Bob Smith said:

I'll have to say this for the season finale of American Horror Story: I was never sure where it was going, or what road it was taking me down exactly. But at least now the whole Harmon family is together!...

Comment posted on December 30, 2011 11:52 AM

Annie said:

OK - the second episode about the brutally murdered nurses almost sent me screaming to erase this show from the DVR schedule. But I am glad I stayed. it proved to be an intriguing series and the acting was just top notch. Jessica Lange, Denis O'Hare, Lily Rabe - all just wonderful. Can't wait for the next season - what a great idea to start fresh- but I hope to see some of these ghosts again!!!

[Me, too. Agreed on all counts. - DB]

Comment posted on December 30, 2011 11:56 AM

Grant Goodyear said:

I vaguely remember that one of the CBS "crimetime after primetime" shows was an anthology. I don't remember if it was actually good (nor do I remember its name), but I quite liked it.

[I vaguely almost remember that myself. But I don't remember anything in that late-night franchise being good. But I'll do some research. Thanks. - DB]

Comment posted on December 30, 2011 2:28 PM
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