American Horror Story, Season 3, Episode 4: “Fearful Pranks Ensue”
Written by Jennifer Salt
Directed by Michael Uppendahl
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX
If there’s one week in which a series entitled American Horror Story simply has to deliver the goods, it’s the one containing All Hallow’s Eve. In that respect, “Fearful Pranks Ensue” falls a little short, particularly if one expected it to step up the freakiness and/or gore quotient. Actually, as it turns out, it belongs to a entirely different sort of tradition: the time-honored transitional episode. Only in its closing moments does it threaten to take its genre elements to the next level of nutty.
1961. “I have faith in the future,” a hopeful black mother tells Marie Laveau, right before she finds her son dead at the hands of anti-integration thugs. As always, when men enter the picture on Coven, it’s only to harm or be harmed (or both). The sequence is meant to remind us just how powerful Laveau’s brand of magic is – and to foreshadow a late-episode development – but it also serves as yet another example of this season’s use of outsized genre tropes as delivery devices for corrective justice. On Coven, zombies aren’t just the walking dead, they’re agents of social justice.
Unfortunately, most of the episode skews in favor of the least exciting plot device the season has yet to present, the Witches’ Council. One would think that the investigative arm of a group of supernaturally gifted women would be able to solve problems by doing more than simply asking questions and accepting the answers at face value. Yet that’s all the Council ever seems to do, from the initial investigation into the former Supreme’s death to the disappearance of Madison. As much as I’d like to care about Frances Conroy and whatever on Earth it is she’s meant to be doing here, many of these scenes don’t contain any potent dramatic or comedic beats.
A big question mark for quite some time: why cast an actor who also happens to be a pretty damned memorable orator in a mute role? Denis O’Hare takes the spotlight for much of “Fearful Pranks Ensue,” but he only gets to speak once, before it’s revealed that he cut off his own tongue in order to protect Fiona from being burned alive. That’s all well and good, but how in hell did we get from there to Spalding propping up Madison’s corpse in a doll’s tea party, other than to (successfully, it should be said) present a memorably unsettling image? Perhaps we’ll get an answer on that later, but I have my doubts. But, as ever, the men must have as many horrible secrets as possible, and that extends to Cordelia’s husband, who, as it turns out, is…what, exactly? Josh Hamilton excels at barely containing undercurrents of darkness, but I’m not immediately sold on this development as being an interesting one for this particular universe.
Despite that image and a couple others – I’ll given them some points for the still-blinking severed minotaur head, which manages to be both completely silly and a little creepy – “Fearful Pranks Ensue” falls flat as a Halloween outing, simply because it makes clear that it’s reserving the most ridiculous material for the next couple of weeks. While there’s undoubtedly plenty of payoff down the pike, this would have been ideal timing for a little more payoff and a little less teasing.