Within the past decade, the availability of TV on DVD has demonstrated that the first season of any great series is an obligatory viewing experience. The very nature of watching television is a passive process, but it’s still a chore to get to know a show’s characters, tone, plot, etc. It all just feels so slow.
American Horror Story took the opposite approach. The first episodes were a rushed mess, but now this is starting to feel like a conscious decision by the writers. The show took an expository shortcut. It threw out all the characters and quickly mixed them into a collection of subplots that played out clumsily through the first three episodes. It was a brutal few weeks, but now the show’s universe is familiar and no longer burdened by introductions. Now, audiences are reaping the benefits of this sudden immersion through this week’s episode, Halloween, Part 2, which is so surprisingly good that it makes the previous four episodes forgivable.
The episode picks up with Larry harassing Violet inside the house. Ben fends him off only to then deal with Hayden’s ghost, who terrorizes Vivien and threatens her unborn baby. Meanwhile, Tate relives with his dark past after a group of bloodied high school teenagers confront him about “what he did.”
This week belonged to Tate, played by Evan Peters. Early in the episode, he has a monologue that successfully humanizes his character and transforms him from annoying to sympathetic. Like always, he layers on the teenage angst, but finds a better way to express it through his scene with Violet. The show follows through with this story to culminate in one of the season’s best scenes.
The last moment with Tate and the high school crew was nearly perfect. Tate’s revelation unfolds cleanly without falling into one of the bizarrely extended flashbacks the show’s been prone to use. Instead, the scene teases the full story, allowing viewers to figure it out on their own. A full flashback would have actually worked, considering the buildup and relevance to the plot, but it wasn’t necessary. The Tate-centric scenes also beautifully tie in the horror mythology, proving for the first time that the show is capable of storytelling that is both entertaining and intelligent.
As well written as that scene was, it was hampered by the use of Bernard Herrmann’s “Twisted Nerve,” a musical selection recently resurrected in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill Volume 1 (Daryl Hannah whistled it). The song was fitting for Tate’s scene, but distracting due to its familiarity. This ultimately cheapened the emotional payoff from his character.
As for the rest of the characters, Constance also had a very endearing moment, delivering a clever monologue that served to deepen her character and offer insight into the mythology. She touches on the idea of immortality, commenting that youth never flees, but is “merely passed down to a new generation.” Such is the house and its victims.
The episode managed to showcase every ghost without cluttering the plot. Their motivations are still confusing. Some help, while others hurt. Some have total autonomy, while others can’t leave. The current lack of set rules leaves many scenes bewildering, but promises to reward viewer loyalty (a future episode is titled ‘Rubber Man’). For now, it’s best to sit back and trust that the writers will eventually touch on these details. They already have tied up some loose ends, but with the flurry of information in the first few episodes, it’s easy to miss.
“Halloween, Part 2” fine-tuned the show’s faulty elements. The relaxed paced allowed for much-needed calm and sincere character moments. The balance of plot with the horror mythology smoothly developed the characters of Hayden and Tate. Best of all, the episode kept its focus. It abandoned the superfluous flashbacks that often interrupted the main action of the show and followed only a few characters. Writers finally found a mode of exposition that works and will hopefully use this episode as a template for the rest of the season.