American Horror Story, Ep. 1.09, “Spooky Little Girl”: Keeps the ball rolling

American Horror Story Review, Season 1, Episode 9, “Spooky Little Girl”
Written by Jennifer Salt
Directed by John Scott
Airs Wednesdays at 10:00 pm ET on FX

“Spooky Little Girl” covers a lot of ground. It introduces a possible recurring character and spends equal time with several plotlines. This week, Hayden discovers more about her potential as a spirit, having more fun in the house while Vivien is stuck in the mental institution. Ben struggles with the temptations of Moira and his new alluring patient, Elizabeth. The show also spends more time with Constance’s relationship to her boy toy Travis. The episode finds a good rhythm in the exposition of these multiple stories and keeps the ball rolling for next week.

The opening flashback, set in 1947, incorporates the famous, real life Black Dahlia murder into the show’s mythology. Considering the murder was never solved, the writers take liberty in weaving the mystery into the show’s universe. It is a clever move that introduces the new character Elizabeth Short, played by guest star Mena Suvari.

This show often takes a heavy-handed approach in its portrayal of the past. Everything seen and heard screams the respective decade to the point that it feels like parody. Unfortunately, the actors suffer for the show’s lazy attempt at capturing the essence of any era pre-1983.

For example, Suvari, a competent actress, comes off as a ridiculous in her scenes. A little more research would have benefitted the period piece aspect of the show. Rather, the show settles for a cliché, having Suvari repeat that she’s going to be a Hollywood star. It’s the same mistake made with Dr. Montgomery and his wife Nora in the 1920s. They’re not people. They’re cartoons in the animated landscape of nostalgia.

Like last week’s Rubber Man, the show uses the metaphor of the past to extract the same emotional beats in the present. This time, the parallels are between Elizabeth and Travis, Constance’s boyfriend. As trite as the “Hollywood Star” theme is with Elizabeth, it actually works very well with Travis, who’s already a sympathetic character. This results in several tense scenes between him and Constance that become the highlights of the episode.

Though rife with horror scenes and sexual impulses, the show’s most unexpected moments come from the character developments. Many times, guest stars feel wasted on one-note characters. Kate Mara as Hayden especially felt doomed to replay just another fatal attraction.

Instead, Mara has a fresh take on the archetype. She has a strong sense of irony, allowing her to avoid the melodramatic pitfalls that accompany such a role. In other words, she’s crazy, but not too crazy.

That’s why Mara’s scenes lately have been more fun to watch than the main cast. Even though she’s a ghost, she’s the most realistic character in the show. Her self-awareness affords her the opportunity to easily be threatening and comedic. Someone like Jessica Lange, as amazing as she is to this show, can only really play her character dark and forlorn. Any humor from her comes unintentionally. Alternatively, Mara can view her situation objectively, comment on how absurd it is, then jump in and cause the absurdity.

Hayden is an interesting storytelling technique disguised as a character. Through her, the writers do an amazing job of explaining the rules of the mythology. Just like the audience, Hayden is new to the spirit realm in the house, and as she explores the supernatural environment, so does the audience. Her storyline follows the same beats as that of a superhero’s origin story. Fortunately, she’s not the focus of the show, so her origin story doesn’t slow down the action.

The dynamic between Vivien and Ben has set Dylan McDermott as an unintentional villain. McDermott is likable in his role as Ben, but the character still feels unsympathetic. It’s hard to feel sorry for him because he’s caused most of the couple’s misery. So, even though Ben makes great strides this week, the emotional payoff isn’t there.

This show is fun. It’s not always graceful or the most respectable, but it’s usually entertaining. That’s why it’s easy to forgive American Horror Story for a less-than-perfect episode when the plot developments are so intriguing. How do you weigh in on the episode? Please leave your comments below.

Ryan Clagg

 

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