American Horror Story, Ep. 1.11, “Birth”: A beautiful nightmare
American Horror Story Review, Season 1, Episode 11, “Birth”
Written by Tim Minear
Directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon
Airs Wednesdays at 10:00 pm ET on FX
This penultimate episode, “Birth,” feels like a finale. Without rushing, this episode builds an exciting momentum from the very beginning. Everyone in the house is ready for the twins, and Ben is caught in the middle. More on that later.
The opening flashback is extra creepy this week as little Tate encounters baby Thaddeus, the reanimated baby of Dr. Montgomery and Nora. The slow appearance of the face in the darkness is intriguing enough to bring anyone close to the screen to see exactly what it is. Then, it grabs you. The timing made this scare very effective, and is still unsettling after repeated viewings.
After the opener, the show spends some time with Violet. As expected, she finds herself in the doldrums of her newfound afterlife, but the appearance of Chad and Patrick give her a new objective. To protect her unborn brothers, Violet seeks the help of Billie Dean, Constance’s medium friend, to banish the two men. This scene proves to be very revelatory in its explanation of ghost mythology.
It breaks down like this: negative events create a negative psychic energy that stores itself within the house. This energy is self-perpetuating, causing terrible events and feeding off of them to become stronger. Now it seeks to break into the world of the living through Violet’s baby. This scene is very satisfying. It clears any remaining confusion as to “what” the house is and does so neatly in a short monologue.
This week, Zachary Quinto is more sinister as Chad. He’s an interesting character that evolved from a sympathetic figure to a psychotic mess. In his scene with Constance, Chad blatantly says that he plans to smother the babies so they can never grow old and stay cute forever. The idea of this is so disturbing that it removes any integrity from his character. Quinto handles the material gracefully, though, and will hopefully appear in the finale to showcase more of his twisted side.
The second half of the episode revisits Ben’s frustration when trying to move his family from the house’s grasp. As a psychiatrist, he’s chosen to keep a rational, but stubborn, mind in response to the house. But this week, he hits a dead end in almost every rational action he tries to take. He can’t get Violet out of the house, he can’t get Vivien to Florida, and he’s simply stuck.
Director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon throws both Ben and the audience into a delirious head spin during Vivien’s labor. Gomez-Rejon first creates a very tense atmosphere with his use of extreme close-ups and push-ins. He then employs canted camera angles, blurry focus, and a barrage of disturbing visual inserts to create a nightmarish scene that reflects Ben’s internal state.
Dylan McDermott was on autopilot for most of the season. It never really felt like his fault, because his character was duller than all the events happening around him. Ben spent most of the season in denial, so McDermott couldn’t really do much than just react calmly to the supernatural. The labor scene marks a turning point for both Ben and McDermott. This manifests when Constance slaps him and chastises him for his reluctance to let the house “help” him and Vivien.
As the show has already demonstrated, it is very good at assigning relevance to that which seems insignificant. Vivien’s labor proves again that many details of the show are crucial and that no character is extraneous. Dr. Montgomery is there for a reason. The nurses are nurses for a reason. The twin troublemaking boys make their purpose clear by smashing Ben’s SUV. The house ensures that the Harmons can’t leave by creating the perfect conditions for the birth to take place. The writers have been building this moment from the beginning, and they hid their intentions well.
In the final moments of Vivien’s labor, McDermott makes his desperation truly apparent. Though it’s not overtly stated, it’s clear that Ben is admitting to himself for the first time of his mistakes. He seeks true forgiveness from his wife, promising that they can be happy again. The scene feels almost religious as Ben relinquishes all of his perceived power to the will of the house. McDermott embodies the character so well that you realize that he himself has not been boring, just playing the role as it was meant to be played. It’s a beautiful scene, and it’s because of McDermott that the audience can feel the regret of Vivien’s death.
From here, Gomez-Rejon takes over again to end the nightmare. At that quiet moment of Vivien’s passing, Ben finds himself alone. Contrary to the early push-ins of his camera, Gomez-Rejon pulls away slowly from Ben to show his solitary confinement. Everyone is gone, including Vivien. The spotlight now falls on Ben, the broken man who used to have everything.
This episode is a great lead up to the finale. It leaves the audience not necessarily wanting more, but wanting to feel something other than sorrow. With the only cliffhanger being Hayden’s struggle for the baby, “Birth” doesn’t leave much for speculation. What are you hoping to see in this season’s final hour?