American Horror Story, Ep. 1.03, “Murder House”: Series Begins Fixing Its Mistakes

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American Horror Story Episode 1.03 “Murder House”
Written by Jennifer Salt
Directed by Bradley Buecker
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm ET on FX

This week’s episode of American Horror Story, “Murder House”, improves the series in several ways. First, the pacing has slowed for the better. It’s still too fast at times, but at least it’s not an irritation now. Second, the horror mythology takes a back seat to the characters. Now the stakes are rising through genuine problems rather than just a monster in the basement. Third, and most intriguing, is the mystery that the show is weaving.

Now an established pattern, the opener is another house flashback. This time it’s 1983, and young Moira the housemaid (Alexandra Breckenridge) is suffering the unwanted sexual advances of a man soon discovered to be Constance’s husband. After Constance catches the two, she promptly kills them both with a handgun.

Back in the present, Ben and Vivien work out the logistics of selling the house as quickly as possible. Due to their financial bind, they’re stuck for now. Ben continues practicing in the house to curb the money troubles, and while seeing a new patient (Adina Porter), he blacks out. He wakes up outside with blood on his hands, unable to remember what exactly happened.

Later, Ben discovers that the patient actually harmed herself during the session and committed suicide soon after. Still unclear about what happened, Ben suspects that Moira drugged him and ultimately holds the responsibility for the tragedy.

Meanwhile Vivien learns more about the origins of the house. She takes a trolley tour of macabre destinations in LA of which the house is a main attraction. At this point, the show treats the audience with a convoluted flashback sequence featuring a Dr. Frankenstein-esque figure and his wife.

Back home, Ben’s ex-mistress Hayden (Kate Mara) makes a surprise visit to let Ben know she’s not getting an abortion and that she expects him to support the baby. It becomes clear that she plans to tell Vivien, and Ben tries to calm her. Before he can, Larry (Denis O’Hare), a former resident who’s stalking Ben, comes out of nowhere and takes a shovel to Hayden’s head, killing her.

Ben goes into shock as Larry helps bury the body in a makeshift grave in the backyard. In the grave already is the corpse of Moira. Another rushed sequence shows Ben covering the burial site with a gazebo. Undead Moira sees this from the windows as Constance taunts that she’s now trapped, leaving the series on a very minor cliffhanger.

This episode is damage control for the mistakes of the first two episodes. The plot still feels all over the place, but it’s starting to settle. Scenes play out longer, and the cuts aren’t as abrupt. The show has been improving since the pilot, and hopefully by next week, it can finally hit its stride in both pacing and plot development.

In this week’s American Horror Story segment of The Televerse podcast, co-host Simon Howell mused that horror nerds would delight most in the show’s horror-movie references. Any fan of the genre could easily start naming off influential film titles through most of the show’s scenes. However, rather than a collection of homage, American Horror Story seems to be a product of subconscious absorption.

One can imagine the writers drafting a scary moment, doing their best to make it work and not realizing the uncanny similarity it shares with other horror scenes. One example is a scene where Vivien gives a tour of house to a potential buyer. The audience just saw the buyer in a 1920s flashback, so she’s obviously a ghost. To drive the point, the camera swings around behind her head to show a gaping, bloody gunshot wound.

This is so reminiscent of The Sixth Sense that it’s ridiculous. If the writers were just ripping off other movies, they would probably be subtler than this. Ironically enough, the show exudes a genuine innocence during these shocker moments, making horror nerds more likely to roll their eyes at the show’s naïveté than to dissect its influences.

Though this is clearly one of the show’s main flaws, it still gets points for effort. A horror nerd fan base for a show like this a given. What’s admirable is that the show is doing its best to reach beyond the obvious viewers. And now that a large bulk of the attention-grabbing scenes have played out in the first two episodes, the show can finally start evolving, which is what happened this week.

Writers toned down significantly on the horror mythology. There are some creepy flashbacks, but few scenes were meant to be scary. The scenes allocated for scares actually felt like an interruption to the drama developing. As hoped, the characters were able to play around a bit more, especially Ben. Three episodes in and he’s already covering up a murder from his wife.

It goes without saying that Jessica Lange is still the best player here. She’s the most fun to watch and straddles the genre line between drama and horror extremely well. In fact, everyone in the main cast is decent. Occasionally, one of the actors will go over the top. So, with a bit of wrangling from the directors, the acting will soon be a solid reason to watch.

The main reason to watch the series now, instead of the horror/gore, is for the mystery that’s building. Seemingly unmotivated actions turn out to have purpose (see Constance’s cupcake in last week’s Home Invasion). Questions are posed, sometimes answered and hints are dropping everywhere. It’s obvious that Constance is pulling the strings. How and why is the mystery, leaving the Harmons at her mercy (or perhaps under her protection) without realizing it.

The show has already managed to spark discussion regarding Moira, Constance, and of course, the house. As far as theories go, what are some of yours? Leave your comments in the section below.

Ryan Clagg

5 Comments
  1. Elias says

    This show is so good and so bad at the same time. It’s a giant bloody blur of tropes and references to every really good moment from every really good horror movie, but it just works so well! And I can’t imagine being a DirecTV customer right now with this negotiation with FOX looming over their heads…if things go south DirecTV customers stand to lose FX, among other channels, and as a DISH customer/employee, I’m just glad I don’t have to worry about it.

  2. Mario in Philly says

    Kate: I’m a very irregular Twitter tweeter but I’ll look for you.(I check in sometimes on Sundays during Amazing Race to see what Phil Keoghan has to say). I’m @rbovaboy

  3. Ryan Clagg says

    Mario, I did mean LOUD. Dylan McDermott, Kate Mara and Francis Conroy all had weird moments of escalation. Stuck out like a sore thumb… or a rubber man.

    Next time I’ll do my best to tie my review in with Top Chef.

  4. Mario in Philly says

    I’m always a day or two behind on AHS because I’m a Top Chef freak. But I’ve read the non-spoiler parts of this write-up and I tend to agree (with hopes that last night’s episode is improving.)
    And if by over the top acting you mean LOUD I think it must be Dylan McDermot, who I generally like and like to look at, but generally he starts speaking his dialogue Up Here and has nowhere to go but UP HERE!
    I loved Connie Britton on Friday Night Lights but it’s taking some adjustment to see her in any role other than Tammy Taylor.

    1. Kate Kulzick says

      Popping into the comments where I don’t really belong to say Mario, if you’re on Twitter, I’d love to talk Top Chef with you- drop me a line! To make this slightly more relevant, while Connie Britton just is Tami Taylor to me, I thought she did a good job of separating this performance from Tami, at least in the pilot. She brings insti-gravitas to what is a somewhat ridiculous role/show.

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