Scream Queens, Season 1, Episode 3, “Chainsaw”
Written by Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk & Ian Brennan
Directed by Ian Brennan
Airs on Tuesdays at 9pm (ET) on FOX
The farther Scream Queens moves away from its obsession with the horrendous Chanel Oberlin, the more appealing it becomes to watch as an entertaining gambit rather than just a scare factory. While Emma Roberts settles into the role more fully in the third hour, the lines she is given are still over the top and fail to create a character to root for or appreciate on any level, besides being an avatar for selfish consumerism and popularity addiction. The good news with Chanel is that many of her one-on-one scenes here are far funnier than they were in the first two hours, but the flip side of that is that many are retreads of things the show has already done; a showdown in the freezer with one of the Chanels who no longer wants to be part of her games, a breakup with Chad because she’s not popular enough, a face-off with Dean Munsch. All are repeats of tête-à-têtes that occurred during the premiere and without the additional humor, would drag all of the forward action to a screeching halt. Even with moments like Chanel near-begging Chad to get back together by sleeping with a few less people, the show is close to falling into the trap of figuring out something works well and going back to the well over and over again. In a third season this would be all but expected, but not in a third episode. It’s a careful game Scream Queens has to play, as so much of horror is an inherently repetitive genre, one of the many reasons it usually works better in film than television.
The other pledges, the frat brothers, and even the adults all get more of a purpose this week and additional scenes to show off. By all but removing Grace and Zayday from the proceedings outside of some minor sleuthing, the other Kappa sisters and the adults involved all take a step forward and become less archetypal. Granted, most of this additional characterization is that they also slept with Chad Radwell, but the simple act of allowing them to react to things angrily or in a surprised manner rather than by simply agreeing with Chanel or being scared of the Red Devil adds layers, which is a step in the right direction. Abigail Breslin having to reference the sexual positions of being “spit roasted” and “being Eiffel Towered” just so the episode receives its edgy quota is much less interesting than watching her dig into the insecurities of her character to be properly appalled that Hester received a makeover and the Chanel nickname.
Breslin is capable of far more than being a henchman and a yes-woman to Chanel and this small peek at the cracking of her polished exterior is a welcome hint that she may yet get to show off her acting chops in far better ways than recounting frat boy threesomes. The same goes for Billie Lourd, who is genuinely captivating in her breakout scene when she spills the beans about her true parentage. The conversation has a taste of Mean Girls in that the audience is in on the secret of how dumb Chanel #3 seems to be, but she plays it more cleverly than simply a person with a low IQ passing on information she shouldn’t be. There is more between those earmuffs than the show is letting on and it is one of the more intriguing character developments of this early going. Niecy Nash continues to steal the show as Denise and is probably the only character truly making headway with detective work. While everyone else runs around pointing fingers and trying to cover up the killings, she is doing simple things like checking Twitter and spraying rooms with her trusty g0-to bottle of luminol. Nash makes so many of the best lines even better, such as her devotion to Arby’s despite her hatred of horseradish. The Dickie Dollar Scholars, the Kappa sisters, the Dean, and even the parents are all quick to judge the students or guess at a killer but Denise is the only one actually doing any police work. Which probably means she is the killer.
The camerawork in this episode lifts from many classic horror methods, from the shot of Grace and Zayday entering the convenience store in which the camera follows them from below to the camera following Gigi through the Kappa house by framing her with the sconces and lamps. With so much sarcasm, the horror aspects have to try extra hard in order to land and the shot decisions are a big part of that. Ian Brennan is the third and last member of the main writing trio to get behind the camera and the best to do so thus far. He uses the camera to make characters feel trapped in their surroundings before they even know they are in danger. In the opening convenience store sequence, the girls are reflected in a register-mounted mirror as they stroll through the aisles searching for sustenance for the barren Kappa house. The concavity diminishes them and puts them in a nonexistent corner before the devil even shows up. Similarly, when Grace is on the phone with her dad at the end of the episode, she walks further into the abandoned building they are parked next to and even though she does not seem to be in immediate danger, she is cornered into the frame by the overhanging concrete. A sense of foreboding is established even when no Red Devil is in the shot. The color contrast in the best scene of the episode, that of the fraternity brothers being accosted in the middle of the street by multiple devils, is seemingly easy to do but Brennan makes the clash of red and white (and eventually the red of blood on white suits) so arresting it is an extra treat in the middle of an already great set piece. For a show still settling into its beats week-to-week and figuring out more than a few growing pains, these visual flourishes are important in maintaining a worthwhile reason for viewers to keep paying attention.
- “Who is stealing all these bodies?!”
- “Ew, I heard eating box is what killed Michael Douglas.”
- Poor ice cream cone mascot Aaron Cohen, the audience never even gets to see his face. His campus-stroll monologue is a great parody of the, “This character is perfectly happy so he’s about to get murdered” idea.
- “When you’re inside a costume you can get away with anything” is ever so slightly too meta, but a nice touch.
- Charisma Carpenter and Roger Bart as Chanel #2’s parents are a perfect casting choice for a pair of self-absorbed, haughty one percenters.
- “Are you sure she’s not just hiding in the house somewhere and you haven’t found her because your house is huge.”
- “He just showed me his knife collection the whole time. I mean I still slept with him, but my heart wasn’t in it.”
- The Dickie Dollar Scholars are convinced Boone’s death was indeed a murder. Little do they know he was probably one of the two devils that indiscriminately chainsawed through arms in the street ambush.
- The fraternity brothers walking down the street in all white while “Backstreet’s Back” plays is the best music cue Scream Queens has done thus far and may not be beaten in the next ten weeks.
- “Hashtag cahoots!”
- Murderer guessing corner: Dean Munsch makes a convincing patsy, and the show sets it up so that she could feasibly get from her bedroom to the living room and back again, but it is too early for legitimate suspects to be popping up and this will probably serve as a red herring for the adults while the kids run rampant. Boone is almost certainly one of the two devils that attacks his former frat, but could the other be Pete? Zayday? Wes?!