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American Horror Story: Cult Recap Episode 10, “Charles (Manson) in Charge”

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American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 10, “Charles (Manson) in Charge”
American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 10, “Charles (Manson) in Charge”

In so fervently, even humanely, leaning into Kai's (Evan Peters) madness as it once did into Ally's (Sarah Paulson), “Charles (Manson) in Charge” manages to get back to the inspired lunacy of American Horror Story: Cult's first few episodes and reclaim a sense of purpose, one that puts character development on a level playing field with political provocation. The flashbacks are no longer misleading or disconnected and the aesthetics are, while still dissonant, lush with meaning, as in the framing of bodies and use of mirrors that stress both Kai's fraught connection to his sister, Winter (Billie Lourd), as well as his psychic break from reality.

American Horror Story: Cult Recap Episode 7, “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag”

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American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 7, “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag”
American Horror Story: Cult Recap: Episode 7, “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag”

Toward the end of “Valerie Solanas Died for Your Sins: Scumbag,” Kai (Evan Peters) confesses to Winter (Billie Lourd) that while he’s gotten far on charisma and fear, his cult can’t go any further without a deeper philosophy. The emptiness of Kai’s accomplishments, the need for something more, serves to self-define American Horror Story: Cult itself. The show’s greatest successes have come from its performances and the real-world traumas from which it’s blatantly taken inspiration. But the strength of the standalone flashback that occupies much of this episode—the rise and fall of Valerie Solanas (Lena Dunham)—speaks to the weakness of the overall season.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 8, "Blood Bath"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 8, “Blood Bath”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 8, “Blood Bath”

“Blood Bath” is another of American Horror Story: Freak Show’s housecleaning episodes, in which a bunch of characters are killed to remarkably little effect in the services of, well, that’s debatable. To reinvigorate viewer interests after a holiday hiatus? To thin out the ranks of the major players for a season climax that’s theoretically right around the narrative bend? Impossible to tell, because, as we’ve already established, the series has no rules; it’s adrift in a manner that recalls prior seasons of American Horror Story such as Murder House and, especially, Coven. Whenever a plot thread is threatening to cohere or gain momentum, along comes a killing to render any prior information moot. This sort of upsetting of the applecart can represent an exhilarating break from the rigors of TV or film conventions if timed right, but it can also signal desperate wallowing if overindulged. Imagine Psycho if Norman Bates was killed right after Marion’s mysterious murder, and we never returned to his story, and then Sam Loomis was unexpectedly killed, and then Marion’s sister soon after him. The initial shock of Marion’s second-act killing would devolve into tedious cacophony, and Freak Show has been in that state for the last few episodes.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 7, "Test of Strength"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 7, “Test of Strength”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 7, “Test of Strength”

“Test of Strength” is a work of bookkeeping, an episode intended to remind audiences who Freak Show’s denizens precisely are before a break for the Thanksgiving holiday. Everyone’s accounted for this week, and the narrative, busy and lacking in urgency, serves as a representative reminder of why Freak Show has grown so interminable: The characters’ actions exist in respective vacuums, appearing to affect nothing. A flamboyant murder can be quickly swept away, leading to the next episode, which starts at a moment of relative peace, builds toward another murder or betrayal, only to reset yet again. Characters are constantly plotting against one another, but this often scans as weirdly harmless, because a “surprise” atrocity will reliably render the prospective conspiracies moot. American Horror Story grows tedious every season, excluding the high-water mark that’s Asylum, but no prior installment has flat-lined as quickly as Freak Show. It’s an impressive costume and set pageant, and little more.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 6, "Bullseye"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 6, “Bullseye”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 6, “Bullseye”

“Bullseye” sports a tempo that’s decidedly slow, obsessive, and damn near ponderous for Freak Show. Rather than racing from one atrocity to the next, we’re allowed, refreshingly, to stew in the vivid carnival atmosphere a bit—to enjoy a sense of deliberation that’s signaled right from the episode’s memorable opening scene. Elsa (Jessica Lange) locates a large spinning bull’s-eye that’s designed for knife-throwing acts, and, while practicing on a dummy, she envisions the various freaks to be tied up to the board in its place. This sequence is revealed, retrospectively, to function as a succinct metaphor for the story’s governing and (presumably) escalating conflicts while foreshadowing a significant assault that could be revealed to be a murder. The episode vaguely recalls the chilling Tyrone Power film Nightmare Alley in how it shows the carny atmosphere to be unhinging its protagonist, though Elsa was certainly already unhinged; we’re just now beginning to get to know her.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 5, "Pink Cupcakes"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 5, “Pink Cupcakes”

“Pink Cupcakes” is a marked improvement over last week’s episode of Freak Show, “Edward Mordrake (Part 2).” For starters, there’s something like an actual plot, though it inelegantly crisscrosses back and forth between each freak’s reliably grueling plight-of-the-week. More importantly, Stanley’s (Denis O’Hare) presence on the freak show’s campgrounds provides the series with a significant representation of the “straight” world that’s often discussed, but rarely seen, casting shades of actual contrast and conflict on the gruesome chicanery. With the series belaboring the freaks’ theoretically unexpected likability at every possible turn, it’s the villains who stand to walk away with Freak Show, as their unapologetically one-dimensional mugging comes to represent a sort of refreshing truth in advertising.

American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap Episode 2, "Massacres and Matinees"

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 2, “Massacres and Matinees”

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American Horror Story: Freak Show Recap: Episode 2, “Massacres and Matinees”

After a premiere that logically provided us a 101 on the characters and their blossoming resentments, the second episode of American Horror Story: Freak Show allows us to leisurely soak in the considerable atmospherics of Elsa’s (Jessica Lange) financially imperiled Cabinet of Curiosities. “Massacres and Matinees” opens with a gorgeous master shot of the sideshow that pans from the top of one of the tents to provide us with a full daytime survey of the grounds, which includes the nearby swamp and its accompanying water and wild grass, a Ferris wheel, a merry-go-round, a great variety of red and blue striped tents and the dusty trails connecting them, and even a pickup truck with the word “circus” painted across it. This image is lit by autumnal sunlight that’s equally suggestive of dawn and dusk, emphasizing both beauty and decay, particularly as embodied by the broken-down vehicles and the exhausted workers shuffling between tents. There’s no doubt that Ray Bradbury would kill for such an iconic and suggestive portrait of the comingling of Americana evil and innocence.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 13, "The Seven Wonders"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 13, “The Seven Wonders”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 13, “The Seven Wonders”

“The Seven Wonders” finds American Horror Story: Coven largely tending, predictably for the most part, to a final bit of plot bookkeeping. Fiona (Jessica Lange) is finally dead, after one last inevitable revival or fake-out or reversal, and apparently destined to spend her eternity catfishing with the Axeman (Danny Huston) in a realm presided over by Papa Legba (Lance Reddick), a demonic entity that’s retrospectively revealed to be entirely superfluous to Coven’s grand narrative scheme. Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) and Queenie (Gabourey Sidibe) are installed as new Supreme Cordelia’s (Sarah Paulson) upper management, and it appears that their work will be cut out for all of them, as a swift PR maneuver has rejuvenated the institution with a global-wide new influx of troubled witches looking to hone their baffling new powers.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 12, "Go to Hell"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 12, “Go to Hell”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 12, “Go to Hell”

The penultimate episode of American Horror Story: Coven, “Go to Hell” finds the series still desperately scrambling to introduce busy conceits. Theoretically, we should be eagerly anticipating the revelation of Fiona’s (Jessica Lange) successor as the next Supreme, but how can we? As an audience, we never know if any event “counts,” or if it will be reversed to satisfy a new creative whimsy. The first two or three hundred character resurrections were a cheeky way of illustrating Coven’s ’s willingness to screw with viewer expectation, but that device, along with the witches’ highly varying procession of week-to-week powers, has long ago devolved into tedium. And somewhere down the line, creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk also lost a valuable sense of pace: Major events seem to rush by now in a barely coherent tizzy, while negligible vignettes eat up a significant portion of running time.

American Horror Story: Coven Recap Episode 11, "Protect the Coven"

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 11, “Protect the Coven”

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American Horror Story: Coven Recap: Episode 11, “Protect the Coven”

With only two episodes remaining, it’s probably fair to say that American Horror Story: Coven has evolved in a fashion opposite to that of the prior American Horror Story: Asylum. Where the latter gradually discarded its various narrative convolutions to arrive at a conclusion of surprising emotional purity, the former opened with a confident sense of parody that’s been gradually cluttered up with a variety of desperately WTF tonal switcheroos. It’s difficult at this point to evade the suspicion that creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk prize the moment, the here and the now, above any particular thematic coherence—a development that won’t come as much of a surprise to those who watched Murphy’s initially addictive, eventually monotonously “outrageous” series Nip/Tuck. Which is to say that this week’s episode of Coven, “Protect the Coven,” is eventful without being especially involving, as Murphy and Falchuk’s game of “anything goes” appears to be very close to stalling out. If anything can happen, then nothing’s really at stake, as the writers have proven themselves perfectly willing to reverse or outright ignore any past development that has the potential to impede a moment of quick theoretical shock value or novelty.