Monday, January 9, 2012

Review: American Horror Story "After Birth"

Non Spoiler Review:
After Birth brings an end to the Harmon family's first season in the murder house, and it doesn't disappoint. The pace is frenetic, as usual, and we're immediately delivered a few shockers within the first fifteen minutes. Then the plot meanders into some interesting territory, but it never lets up and offers a decisive conclusion to plenty of the story arcs. 

The finale left me with mixed feelings. It had everything necessary for a very satisfying end to the first season. Only subsequently have the writers confirmed that successive seasons will be about completely different people and locales, meaning this was an extended miniseries. Does it mean we'll never see another Jessica Lange diatribe or the Harmons again? I hope not. We'll just have to wait and see. Regardless of what comes, this freshman season concludes on a very cathartic note.

Spoilers Now!
Nine months before all hell broke loose, Vivien was preparing to leave Ben, despite their talk of moving to L.A. for a fresh start. She just can't forgive him, and a new house isn't going to fix it. Yet Ben persists and tries to convince her how amazing this house is and how great it will be. She says no. Then he uses all his manipulative psychological power to change her mind. He begs her to just come see the house. We all know how that turns out.

In the present, Ben calls out to his wife in the empty house, but he doesn't find her. He pays a visit to Connie, who's been looking after the baby, and a little reluctant to give him back to Ben now that Vivien's sister is coming out from Florida to help look after him. 

Connie's a bit rattled, and warns him that the house will kill the baby just like it did his wife and likely his daughter (whom she doesn't appear to know is dead yet). After all he's seen she asks how he can be so blind. That's when he sees the Langdon family photo that includes Tate, and sparks an epiphany and a flashback to when he spoke with Tate's mother on the phone (a vocally disguised Connie). He demands to know where he is, and she explains he's dead, and now Ben is paying for his sins. He warns her to lock her door and pray he doesn't come back.

Vivien is getting used to death and having coffee with Moira. It's hard for her to spy on Ben from afar, but he can't see her unless she wants him to. She watches her husband tend to the baby in the kitchen. And she doesn't want him to know she's in the house otherwise he'll never leave there, yet it's still difficult for her to see them go on with their lives.

And by the way, Moira isn't her servant anymore and she doesn't take orders from ghosts. Vivien suggests she call her by her first name and Moira suggests she not torture herself and leave Ben be (to tom cat around now that he's free of her, she politely muses).

Ben leaves the baby in his crib and says goodbye, then lays out all manner of documents and keys with notes before sitting down to try to blow his brains out with his gun. But he can't. Vivien takes the gun from him and tells him he can't leave their son. She wants him to take the infant and go. He wants to be together with her, and he knows he's not the baby's father. He then apologizes profusely for everything he's done. Vivien tells him not to be a drama queen and she forgives him. Just take the baby and never come back, and raise their child and be happy. And Violet?

Their daughter appears and Ben needs to apologize again for not noticing she was dead. She and her mother both press him to leave, because he's in danger every minute he's in the house. Ben finally concedes, says his goodbyes, gives Vivien one last kiss, and they're gone. 

Ben takes the baby downstairs but is stopped by Hayden. It's an ambush. The murdered home invaders throw a rope over him and string him up over the chandelier as she watches. He's tossed off the stairs and hung.

Later, Marcie is back showing the house, this time to the Ramos family, who have a son. She does an awesome job selling the home, even with the somewhat full disclosure that there were deaths there. The wife died in childbirth and the husband hung himself in grief, she explains. Marcie kept the dog. Their son Gabriel thinks it's a great house. And so they move in.

Connie gets a visit from her two favorite cops who are trying to solve the Harmon deaths and the missing baby. In a series of flashbacks we see she found Ben's body. Connie explains she entered the house after not hearing from him for some time. She then went to find the child but he was gone, too. Meanwhile, ghost Ben was reunited with Vivien and Violet (and they appear to be completely indifferent to the fate of the living baby). Connie has enough of their saccharine reunion and went searching in the basement, finding Violet's body. She then came upon Hayden with the child, but before they can get into a scrap, Travis slit Hayden's ghost throat and handed him over to Connie with a tender smile. So the cops think Violet is on the run with the boy, and that's all Connie says she knows. After they leave Connie goes in Addie's mirrored closet to retrieve the baby.

After the Ramos family has settled in, Gabriel finds Violet rummaging through his music collection. She seems much less depressing these days. But Tate is standing in the doorway watching and getting angry.

Miguel and Stacy Ramos get hot and heavy in the kitchen, while Ben and Vivien watch and muse how nice a couple they are, and they can't have a baby in this house given all that's happened. Moira suggests they'll need some help, given the number of angry and vengeful spirits in the house looking to do harm. Others are innocent and don't want to see more suffering.

Later on, Miguel goes for a sleepwalk to the oven (à la first episode Ben) while Stacy is terrorized by the rubber man. Gabriel gets a visit by Tate who explains Violet is his girlfriend. He's about to kill him but finds it difficult having to look into his eyes. Violet shows up and tells him to put down the knife. She never said goodbye to him, so they share a final kiss, which gives Gabriel time to flee, then she disappears herself. Tate is very sad.

Mayhem ensues. Vivien tells Miguel to open his eyes to what the house is truly about, while Moira and Larry's wife help add to the scares. Miguel can't hear Stacy screaming as she flees the rubber man, running into Beau, the dead nurses along the way, even the goddamned exterminator. Miguel gets treated to a disemboweled Black Dahlia and everyone meets up in the basement as the rubber man corners Stacy. It's Ben in the mask, and Vivien puts on a good act saying he's a perverted bastard and rips his stomach open with a knife. Ben shoots her in the head and both Harmons collapse to the floor, then sit up and tell them this is what the house does to them. Run! The Ramoses flee the house as the Harmons watch from the doorway. They decide they have to keep others from moving in.

Ben cleans up around the place as a desperate Marcie continues to reduce the price. Tate shows up and wants to talk to him, but Ben informs him he's a psychopath and he was incurable from the start. But guest what? Therapy doesn't work anyway. Tate wants to be forgiven, but Ben won't fall for his act anymore. Tate persists that he's sorry, so admits to his murders of the students, burning Larry, killing Chad and Patrick, and raping his wife. Ben can't absolve him of anything but Tate just wants to hang out sometime.

Vivien is playing her cello, looking the most at peace she's ever been. She hears a baby crying and in the basement finds Nora and the stillborn twin. Nora thinks she's the new nanny, and has quickly grown tired of the crying baby. She thinks he's a weakling and when she sees Vivien is able to quiet him down, her need for a baby isn't so important anymore. Nora isn't sure she has the patience to be a mother. Vivien shows the infant to Moira and asks her if she'll be a godmother. Moira's delighted.

The Harmons and Moira are decorating for Christmas. Ben lights the tree and they share a moment as one happy family, all of them at peace for the first time. Violet notices Hayden and Tate watching from the window. Hayden tells him to grow a pair because she's never going to talk to him again. He promises to wait forever if necessary.

Three years later (!) Connie walks into her hair stylist's to get a make over, given she's been so preoccupied with...her baby. Well, it's actually the child of cousins who died and she's taken him in. He's changed her life. She muses dreamily that all the hardships she's faced through her life have been leading to this sole purpose.

Reinvigorated, Connie heads home, but finds blood all over the floor and an empty cookie jar. Following the trail to the nursery, she finds the dead babysitter (throat slit) and her grandson sitting in the chair with bloody hands. He laughs and she sighs, "What am I going to do with you?"

The Verdict:
The pace of this series has never been an issue, and this episode was no exception. We get a series of satisfying flashbacks (yay, Travis!) that bring us up to speed, and then Ben is quickly dispatched. After Birth delivered on all my expectations offering closure on pretty much everything and ending on an ominous but fitting note for me.

Enter the Ramos family to provide a quick bit of comic relief as the Harmons go all Scooby Doo Mysteries to drive them out. But how are they going to keep the house empty? Won't property taxes, development, or whatever, eventually bring someone there? 

My other eye rolling bit was the immense peace everyone achieves when they're dead. Ben and Vivien become the perfect couple they never were in life, happily decorating the Christmas tree with all their angst forgotten. It was a nice ending for them, but I question how easily each could put their violent deaths and all the history behind them. Moira achieved her family, and I loved seeing them all together for that last scene, with a perfect rendition of Little Drummer Boy. But no Travis? No burned little girls to join them for Christmas? Or Beauregard? That would have been an awesome bit to see such an eclectic bunch hanging out while Hayden and Tate watched bitterly from the sidelines. We can't have everything, I guess.

The three year jump came as a bit of a jolt, but Jessica Lange's (perhaps) final monologue was immensely satisfying and suitably melodramatic, leading to that excellent final scene as we see the mischievous Antichrist (extremely well-cast). A funny and horrific moment to go out on, considering television's worst mother is raising the plague of nations.

My disappointment comes with the future direction of the series. Each season will be its own contained story, with a completely new house and family next year, according to interviews with the creators. After investing in these amazing characters and actors, I'm sad to leave them behind (especially Jessica Lange and her storyline with the child—who wouldn't want to see the series devoted to following the Antichrist being raised by Connie?). It seemed they were giving this particular plot major focus in the final episodes. I'm doubting that will be the case now, though. So that comes as my only major criticism.

The finale felt like a finale. But it was effective. If this is all I get of Connie, the Harmons and the murder house, it will be a fulfilling twelve episodes to return to in the future. This series has lived up to all the hype and expectations for me, answering its major mysteries. While I expected future seasons to delve further into the origins of the evil in the house and more on the Montgomeries and little Thaddeus, I can take what I got. This bunch of characters will really be missed, but I am looking forward to seeing what they come up with for the second season.

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