CBS’ American Gothic
Episode 1: “Arrangement in Grey & Black”
Directed by Matt Shakman
Written by Corinne Brinkerhoff
* For a review of Episode 2, “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” – click here
To start, I dig how they’ve named the episodes after famous paintings, in line with the name of their series being American Gothic. Arrangement in Grey and Black is better known as Whistler’s Mother painted by James McNeill Whistler in the latter half of the 19th century. The next episode, “Jack-in-the-Pulpit”, comes from a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. So that’s at least a fun aspect to he writing off the bat.
We begin in Boston, Massachusetts. A car is crushed in a tunnel, as a couple are headed towards the wife’s parents place – this is Tessa Ross (Megan Ketch) and her husband Brady (Elliot Knight), a police officer who just got a big promotion. She’s a Hawthorne. Her father is Mitchell Hawthorne (Jamey Sheridan), her mother Madeline (Virginia Madsen). They’re a grand group, including artist and former drug addict Cam (Justin Chatwin), his son Jack (Gabriel Bateman) also a budding and excellent artist in his own right. Can’t forget Alison Hawthorne-Price (Juliet Rylance), a big mover and shaker – heading off the fact Hawthorne Concrete supplied material for the part of the tunnel collapse that nearly took out Tessa and Brady. There’s a whole bunch. And a whole bunch of things going on. Seems like there’s a run for office in the family’s current life. Alison wants to be mayor.
What’s most interesting? Inside part of the bridge that fell, jammed inside the concrete, is a belt. One used in a murder, possibly. It was linked to a serial killer committing what was dubbed The Silver Bells Murders.
So now this is the drama. There’s confusion, paranoia, tension about to come out. Did someone in the Hawthorne family dispose of a body in a string of killings using the family company? Or could it have been an employee, someone like that? There’s many things going on. We hear talk of Garrett (Antony Starr) earlier, having his picture taken down by Madeline, so there’s obviously an immediate idea that maybe the obvious black sheep might’ve done something bad. Afterwards, we learn that Garrett is just off the grid somewhere, disappeared. Yet patriarch Mitchell goes and has a heart attack; guilt, maybe? Could he be the Silver Bells Killer? Oh my.
At the hospital while the family waits, we also meet Sophie Hawthorne (Stephanie Leonidas), estranged wife of Cam. She’s very punk rock, seems chic, though there’s clearly a bad history between the two. Inside, Mitchell recovers from his attack. He wakes up mumbling about the tunnel; why – does he worry about the structural failure, or does he worry about what’s inside? Can’t wait to find more. The intrigue is fun to start. Let’s see if the writing can keep that playing out nicely.
Later at home, we see more of the family dynamics. Tessa wants to help her brother Cam, as he searches for his drugs after being clean a whole year. So there’s a bond between family members, rather than a typical Hollywood-style rich family that we always see, siblings at one another’s throats, and so on. She helps him trying to track down the drugs he’s stashed, so they can toss it out. Only – you guessed it! – they stumble across something else: Silver Bells, newspapers about the S.B.K. murders. Ahh shit. Tess naively believes it may be the previous house’s owner. Cam wonders if perhaps their father collected memorabilia concerning the case, tracking the newspaper clippings; just as naive
Except now, everything is suspicious. Cam sees the silver bells everywhere, even in the morning staring at the shower head, that looks just like a silver bell. Creepier still, there’s stuff on ole grandpa’s iPad about the murders, so says little Jack. Man, oh, man. That is damn unsettling. I dig the macabre elements of the show so far in this first episode, despite its soapy-ish feel at times. Both the siblings are set on their own quest, each rattled by the notion their father possibly has links, somehow, some way, to the Silver Bells Murders.
Meanwhile, Tess finds long lost brother Garrett returning out of nowhere. She and Cam head out with him to the hospital. Lots of strange stuff happening, and plenty of rich family dynamics to play off. We find Garrett’s been living in Maine, reading lots of books (Stephen King maybe?). He didn’t come out for Cam’s wedding. Not Tess’, either. All the same, he seems happy to be there with them. A little standoff-ish, but glad. At the hospital, he’s received well enough. With surprise, hugs. A bit of awkwardness. Alison looks a bit shocked to see her brother.
Back at the Hawthorne mansion, Garrett settles into his old room. For however long he’ll be around. The memories of his life there are surrounding him. For some reason I don’t think they’re all so great. “You‘re weird,” his nephew Jack tells him:”It‘s okay. I‘m weird, too.” When Madeline is alone with her newly reappeared son she wonders why he’s back, after saying he never would be. In another room, Tess asks her detective husband about killers, whether they seem like normal people. Similar to SBK, he mentions BTK, and how that guy seemed absolutely fine to everyone around him – a Scout leader and everything. This worries Tess, thinking of her father and the Silver Bells Murders. Still can’t count Garrett out. Next morning, instead of shaving with a razor he uses a knife, and better still claims he’s “used to” that method. Yowzahs.
The plot thickens. Cam suggests to Tess that 14 years ago, when the Silver Bells Murders stopped, their older brother Garrett simultaneously left town. Hmm. They further bring it to their powerful sister Alison. She starts believing it’s likely some type of way to smear the family: destroy Mitchell’s legacy, destroy her campaign for mayor. Problem is the newspaper the two also found, the one from their newspaper, a cartoon Cam drew. Too suggestive. Alison won’t believe the concept her father could be a serial killer, neither will she entertain the notion it’s Garrett, nor anyone else in the Hawthorne family. She’d rather put it away until after the election. Morally ambiguous. Alison says it’s a “weird box of bells” and nothing solid. I’m inclined to believe something, anything, different. For now, they agree to set things aside. Nah. Cam and Tess aren’t doing that, you can bet your ass. Again, there’s a nice soapy quality to the show that I actually dig. Not usually my thing, but these are good actors and they help sell it. The writing’s a bit dark, campy, yet still unnerving at times. There’s potential.
Scariest yet? Young Jack appears to have a bit of a sick mind. He’s doing experiments on their cat Caramel. Cutting off the tail to see what happens. Then he wants to see the vet sow it back on. You sick little freak! There’s obviously a drop or two of weird blood in this family, regardless of whether someone in it is the Silver Bells Killer. Although, this Jack moment only makes us wonder if there’s serial killer genes flowing already.
Alison finds out later that one of her little daughters heard uncle Garrett say some interesting things to grandpa Mitchell earlier. “I‘m gonna tell them it was you,” Garrett says quietly to his father. Oh my! This now has Alison in a mental frenzy. Me, too. There’s lots of nice intrigue to start with this episode. Lots of ways this could possibly end up, and that’s fun. This one line by Garrett might mean that he simply hates his father, hoping to use the tunnel collapse to make things seem like it was him implicating him in the murder. Or perhaps it’s Garrett having committed the crimes alone, hating his father, wanting to pin them on dear dad. Or further still, maybe father and son committed the murders together, and now Garrett wants to use his father’s death to escape the law. Who knows. Maybe it’s none of the above. From his hospital bed, Mitchell tells his wife “We have to tell the truth” and then not long after that she… helps him die. Well, you could say that. You could also say she kills him. That’d be much more accurate. Now there’s absolutely no telling which vein this story’s about to find its way through. And I think that’s spectacular.
Lots of fun intrigue, interesting characters coupled with fantastic actors like Antony Starr and Virginia Madsen and Justin Chatwin. There is plenty of room to grow and expand. Sure, it’s campy and it has an almost soap opera-like quality in certain scenes. But overall it is enjoyable. Looking forward to “Jack-in-the-Pulpit” – what will it bring? Stay with me and we’ll find out together.