FX’s American Horror Story
Season 1, Episode 12: “Afterbirth”
Directed by Bradley Buecker (Glee, The New Normal)
Written by Jessica Sharzer
* For a review of the previous episode, “Birth” – click here
We start off this finale, “Afterbirth”, with a flashback to a time when there seemed to be hope for Ben and Vivien Harmon (Dylan McDermott/Connie Britton). They’re trying somehow to make it work, obviously after he has pissed all over their marriage vows. Ben shows her the house – dear ole Murder House – saying they ought to give it a chance, it might be the way to find their groove again. He says he could see it like a movie, they were all there, around the fire, together once more as a true family. It’s one of those excellent scenes done in hindsight; we’re able to look back at all the horrible, terrifying events of Season 1 and say “Yeah okay Ben” when he says that it feels as if there is hope for them in the house. Tragically funny.
With the baby around now, Vivien dead, Ben Harmon is left to himself. He’s trying to take care of the baby, but clearly Constance Langdon (Jessica Lange) does not want the child to go back into the wretched Murder House. While I don’t necessarily think the baby is going to turn out all right no matter where it goes – being a child of Tate (Evan Peters) after all – there’s part of Constance which does care for the child. Things went so awfully wrong with Tate, she only wants another child, another chance, in order to not raise a monster; ultimately, it’s all about how she feels her child and his actions reflect on her, not how much she cares about Tate. She is a selfish woman. Many of her intentions are spot on and righteous, however, the way she goes about putting them into action leave a lot to be desired.
At the same time, Ben now becomes aware of Tate being Constance’s son. Further and further his reality is beginning to slip away and become something of a memory. All around him are the ghosts of the house, which now include his own wife and daughter Violet (Taissa Farmiga).
I love the smeared lens style look so many shots have, as the ghosts are around Ben and he’s sort of wandering through their garden, so to speak. This really makes things look surreal and the atmosphere takes on an eerie feel simply from the perspective itself. We feel disoriented watching all of this, but it’s meant in an effective way to produce a required feeling; not meant to make us turn away or feel uncomfortable, it’s disorienting in the way we’re drawn into that surreal world. This technique is a classic by now in the universe of American Horror Story, one of those staples of the series, so I think that’s something which works incredibly well. So many psychological horrors will use that style, yet it isn’t overplayed or anything. Used correctly, it puts us into that shaky emotional space where psychologically strange scenes often need to play out.
There is a ton of tragedy in “Afterbirth”. While Vivien and Violet make their own amends with Ben, and decides not to kill himself to be with his family as originally planned, Hayden (Kate Mara) has other plans. Along with Dallas (Kyle Davis) and Fiona (Azura Skye) – the serial killer enthusiasts from “Home Invasion” – she strings Ben up via noose and hangs him until dead from the chandelier.
Just as everything seemed to be going right for Ben, maybe a turning point in his life somehow, there come the ghosts to keep him stuck within the walls.
It’s funny because I’d honestly thought after “Birth”, the season could’ve ended with a bit more time; maybe add another 15 minutes to that penultimate episode and there was the season finale.
But then in “Afterbirth”, we get a really great episode. A new family comes to move in as Marcy (Christine Estabrook), the sly real estate agent she is, doesn’t disclose the ENTIRE history of Murder House; only the recent tragedy of the Harmons. This gives us an interesting chapter for the season’s close.
Super cool aspect to this finale is how we’re seeing the crowded ghosts bumping up against one another. While Violet meets the new teenage boy in the house, Gabriel Ramos (Brennan Mejia), in the background we see Tate – jealous and hateful as ever – watching her with him, no doubt probably plotting whatever his next murderous move might be in the depths of Murder House.
Then there’s a chilling moment where Miguel and Stacy Ramos (Anthony Ruivivar/Lisa Vidal) say they may want a baby, to make the place less lonely after their teenage son moves off to college. Ben and Vivien watch on, unnoticed by the living, and realize this nice couple ought not to have a child in that place. AMAZING SCENE! So visually excellent, as the Ramos couple begins to heavy pet and makeout, almost near sex, and Moira (Frances Conroy) stands over them in the kitchen to tell the Harmons they’ll need some help in getting the Ramos family out of there; other ghosts are vengeful, hateful entities.
Before, the house was trying hard to get a baby, now that the Harmons are newly ghosted on the property they’re more concerned with trying to help another family get away from Murder House.
The spirits are all trying to drive this new family out. Even Tate – he’s no longer concerned with impregnating the wife of the house, he wants to get the teenage boy out so Violet won’t stray away. Although Violet wants nothing to do with Tate, he is constantly misguided in the afterlife.
Even Beau (Sam Kinsey) gets in on the action, scaring Mrs. Ramos in the hallway, as Ben Harmon suits up in the Rubber Man outfit and tries to crawl on top of her in the bedroom. Incredibly well executed sequence, as almost every one of the Murder House ghosts appears to the Ramos family in an attempt to scare them away forever. Elizabeth Short (Mena Suvari) also materializes, Glasgow Smile and all, cut in half and bleeding all over the place. Macabre bunch of nastiness! Phil Critter (W. Earl Brown) bumps into the Ramos husband in the hallway. In the basement, Vivien tears Ben’s guts out in front of the Ramos family, before Ben shoots his deceased wife in the forehead, each exclaiming “You don‘t know how long I‘ve been waiting to do that.”
Another thing about the finale that hit me right in the excellent horror nerve is how they circled back to the Pilot, using that initial song the saucy twins were prancing around to at the beginning. I always love those circular motions in films and television shows. Especially with a series, because we’re harkening back a good ways to revisit things that sometimes we might even forget. Such is the case with the scene where the Ramos family speedily runs out of the house, not worried about their belongings, and the Harmons stand on the porch, lamenting that another family will only move on in eventually; the whole we’re listening to that strange, eerily unsettling song from the Pilot directed by Ryan Murphy, it’s called “Tonight, You Belong To Me” by Patience and Prudence. Effective moment that always gets me when I watch it.
Still, above all else in this episode, I think the best moment of “Afterbirth” is the very finish. Obviously nobody thought the baby – Michael – was going to turn out all right in the end, but what we’re able to see is how as he grows up he becomes more and more like his evil father Tate.
When Constance goes to check on Michael in the final scene, the boy is now slightly older. We’ve flashed forward three years. He is also now starting to grow into his skin, as the true son of his father. The bloody handprints on the rocking chair, Constance’s face as she sees the dead woman on the bedroom floor – it’s so creepy and shocking at once. Really nice horror movie reveal and it works incredibly for the last thing we see in Season 1.
So much of what happened in the house boils down to Constance and Tate, and so I find it’s only fitting she is the last character we see before the season closes. A great way to show how the violence and madness and depravity of Murder House will never fade, as long as there is a child or offspring of some sort related to the house still breathing and living. Bernard Herrmann’s Twisted Nerve score, previously played as Tate massacred his high school classmates, comes in eerily just as the scene comes to a close and it’s like echoes of Michael’s father are literally in our ears. Beautifully macabre piece to finish.