TV Review – American Horror Story: Roanoke

American Horror Story Season 6: Roanoke (FX, 2016)

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After five seasons, I found myself getting burn out with American Horror Story. It’s such a strange duck, always reinventing itself, yet finding threads to connect its various incarnations. There is no television show quite like it, but I was still finding myself growing tired with portions of the formula. From the promos for Season 6 to the first episode, it became apparent creator Ryan Murphy was trying out something new. The season was shorter, making episodes tighter and more focused leading to what is arguably the best of ending of any season.

The framework at the start of the season is a reality television series covering the real life horror of an unsuspecting couple who moved into a mansion in the middle of the North Carolina wilderness. They quickly learn the land and house are haunted by the spirits of a succession of people who were murdered there going all the way back to the lost Roanoke colony. The series cuts back and forth between the re-enactments and the confessional interviews. And then at the halfway point the season becomes something entirely different.

Not everything in Roanoke works. There were some severe pacing issues I had, where events whizzed by at breakneck speed to hit certain plot points. This is not atypical of the series but this season’s particular framing highlighted how dizzying the show could be. Lots of plot was stuffed into these ten episodes, and not everything wraps up neatly. The horror surrounding the property gets explained a little but still we’re left wondering about things that seemed important (Stefani Germanotta’s role as the witch of the woods stands out as an unexplored mystery).

I have to admit; I fell for the novelty of the season’s framing. From the first episode, I started thinking about the fact we were seeing two of the main characters, one set as the “real life” victims of the horror telling their story and the re-enactors revisiting those horrors in a safe, facsimile. When the show begins to play with the role of media, it gets pretty interesting as re-enactors take on an entirely new role in the story. While not as garish and over the top as AHS can be, I was often reminded of A Head Full of Ghosts and House of Leaves this season, the former for its integration of reality television into a family’s personal horror and latter for its use of framing as an element of horror.

What was the horror of Season 6? It’s easy to peg The Media, and the show does often paint its metaphors with the broadest of strokes. But after the closing moments of the finale, I looked back at recurring themes in the story. Matt and Shelby Miller, the couple whom the season begins around, come to the house in North Carolina after a vicious hate crime. They are an interracial couple and were assaulted on the street due to the nature of their relationship. Shelby loses their unborn child as a result. Shortly, we’re introduced to Lee, Matt’s sister, who is in the midst of a custody battle with her ex. Lee is a former police officer that got addicted to pills and alcohol. Even the de facto leader of the evil spirits around the house has issues with her son. There’s a ghost girl, apparently an orphan, isolated and alone on the property. And then the Polk family…well, they have plenty of issues with their children. I believe this season had the horror of parenthood at its heart. Now, AHS is not an eloquent enough show to say anything truly meaningful about the topic, but it does bring up some interesting questions and ideas.

Ryan Murphy has promised that seasons 7 and 8 will be about exploring the connections between seasons and bringing together elements of the AHS universe. I have no idea where the show will go next and, despite its glaringly ugly flaws, that is what makes watching it so much damn fun.

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