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This review is practically spoiler-free. I would like to keep it that way, so please don’t leave any spoilers in the comment section.
After some disappointing seasons, Ryan Murphy’s anthology series American Horror Story has finally succeeded to surprise its viewers again with an entertaining and creative story. Its sixth season, subtitled Roanoke, is, like every season that preceded it, loosely tied to some of the previous seasons, yet narrating a completely different plot. The cast mostly consists of actors who played a part in some of the show’s previous instalments. However, each actor interprets a role they haven’t played before.
American Horror Story: Roanoke tells the story of Shelby Miller (Lily Rabe) and Matt Miller (André Holland), a couple that bought an ancient house at a ridiculously cheap price. This clearly doesn’t please some of the local residents. When Shelby sees teeth falling from the sky and is almost drowned by a stranger that same night, she claims those residents are trying to scare them off. To protect Shelby when he’s not around, her husband Matt asks his sister Lee Harris (Adina Porter) to temporarily live with them. Because of her experience as a police officer, Lee initially comes across as a really strong woman who doesn’t yield for anyone or anything. Her addiction to alcohol, however, reveals her vulnerable side and is also the reason she risks losing custody over her daughter.
After the threesome has stayed in the same house for a couple of days, it becomes clear that it wasn’t those mean-spirited residents that were harassing them, but a horde of dead colonists. This undead group lead by The Butcher (Susan Berger) settled on the territory where the Millers’ house is located centuries ago. During the blood moon the colony is strong enough to rise from the dead and enter the house to brutally and mercilessly kill its current occupants.
It might all sound very clichéd: a married couple buying a house to start a new life, shortly after, supernatural things happen that are revealed to be the work of deadly spirits. The only thing missing would be a dog that has sensed the danger long beforehand and won’t stop barking because of it. Nevertheless, the show actually has a very inventive, original touch going for it: there’s another, fictional show incorporated into the actual series. The Millers share their story through a documentary series called My Roanoke Nightmare, while that story is being acted out by professional actors. The roles of Shelby, Matt, Lee and The Butcher are respectively interpreted by Audrey Tindall (Sarah Paulson), Dominic Banks (Cuba Gooding Jr.), Monet Tumusiime (Angela Bassett) and Agnes Mary Winstead (Kathy Bates). The dramatic re‑enactment is interrupted by the Millers at appropriate times to describe their exact feelings at a certain moment or explain some of their actions.
This way you’re being confronted with a whole other kind of fiction you’re used to as a viewer: the fourth wall is constantly being broken by repeatedly making the viewer remember that what the actors are playing, is nothing more than a dramatic re‑enactment of the Millers’ experiences. As the story progresses, the viewer develops a strong feeling of unreliability because of that. After all, you’re never sure what has really taken place in that house, because nothing about that has been caught on camera. As a viewer, you only get to see what the three relatives themselves claim has happened there. Events that could give them a bad reputation are kept for themselves and consequently remain a secret to both the viewer and the creators of My Roanoke Nightmare. Of course, there’s also the possibility that they’ve made everything up just to be on television.
This creative documentary style must have also been a challenge for the members of the cast that – at least in the first part of the season – didn’t have to do anything but sit in front of the camera and talk. If there’s one thing you can always count on with American Horror Story, though, it’s a capable cast. Lily Rabe, André Holland and Adina Porter all prove they’re talented enough to impress just by means of intonation and facial expressions. Furthermore, the documentary concept allows to acknowledge Hollywood’s corruption when it comes to reality TV and the film industry in general. The crew behind My Roanoke Nightmare may seem to treat the Millers with respect and compassion, but in fact they couldn’t care less about them. The creators just want to get high ratings. Everything sensational enough to attract viewers is used in the show, regardless of how the Millers feel about that.
Hollywood’s dark side is exposed even more in the second part of the season, when it takes a dramatic twist storywise. Such a twist is always risky, but in Roanoke’s case it’s a very successful attempt at keeping the story interesting and moving forward. Despite the twist, the story remains clear and coherent, which was not the case with last season’s Hotel. That season consisted of two separate storylines that were all over the place and eventually tied together in a very forced way.
Although this season might be the best instalment American Horror Story has ever released, it doesn’t mean it’s perfect. The programme has always been known for its unresolved storylines. Roanoke’s plotholes confirm this characteristic of the show once again. Secondly, most of the characters are believable and possess a decent amount of depth and therefore most of the decisions they make are realistic. However, every now and then someone acts out of character simply for the sake of plot. Not every element of said plot is equally well-executed, either. The subplot about two nurses who kill their patients and use their blood to write their victims’ initials on the wall to spell the word ‘murder’ has to be the dumbest plotline in the history of horror ever; especially given the fact that that subplot added absolutely nothing important to the story.
American Horror Story: Roanoke is far from perfect, that’s for sure, but you can’t expect that from this show, either. It’s no secret that this series is not quality TV. Critics know that, as do viewers and the creators behind the show themselves. It is more of a guilty pleasure which sometimes succeeds to entertain, and sometimes fails miserably in doing so. Roanoke is an outlier compared to previous seasons, though, which might imply an even brighter future for the series. If we’re lucky, the show won’t drop in quality anymore and we can all forget about those disastrous seasons called Freak Show and Hotel.
American Horror Story – Ryan Murphy
FX Networks, 2016