American Horror Story: My Roanoke Nightmare S06E01 “Chapter 1” REVIEW
Airing in the UK on FOX, Fridays, 10pm
Writers: Ryan Murphy & Brad Falchuk
Director: Bradley Buecker
Essential Plot Points:
- We open on what’s basically a trailer for what to come. A series of talking heads are intercut with images of people drowning, trees sprouting and the phrase “My Roanoke Nightmare”.
- Shelby and Matt are a biracial couple. They talk about their relationship and how great things are. Matt got a promotion, Shelby got pregnant and… out of nowhere, Matt was knocked out on the street as part of a gang initiation.
- Shelby talks about how terrified she was of losing Matt. She’s told his orbital socket is broken but the big concern is he has yet to wake up.
- She’s taken through to see him and begs her husband to wake up. As she holds his hand, he squeezes it and slowly comes round.
- But Shelby loses the baby and the interviews grind down as they become traumatised by events. Matt talks about how they wanted to leave the city and go east. They opted for North Carolina and Matt waxes lyrical about how quiet and calm their new place was.
- They find an amazing farmhouse that’s been abandoned. They explore and decide to buy it, beating some disgruntled hillbillies at auction.
- They begin to renovate it and Matt realises that he’s a little more enthusiastic than Shelby about their new home. Their first night, the pair are making love when a screeching noise and pounding on the door interrupts them. Because this is American Horror Story they don’t immediately:
• A) Ignore it
• B) Leave.
- Instead, Matt finds their garbage cans torn apart and seemingly covered in blood. One gets hurled at him and in narration he talks about how this is the south and they should have expected it.
- The following day Shelby’s meal is interrupted by hail. When she goes outside to look though she realises it isn’t hail.
- It’s teeth.
- Hundreds of thousands of teeth falling just on their home.
- Until Matt comes home and the teeth disappear.
- Later, Matt’s preparing to go out and pitch for contracts. Shelby assures him she’ll be fine.
- Guess how she is?
- You guessed right!
- Matt leaves and Shelby, in interview, talks about how she needed a little space and was secretly glad to see him go for a while.
- Later that night she’s heading to bed when she sees two women walk across the corridor ahead of her. She goes looking but doesn’t see them and heads outside to the hot tub.
- And then someone tries to drown her.
- Matt tears home and talks to a completely disinterested cop. Inside he and Shelby argue, with Matt doubting her story as there was no evidence of anyone else near the hot tub.
- In interview, Shelby admits how guilty she felt because she couldn’t tell Matt the truth; she didn’t want to live there.
- Later that night, Matt wakes up to this hellacious parade of Evil Noise and, again, potters downstairs to have a looksee. In fairness he does so with a poker this time but, given he finds a dead, skinned pig outside the door? It’s maybe not a good sign.
- When he doesn’t tell Shelby about what happened? It’s a worse sign.
- Matt has to head out again, and sets up an amateur security rig. He also asks Lee, his sister, a criminal psychologist and recovering pill addict, to come and look after Shelby. The two women don’t get on, especially as we see Lee’s past. A hard-charging uniform cop on course for a promotion, she was shot in a drug raid and became addicted to her painkillers. Matters came to a head when, after a successful bust, her addiction was discovered. She lost her job. She lost her husband. She lost custody of her daughter.
- That night, Shelby is cooking for the pair of them. She thinks she hears something and heads out into the house.
- When she comes back, the knife she was using is gone.
- She finds it buried in the meat she’s cooking. Lee returns and the two women talk. Lee asks Shelby to stay sober in the house and she reluctantly agrees, the pair sniping at one another.
- That night, Lee is woken by the squealing noises outside. Her door opens and… a wine bottle is rolled across the floor toward her.
- She confronts Shelby, convinced that she’s messing with her. The two women get into a bitter argument and don’t notice Matt trying to get through on the phone.
- In his hotel room, Matt watches in horror as a torch-bearing mob triggers the cameras and surrounds the house.
- They hear screaming from the cellar and head down to investigate. It’s a home movie on what looks like VHS video of someone making their way through the woods and hearing squealing. The camera captures what seems to be a horrific pig/human hybrid and a human face. Then the cellar is locked and the power goes out. The two women realise they’re surrounded by people outside the house. Shelby gets a torch working and Lee leads them back out into the main house.
- Where, at every level of the central staircase, stick figures have been hung from the ceiling.
- Matt makes it home and, in interview, explains that the police decided to chalk it up to vandalism.
- Matt sees the video, instantly writes it off as a fake and decides it’s an attempt to make them leave. Shelby tells him it’s working and she wants to leave. They argue and Shelby drives off.
- Matt calls her just in time to cause her to accidentally run an old lady down. She stops and finds the old lady, apparently completely unharmed, getting up and walking off. Shelby follows her – she claims no more than 50 feet – and gets completely lost in the woods. She panics, runs and finds herself under another tree full of the dolls left in her house. Panicked, she flees and trips.
- And watches in horror as the ground seems to ripple and breathe beneath her.
- She flees again and this time is surrounded by torch wielding people including the briefest shot of Wes Bentley. Hey Wes! A scalped man staggers out of the woods, she screams and we are done for the week.
American Horror Story is really embracing variety this year. We have, so far, no clear idea of the theme of the show and it’s defiantly not the “usual” series drama we’ve come to expect. Instead, we get a show inside a show, with Matt and Shelby telling the story of their awful experience. An awful experience that we then see.
It’s a really clever idea and the idea of having two casts is flat out inspired. Andre Holland and Cuba Gooding Jr are especially good as the two Matts while AHS alumni Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson equally impress as the two Shelbys.
That duality and the difference between truth and fiction is surely going to be a big part of the season and ties neatly into the mutable reality we see around the house. What’s really interesting, though, is that it doesn’t take away any tension. We see Matt, Shelby and Matt’s sister Lee (played with wonderful snarly aplomb by Adina Porter and Angela Bassett) being interviewed after the fact so we know they make it out okay. Yet, despite that there are moments that really unsettle here. The rain of teeth is wonderfully horrible but what follows is better. The juxtaposition of the torchlit procession on Matt’s smartphone is a great, chilling image as is the nightmarish sight of the forest floor “breathing”. It all combines to give the show a sense of tremendous unease, made all the more so by the grace notes on Matt and Shelby. They’re nice people, a little too nice and their privilege is clearly going to be a big part of the story.
Plus, let’s not forget, what they say happened and what did happen are almost certainly very different…
The show does stumble a bit this episode, and the deformed rednecks in particular feel like they’ve wandered in from something much less interesting. Likewise the pig monster needs to either be very good or be so bad we don’t mind. Right now it’s too early to tell. What is certain however is this; this is the oddest season of AHS so far and it’s got our attention.
- “My brother married one jumpy bitch.” Adina Porter’s growly delivery on this is just perfect.
- The format. The “coming this episode!” montage at the start is both a neat nod to the reality TV approach the show is taking this year and a welcome call back to old school genre TV. We liked it when BSG did it and we like it here.
- The set-up. The idea of the real Matt and Shelby and the Matt and Shelby in their story being played by different people is inspired. If a show ever fitted the idea of the unreliable narrator it’s most definitely AHS.
- Likewise the liberal guilt is really deftly handled. Shelby and Matt are nice people but they’re a little too aware of their niceness. It’ll be interesting to see how the show punishes them for that.
- The subtle arrogance and humblebraggery of Matt and Shelby constantly talking about how in love they are is a really nice character beat.
- Well that hot tub sure looks… sacrificial altar-y doesn’t it?
- The deformed rednecks are going to need a LOT of work to be anything other than dull. That being said the show is doing so much work to go “LOOK AT THESE EVIL PEOPLE!” that we’re thinking they’re at least not actively evil.
- While it looks pretty likely that the “Pig monster” is actually just a terrifying human wearing a pig head; we desperately hope the show doesn’t go full “mutant rednecks breed with animals”. We’re pretty sure it won’t.
- Pretty sure.
- Shelby driving off right after an extended close up of what we’re pretty sure is Denis O’Hare’s face seems to be a pretty cheap redirect on the audience’s attention. We could, of course, be wrong about it being O’Hare though.
And The Random:
- Cuba Gooding Jr everybody! Best known of course for Jerry Maguire but a man whose skills have made many a film. His turn in Boyz n the Hood is still an epochal piece of work; he’s also great in Redtails, Selma and Machete Kills.
- Adina Porter, who plays the “real” Lee, was Lettie Mae Thornton on True Blood, Kendra on The Newsroom and is currently on The 100 as Indra. Her resume is basically a roll call of the best US TV drama over the last couple of decades and she’s been great in all of it.
- A litany of references so far this season. The reality TV show format is a nod to the Ghostfacers and their ilk, while the footage of the pig monster is surely a nod to found-footage movies. In fact, we’re laying odds that later on in the season we’re going to see that footage from the “other side” in an episode dealing with how it was filmed.
- Elsewhere there are nods to Wrong Turn and The Hills Have Eyes with the possibly evil rednecks. The house itself is an amazing set whose central staircase reminds us of the original and best The Haunting of Hill House and, to a lesser extent, the glorious bat’s-arse remake of Thir13en Ghosts. Finally, the stick figures are a big honking tip of the hat to The Blair Witch Project.
- Are these windows supposed to look like lungs? Or testicles?
- Andre Holland, the “real” Matt is best known as Dr Algernon Edwards on The Knick. He’s a fellow Selma alum too, along with Cuba Gooding Jr and has also appeared on shows like Damages and Burn Notice.
Review by Alasdair Stuart