American Horror Story’s refusal to reveal its theme in advance was an early sign that season six would be more unusual than... well,usual. The first five episodes were formatted as a reality TV show—My Roanoke Nightmare—and last night’s episode six unveiled the much-rumored BIG TWIST. But the twist, sadly, was far from shocking.
Last week wrapped up the show-within-a-show, My Roanoke Nightmare. This week, we learned that in the fictional universe where it aired as an actual reality show, My Roanoke Nightmare was a ratings sensation. Cocky producer Sid (Cheyenne Jackson) has already prepped his follow-up, the inanely titled Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell. He plans to outfit the mansion with a zillion cameras and fill it with the actors who played Matt, Shelby, and Lee, and the “real” Matt and Shelby (who split when Shelby cheated on real Matt with actor Matt) and Lee (but, thankfully, not her ghost-bait daughter). They’ve all been to the house before; the actors when they filmed the re-enactments, and the “real” people when they actually lived there.
American Horror Story takes extra care to remind us that the show has, thus far, only captured re-enactments of angry spirits. The Butcher, for instance, is actually actress Agnes Mary Winstead (Kathy Bates), who came dangerously unhinged while playing the role. But Sid doesn’t care about capturing ghosts on tape; his motive is to get the “real” Lee to confess to killing her estranged husband, a crime that was more or less attributed to ghosts as part of My Roanoke Nightmare. It’s important to note that Sid and the actors are all skeptics who didn’t have any ghostly encounters during filming, but that Sid has cleverly/foolishly timed his “three days in hell” to coincide with the next blood moon, the Butcher’s favorite time to shine.
Really, it’s not the worst idea Ryan Murphy ever had. The episode has plenty of fun with itself—contrasting the actors with the “real” people they portrayed, as well as contrasting the show’s actor characters with the actual actors who play them. Breakout star Sarah Paulson gets to try on a British accent to play Audrey, who adopted an American accent to play Shelby. We see Lee interviewed by E! about the accusations against her. We see footage of Shelby and Dominic (the actor played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.) dodging paparazzi while they’re out on the town. We hear Audrey calling 911 when a crazy Agnes shows up to her house uninvited. And so on.
The bullshit part of the twist comes when the show pulls a bait-and-switch soon after the cast has assembled at the house. We learn, via expository on-screen text, that every single participant in this series died under mysterious circumstances over three days of filming—except for one, though it doesn’t specify who.
So now we’ll be watching the next four episodes, assembled (groan) from found footage, already knowing that almost everyone we’re watching is going to kick the bucket—which is the exact opposite of how we watched the first five episodes, in which we knew everyone either recounting or reconstructing the haunting was going to end up safe and alive. Those are equally low stakes, though the promise of gruesomely horrible deaths will keep us watching, as will the many unanswered questions we still have. Did Lee actually commit murder? If Real Matt really did hook up with Real Forest Witch, does this mean some kind of nature baby is on its way? Where are those redneck neighbors? If people doubt the story of the haunting, how to explain the otherwise motive-less deaths associated with it, like poor Cricket the medium? Who in the hell is wearing the pig mask? At what inopportune moment will Agnes reappear? Will sleazy Sid survive his own sequel? And how will American Horror Story: Roanoke attempt to stick the landing when this complicated mess of a season comes to an end?