Get ready to go back to where everyone knows your name (and how you died) when “American Horror Story: Apocalypse” returns to the Murder House for a series high!
“This is not a home. It’s a prison.”
Last week’s American Horror Story pointedly ended with Sarah Paulson’s Cordelia Goode declaring that Madison and Behold’s next destination, the infamous Murder House, is “where it all began.” Cordelia’s announcement is of course in reference to the origins of Michael Langdon’s story, but it’s also meant to be looked at figuratively. Murder House is literally where American Horror Story started as a series and so returning to that sacred territory is obviously a fairly momentous event. It seems like no coincidence that this episode also marks Sarah Paulson’s directorial debut and that such a fundamental cast member of this show gets to be the one that’s behind the camera.
“Return to Murder House” is a homecoming in every sense of the word and it’s also perhaps the best episode that the series has ever made.
American Horror Story can be a show that jerks its audience around, but “Return to Murder House” cuts the bullshit and starts delivering the goods right away. Madison and Behold immediately come into possession of the Murder House and the episode wastes no time with its setup. This episode understands how anxious everyone is to dig into this material and what’s even better is that “Return to Murder House” is nearly a full hour long and it makes every minute count. This episode doesn’t trip over itself with its plotting either. Its premise is very to the point: Figure out if Michael Langdon is evil.
Early on in the installment, an exasperated Madison asks, “what the fuck happened in this house?” “Return to Murder House” finds delight in really getting to the core of that question and the 36 souls that inhabit this prison. Behold and Madison perform a ceremony to get access to the ghosts that knew Michael, but it’s an all-or-nothing situation. If they want to talk to some of the ghosts in this house, then they’re going to talk to all of the ghosts in this house. “Return to Murder House” turns into a poltergeist free-for-all and delivers many poetic ghost vignettes that feature some dearly beloved departed characters. It’s should be too much when Jessica Lange’s Constance Harmon interrupts Sarah Paulson’s Billie Dean Howard right after Madison and Behold grill Evan Peters’ Tate Langdon and Ben Harmon for information, but it’s fucking fantastic. “Return to Murder House” does not hold back with the fan service and if a huge grin isn’t slapped on your face throughout this installment then you are not a fan of this show.
Another fantastic thing about this episode is that it remembers that American Horror Story actually used to be scary! The show can get so caught up in its premise and the spectacle of its characters and camp that it sometimes neglects actual scares. “Return to Murder House” brings back that frightening atmosphere from the show’s first season and it treats this episode like a properly scary haunted house story. There are many terrifying visuals from Michael’s youth that also stand out and linger. There’s a particularly Zodiac-like sequence with Miriam Mead that’s also one of the more unnerving moments from the season so far.
Darkness may surround Madison and Behold as they work their way through this house, but it’s very interesting to see Madison attempt to turn a new leaf with the second third chance she’s been given. Make no mistake, the sass is still strong with this one, but it’s kind of shocking to see her ditch a good party in favor of responsibilities. Hopefully, this more well-rounded version of Madison sticks around, but this change isn’t a complete 180. Her deadpan serious delivery of how she doesn’t want children because she couldn’t love an uncool or ugly offspring is the maybe the best line of the episode. It’s also rather perfect that she considers the Tate Langdon/Violet Harmon love story to be some sort of spectral Romeo and Juliet.
Jessica Lange may only be in one episode this season, but this truly doesn’t waste the return of this incredible actress.
Her opening line is even better than Madison’s first words this season. American Horror Story has definitely gotten by in the absence of Lange, but it really is nice to have her back. She cuts everyone down at the knees and gives absolutely zero fucks. It’s the grandiose entrance that she deserves.
Constance gets all quid quo pro on Madison and Behold and tells them that if they can permanently exorcize Frances Conroy’s Moira O’Hara from the premises, then she’ll spill the goods on her grandson. This really couldn’t go better as Moira turns out to be desperate to leave this house. She’s given the touching closure that she’s longed for during all of these years in purgatory and Madison gets another notch in the “good person” column. In fact, there’s so much positivity in this episode that you’d forget that the world is presently dealing with the apocalypse. A lot of people get their happily ever afters. It’s a great shift in tone that goes a long way for the season.
We’re treated to Constance’s twisted story of her efforts to raise Michael and how he very quickly was set on a dark path, regardless of anything that she ever did. Constance’s blind love for her child slowly begins to rot and fester as she needs to continually cover up his “gifts” to her. Her admission over how Michael ruined the smell of roses for her is just heartbreaking and Crystal Liu’s script features plenty of incredible monologues. “Return to Murder House” becomes incredibly expository as Constance fills in the blanks on Michael’s childhood and the circumstances around her death. Flashbacks to the more pivotal moments in his developing evil help punctuate her tale, but it’s still a colossal info dump. Thankfully it just so happens to be information that everyone wants to hear.
Constance all but confirms that Michael is pure evil and while his demonic childhood initially contains a lot of familiar beats, it’s a major surprise to hear that he miraculously ages a decade in the course of a night. It’s a very interesting wrinkle to see this child who’s still learning proper grammar look like an adult. Fern’s acting is a little much at times as he plays this man-child. This also hints at the idea that Michael’s accelerated age is because he serves some higher purpose and is heading towards some sort of deadline. It’s yet more evidence that Michael is more than just a warlock and actual some harbinger of doom.
Once Constance has said all that she needs to, the episode curiously shifts from Michael’s maternal upbringing to Ben Harmon’s efforts as a father towards the boy. This gender divide and how each parent differently impacts Michael also speaks to the larger themes of this season that have pit gender against one another. However, both parents ultimately give up on Michael and this could be partly responsible for why he embraces his dark side. While it’s not exactly enough to create sympathy for the devil, it is important to remember that this is still someone who’s mentally much younger. The uber expository structure remains, but Harmon presents a much more complicated case study of Michael, but still a picture of pure evil. We learn that Ben is the first one to really witness Michael’s supernatural powers in action (and boy does he get a show) and that Michael’s got nothing against latex. Oh, and it turns out that Michael Langdon is the Black Dahlia murderer (hey there, Mena Suvari as Elizabeth Short!). Case solved!
At this point, Madison and Behold have their answer, but freaking Connie Britton takes the episode home as Vivien Harmon provides one more disturbing tale from the Michael Langdon files. Vivien validates suspicions that Michael is the Antichrist, but her story goes into full-fledged deep end Satanism here. She introduces Miriam Mead and the Church of Satan who play the final part in Michael’s development. The Church of Satan lays on it on pretty thick with the prophecies—or rather “the omens,” as the episode blatantly puts it—but there’s no denying the results. Finally, the Black Mass ritual that’s crucial to Michael’s birthright is vicious stuff and it makes all of the brutal sacrifices that went down in AHS: Cult look like child’s play.
“Return to Murder House” is a triumph from top to bottom and it speaks to the underlying sweetness of American Horror Story that nobody gives the show enough credit for.
It beautifully resolves many storylines that I’m sure many people never expected to get closure on and it sets up the final stage of this season. “Return to Murder House” gives you the whole Wikipedia page on Michael Langdon and now the end game can begin. Just how the hell are they going to defeat this guy?
“Return to Murder House” actually creates a lot of excitement over where this season will go now that an important warlock is ready to put Michael down and understands his dangers. It should be interesting to see if Ariel can exhibit enough common sense to work together with them, or if he’ll still be blinded by the prospect of a male Supreme. Or maybe Madison and Behold will return to a building full of slaughtered witches and warlocks.
Also, let’s just go ahead and agree that season nine of American Horror Story should be the ghost of Madison haunting a movie production at Paramount Studios.
“American Horror Story: Apocalypse” airs Wednesdays at 10pm (ET) on FX.