“Afterbirth,” the season finale of American Horror Story and possibly the series finale for Ben, Vivien and Violet Harmon, left me in limbo. My opinion pings between cool admiration and hot disappointment, between reflections like “It’s Sartre’s No Exit but with a happy ending! How ironic!” and snarky knee-jerk reactions like “That was lame. And Sartre? Can you be any more pretentious?!” (Sadly, I can.) Right now, I’m pinging toward the positive. The more I sit with the finale, and the more I re-watch it (three times, as of this writing), the more it grows on me, and the quality that initially irritated me the most – a surprisingly light tone that went for laughs instead of scares – becomes a virtue. In the spirit of the episode’s big theme, I should take personal responsibility for my experience and confess that my expectations set me up for inevitable let-down. After last week’s frothy and frightening peak installment, I was anticipating – envisioning – a terrifying corker worthy of FX’s “television event” positioning and extended running time, a high stakes dark tragedy driven and dominated by the conflicts that “Birth” seemed to set up: Ben Harmon fighting for his sanity in the wake of triple-whammy loss (Vivien, Violet, his stillborn child) and intensifying Murder House crazy; and a battle royale between the living and the dead over guardianship of the Tate-sired infant terrible. Yet “Afterbirth” made quick work of both Ben and baby, then sought to amuse and even uplift with a loopy, low stakes dark comedy – a very special Christmas episode, no less – that labored to give the Harmons a redemptive victims-to-heroes makeover. If “Afterbirth” was the end of the line for the Harmons, then it gave the woefully abused family some closure and triumph, albeit clumsily.
In the final minutes of this hit-and-miss affair, Season 1 MVP Jessica Lange tried to make like Tim Tebow and win a sloppy game with one last spine-tingling drive. She moved the ball to mid-field thanks to that dread-building beauty parlor soliloquy, then chucked a Hail Mary with a scene that asked her to make like a southern fried magi and gaze adoringly upon her grandson, Michael, who is maybe the Antichrist, certainly a Natural Born Killer. It was a wobbly pass, and I’m not sure if it connected – my instant replay team is still reviewing the tape – and yes, I am in love with this football analogy a little too much. (Pat Robertson is already organizing a protest.)
Bottom line: I think I liked it. I think.
To Ben, Vivien and Violet, and the whole sick crew, a salutation: Thank you for 12 episodes of addictively watchable hot mess; thank you for your contributions to a season which, in retrospect, is perhaps best appreciated as a brilliantly buggy beta test for what will surely be a better, more refined, yet hopefully no less crazy second season next year.
“Afterbirth” began with a flashback to a pivotal crossroads in the Ben/Vivien relationship, a cruel overture that reminded us of the crisis that put the Harmons on the road to Murder House and tried to flesh out the dubious rationale behind Operation: Fresh Start. We learned that nine months ago, Vivien had literally packed her bags and was going to leave her adulterous husband and end the marriage. Their therapy didn’t take. Their differences seemed irreconcilable. She was moving out and moving on. To Florida. With Violet. Smooth-talking yet utterly sincere Ben tried to puncture her steely resolve and convince her that what she wanted to do wasn’t really what she wanted to do. He had searched the Interwebs on his (product placement) iPad and found a grand old house in Los Angeles priced for cheap, and he begged Vivien to check it out before she made up her mind. “I’ve been looking for houses for a month, and when I found this one, I swear to God, it was like a laser beam shot right into my brain,” said Ben, who then sketched a vivid picture of a La-La Land happily ever after. “It was a like a movie in my mind. … When I look at this place, for the first time, I feel like there’s hope.”
Now I’m not sure how I feel about knowing that Vivien was thisclose to leaving Ben. On one hand, it better explains Vivien’s ultra-severe zero-tolerance policy for Ben’s miscues in the early episodes. On the other hand, it only made it harder to believe that someone so strong would agree to Operation: Fresh Start in the first place. She decided to give it a shot because… she went weak-kneed at the sight of a real estate posting on the Web? Damn! That’s one hell of an iPad! I joke. I accept that Vivien rolled the dice on The Victorian because deep down, she did love Ben, for better and worse. However, I did find myself wondering during this scene if AHS was trying to suggest the possibility that supernatural forces meddled with the Harmons from afar. Did The Victorian put that “movie” in Ben’s mind? Did Murder House lure the Harmons into its vile vortex via its “paramagnetic” power? For the purpose of producing flesh and blood extension of its insidious, corrupting influence? If so, then the rape of Vivien Harmon began long before the Rubber Man climbed on top of her. [Note: AHS exec producer Ryan Murphy throws cold water on this theory in this week’s exit interview Q&A with Tim Stack.]
NEXT: The Murder House completes its set of Harmon family souls.