The Gothicism of American Gothic: Episodes 1-6

Note: The following is an import from my old Macabre Republic blog: in a series of posts, I covered the 22 installments of the 1995 CBS series American Gothic. More than mere episode guides, the posts explored the American Gothic qualities exhibited by the show.

Episode 1: (Pilot)

The opening-credits sequence features a voiceover from Sheriff Lucas Buck (Gary Cole). Even as he discourses about the American Dream, Buck strikes an ominous note: “For those who follow my lead, life can be a paradise.  But for those who don’t, it can be a mighty rough road.” Apparently this sheriff wields plenty of influence in the small town of Trinity, South Carolina, and has no qualms about abusing his power.

In the first scene (set in an isolated rural home), protagonist Caleb Temple is trying to celebrate his tenth birthday, but his father Gage spoils the paltry party. Incensed by his daughter Merlyn’s ceaseless chanting (“Someone’s at the door”), he proceeds to attack her with a shovel. The 16-year-old Merlyn has been traumatized into an autistic-type state by something she witnessed a decade earlier (and which is revealed at episode’s end: the rape of her mother by Buck).

Gage is obviously not in his right mind, and later claims that his violent actions were somehow directed by the nefarious sheriff. Perhaps the accusation is not that far-fetched, considering that Buck is the one who finishes off the wounded Merlyn by breaking her neck. Mercy killing or sinister murder? The ambiguity here points to the duality of the Buck’s character. At once charming and chilling, he is the quintessential Gothic hero-villain.

Duplicity is a trait displayed by other characters as well. By day, Selena Coombs is a sweet-seeming grade school teacher; by night, she’s a cunning nympho in cahoots with Lucas Buck.

American Gothic sports a heap of dead relatives and skeletons in the proverbial closet. Dr. Crower, an alcoholic, has lost his wife and daughter in a car accident. Caleb’s cousin Gail was orphaned when a fire (deliberately set?) claimed the lives of both her parents. And Caleb’s mother ostensibly committed suicide ten years earlier by jumping out a window (or was she pushed by Buck, who was there at the time?).

The most memorable moment from the first episode finds Buck whistling the theme music to The Andy Griffith Show while approaching Gage’s jail cell (where he then tries to force the man to sign documents granting the sheriff legal custody of Caleb). The parodic whistling serves as the perfect indicator that Trinity is no bucolic Southern town–it’s Mayberry with a very dark underbelly.


Episode 2: “A Tree Grows in Trinity”

The second episode of the series draws on a pair of Gothic hallmarks: fearful flight and cruel imprisonment. “A Tree Grows in Trinity” picks up where the series premiere left off: with Caleb on the run from Sheriff Lucas Buck (after setting his own house on fire to escape him). Caleb’s desperate exodus leads him first into a cornfield, where he almost collides with a decidedly devilish scarecrow.

Eventually Caleb hides out in an abandoned hunting lodge, but is shocked to find that the place is already occupied. What at first seems a monstrous figure is actually a tied-up, traumatized man. As the episode unfolds, viewers learn that this is Rafael Santo, a Miami reporter who has been missing for months after coming to Trinity to investigate the “Bermuda Triangle of tourism.” He is now held captive in the lodge after running afoul of Lucas. Perhaps even worse, he serves as the personal sex slave for the sheriff’s lascivious sidekick Selena.

Coroner Curtis Webb is engaged by Lucas to perform a rudimentary autopsy of Caleb’s sister Merlyn (and to ignore the evidence that the girl died at the sheriff’s hand). The ghostly Merlyn, though, opposes such machinations, dubbing Webb’s tape recordings with the message “Someone’s at the door.” She also freaks out the coroner when her corpse’s head (now wide-eyed and turned to the side) somehow appears out from under the sheet that had been covering it. Merlyn’s final touch is the bloody injunction scrawled on the autopsy room door: “Don’t bury the truth.”

Buck later expresses his displeasure with the coroner’s handling of the autopsy by leaving the severed head of Webb’s pet goat Eli inside the refrigerator stationed on the front porch of the family home–a sinister riff on a memorable scene from The Godfather.

The episode, though, best lives up to the show’s title in the scene where Caleb spies a pair of cemetery caretakers arranging the wooden markers at the graves of his father and sister. Teapot and her daddy Harlan are quintessential hicks, in both costume and demeanor. Harlan jokes about the adjacent burials (“Just because he killed her don’t mean they can’t share the same worms”), and the chortling, overalls-wearing Teapot teases her daddy about his misspelling on Gage’s grave marker (“REST IN PEASE”). American Gothic seems quite conscious of its art-world namesake here, as the figures of Teapot and Harlan could have stepped right out of a Grant Wood painting. All that’s missing from the scene is the iconic hay-fork, and it would be no real surprise (based on the way the series has developed thus far) to see such a tool used pointedly in a future episode.


Episode 3: “Eye of the Beholder”

In the third episode of the series, Lucas shows just what a devilish Buck he is, going to ungodly lengths to make sure he is appointed Caleb’s legal guardian. First, the sheriff tries to discredit Dr. Crower (with whom Caleb wants to stay) by causing a patient to have an epileptic seizure while on the operating table for a simple gall-bladder procedure. Then Lucas coerces anesthesiologist Dan Truelane to speak against Crower at the upcoming custody hearing by acknowledging the doctor’s past drinking problems.

The two-faced Lucas sends an ostensible wedding present to Dan and his recent bride Cheryl, but the ornate looking glass he gifts them with has some supernatural qualities. Cheryl ends up enthralled by her reflection, and turns uncharacteristically libidinous. The sheriff assures Dan that he will get his old wife back if he does he part to support Lucas’s case at the hearing. Unable to bear Cheryl’s strange behavior, though, Dan destroys the mirror in a fit of fury–and Cheryl’s own face is somehow simultaneously disfigured (shades of Dorian Gray).

Having also worked his charm with Judge Halpern, Lucas figures the custody hearing is guaranteed to be decided in his favor. But the judge throws him a curveball by decreeing that Caleb will go live at Loris Holt’s boarding house (a multi-storied manse that happens to built on an old graveyard). Incensed by this turn of events, Lucas warns of retribution. Soon thereafter, Halpern drops dead after spotting a raven peering in his window. This judge will be presiding in Trinity nevermore.

“Eye of the Beholder” captures one of the essential elements of the American Gothic: the disparity between public persona and private nature, between surface appearance and ulterior motive. Lucas might strike a good ol’ boy pose, but he’s really bad news for the townspeople. And his determination to bring Caleb under his wing hardly stems from altruism; he’s carrying out a personal agenda rather than performing a civic duty. God help Caleb if he ever ends up raised in the sheriff’s sinister image.


Episode 4: “Damned if You Don’t”

In this fourth episode (with a fatalistic title pointing to the no-win situations that Sheriff Buck presents to the townspeople of Trinity), American Gothic once again proves that is well aware of its literary heritage. The episode introduces “Wash Sutpen,” whose first and last names harken back to the characters of Wash Jones and Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom!. The echoing of Faulkner’s novel continues with the revelation that Wash Sutpen murdered the “fellow who was taking liberties” with his teenage daughter–recalling Wash Jones’s scything of Thomas Sutpen after the latter insults the honor of Jones’s daughter Milly. Actually, though, Wash Sutpen has gunned down the wrong man; the real culprit was his employee Carter Bowen, who takes over Sutpen’s junkyard business when the latter is sent to jail (how’s that for small-town intrigue?). At the time of Wash Sutpen’s violent outburst, Sheriff Buck helped cover up Carter’s lechery; now he expects a favor in return (he wants to hire Carter’s sexy 15-year-old daughter as a personal assistant). When Carter refuses,the Machiavellian Buck reintroduces (the allegedly paroled) Wash Sutpen to Carter’s family.

The Bowen junkyard is like an automotive graveyard, with rusted hulks (including, fittingly, a hearse) littering the grounds. While visiting the place, Gail Emory stumbles upon the Gothic ruin once driven by her late parents. Ever since returning to Trinity, Gail–a reporter by trade–has been determined to look into the circumstances surrounding her folks’ deaths years earlier, and when she proceeds here to search the abandoned vehicle, she discovers a mysterious key inside a magnetized box adhered beneath the glove compartment.

The battle between good and evil is one of the show’s most overt themes, but American Gothic also makes its points in more subtle ways.  In the cleverly-arranged closing scene of “Damned If You Don’t,” Sheriff Buck stands in the junkyard orchestrating his latest devilish deal. A derelict bus looms over his shoulder in the background, and the one-word sign above the back window makes clear the type of service this vehicle once provided. This was once a “CHURCH” bus, but its days of transporting the faithful throughout Trinity have long since passed.


Episode 5: “Dead to the World”

The fifth episode of the series presents three different storylines. First, Caleb prepares to enter an archery competition at a local carnival. As always, Sheriff Buck insinuates himself in Caleb’s affairs, buying him a state-of-the-art bow & arrow and instructing him about the use of psychological warfare. “It’s not who you are, it’s who people think you are,” the sheriff tells the boy. He’s lecturing about having swagger, but Buck also sounds the American Gothic theme of duplicity–the gap between appearance and reality, public persona and inner character. Meanwhile, Buck’s lover Selena prevents Boone Mackenzie (Caleb’s best friend and chief rival in the competition) from practicing his archery by keeping him after school under the pretense that he needs to work on his penmanship. You know matters have really gotten sordid when even your grade-school teacher has a hidden agenda.

In the second storyline, Deputy Ben deals with some domestic strife involving his ex-wife and young son. Barbara Joy is physically abused by her current husband Waylon Flood, who also bullies his stepson. Ben tries to deal with the tyrant man-to-man, but Sheriff Buck tilts the playing field by using his powers to force the cabinet maker to fall onto his own table saw.

The main thrust of the episode, though, comes from Gail’s investigation of the seeming murder of her former childhood friend Holly Gallagher by Buck. The flashback scene opening the episode shows Buck deliberately driving Holly’s car off a bridge after she threatens to expose his “dirty little secret”–the fact that he is Caleb’s real father (Holly works at the hospital where Caleb’s mom died, and she assists her boyfriend Buck by stealing the file containing Caleb’s birth record). But as Gail digs up the ten-year-old dirt (and literally has Holly’s rusted vehicle dredged up from the river bottom), she discovers that Holly didn’t die in the accident. Having suffered brain damage from oxygen deprivation when the car went underwater, Holly has been hidden away in a sanitarium for the past decade. Her mother Janice, a cosmetics saleswoman, has quite a gift for concealment. Unwilling to accept that her “perfect little girl” is now an invalid, Janice (with Buck’s help) leads the townspeople of Trinity to believe that Holly died tragically. Talk about dirty little secrets…


Episode 6: “Potato Boy”

This episode of American Gothic actually never aired during the show’s 1995 run, perhaps because it is rife with sexual innuendo (a lonesome Selena gets frisky with ten-year-old Caleb during an after-school lesson in her apartment). Also, religion is debased throughout: a dead bug floats belly-up in a basin of holy water; a church looks like the setting for a splatter movie after a priest spills blood-red wine all over during communion; Sheriff Buck (providing voiceover) also wonders if one the prim and proper churchgoers is “a screamer or a squealer.” Yet anyone who has read The Monk knows that the negative portrayal of religion is a traditional feature of the Gothic.

The Potato Boy of the episode’s title is a Boo Radley-type bogey that has captured the imagination of Trinity’s children. Rumor has it that the boy is the bastard child of creepy Old Man Warren and the young woman he imprisoned and impregnated. She died delivering him, since the boy allegedly weighed 30 pounds at birth  He was also wretchedly deformed (no eyes; giant claws for hands) and thus has been kept locked away in the moldering Warren house ever since. Turns out, the Potato Boy is inside, and he is disfigured, but he has a beautiful soul. In another example of the episode’s coupling of religion and the grotesque, the Potato Boy is given an angelic voice (which he uses to belt out church hymns).

The episode shows that Trinity is populated with secret sinners. The school teacher is a harlot; the local psychiatrist is a pedophile; the priest is a dope fiend (who doesn’t practice what he preaches when it comes to Christian forgiveness: he’s disowned his wanton daughter, Selena, banishing her from his church [how a priest has come to have a daughter is a question the episode skirts]). And of course, the sheriff is the most duplicitous figure of all. But give the devil his due: Lucas Buck makes a good point when he advises Caleb, “Be careful what you see in a man’s eyes. It might not be the truth.” In Trinity, South Carolina, the windows to the soul tend to be darkly shaded.

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