1984: It Was a So-So Year

Some final thoughts on the latest season of American Horror Story, which concluded last night with Episode 9.9 “Final Girl”…

Overall, AHS gave a strong showing in its hearkening back three decades. It invoked, and poked some loving fun at, 80’s aesthetics (shorty shorts, porn star ‘staches, mercilessly teased hair) and trends (most of all, the aerobics craze), without getting too distracting or giving the sense that the show was targeting clay pigeons. There were some memorable performances–John Carroll Lynch displayed terrific range as the not-mere-Mr.-Jingles Benjamin Richter, and I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed Dylan McDermott more than for his work here as Bruce, the sleazy psycho aspiring to serial killer stardom.

The first half of the season was particularly entertaining. These early episodes continuously hooked the viewer via the unities of time and place. A slew of events transpired over the course of a single, blood-soaked night at Camp Redwood in the summer of ’84, and the writing positively brimmed with wild plot twists and character reversals. In these episodes, AHS seemed to revel in the recreation of 80’s slasher horror.

Sustainability, though, is perennially the big problem for this show, and, alas, this season proved no exception. The action derailed at midseason with the jump ahead in time period that made “1984” something of a misnomer. My biggest issue was with the return of murdered characters as instant spirits haunting the campgrounds. I wasn’t a big fan of this dynamic back in season one (“Murder House”), and even less so here. In defiance of logic and genre convention, these so-called ghosts are tangible, indistinguishable from flesh-and-blood people, and quite adept at dispatching the living with handheld weapons. Because of such contrivance, the show dispenses carnage without consequence, and victims’ deaths prove about as emotionally impactful as the demise of video game characters.

The ghosts’ never-ending slaughter of the Satanically-resurrected Richard Ramirez did furnish some wicked good moments of graphic violence, like a grindhouse version of Groundhog Day. For sure, gore is gloriously splashed across the screen in the season finale (including the most gruesome use of a wood chipper since Fargo). But the build toward a seemingly bloody climax at the Halloween 1989 concert turned out to be a misdirection rather than a massacre (I was disappointed, too, that the much-referenced Billy Idol never showed up at Camp Redwood, either in cameo appearance or via actor impersonation). Also, despite the title of the last episode (and some self-conscious commentary by the female leads), 1984 ultimately doesn’t present any revolutionary development of the concept of the final girl. Finally, the concluding scene, with Mike and the Mechanics’ “The Living Years” playing with no hint of subtlety in the background, made for a terribly sappy happy ending; the sentiment was as saccharine as a six-pack of Slice.

AHS: 1984 started off with a clever reworking of slasher elements, but in the end, serial killers and deadly, repeatedly-returning ghosts made for a sloppy mix.

 

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