As I anticipated, episode 4 was the starting point for the American Gothic status quo ante: we have an overriding story arc which will be served in gradual steps, hints and foreshadowings, but each episode will contain an individual done-in-one story, which won’t necessarily be about any of the main characters. Except, of course, Sheriff Lucas Buck.
This episode was a particularly evil little affair, twisted in both senses of the word, showing Lucas in operation. It was a tightly drawn plot, as seamless as J.B. Priestley at his playwright finest, not a loose moment, not an angle unaccounted for, and it had a sick and rotten underpinning.
Carter Bowen is Trinity’s Mr Fixit, the scrapyard owner, though most of the work is done by his handyman, T.J. Carter has a wife, Etta, and a ripening daughter, Poppy, 15 years old and busting out all over. We’re led to him by two of our leads: Caleb at night, playing hide and seek with Boone and another schoolmate, Gail in daylight to get her Air Conditioning fixed. There’s a moment where Caleb grins and it’s sheer bloody evil, showing you just what’s at stake, and there’s a moment where Gail recognises her parent’s old car. She’d like to talk to Carter’s ‘boss’, Ward Sutpen, the previous owner of the scrap yard but he’s… unavailable.
Neat little set-ups. And then there’s Sheriff Buck. Wants another girl to …help around the office. Be a …gopher for him. The implication is obvious. Of course, at 15 she’s too young, without parental consent. And Carter owes a favour, of course he does. Purty near everybody owes Lucas a favour. The episode is about learning how favours get owed, and what happens if you refuse to pay them back.
Carter has till midnight. He’s not going to place his little girl in the Sheriff’s hands, no sir. And just after midnight, Etta gets an electric shock that throws her across the room. Buck knows the damage: two hairline fractures in her ankle, a dislocated right hip and a shock to the heart. Exactly Dr Matt’s diagnosis, but delivered hours earlier.
Etta will be fine with a bit of rest round the house. Lucas Buck’s fine too, just wants Carter to meet some guy off the bus, take him home until the Sheriff can collect him. So Carter’s down there at 5.30pm, with Poppy. Bright, burgeoning Poppy. T meet the man off the bus: tall, heavy-set, muscled, sleek. Wasn’t due out for several years yet but Lucas pulled some strings. Ward Sutpen.
It doesn’t go down well at the Bowen household, especially notwhen it turns out he’s there to stay for a couple of days. Well, Poppy’s ok with it. He’s stroked her knee in the van, and the sap is rising, and she’s feeling ready to learn a few things. Like, exactly who did Mr Sutpen kill?
Turns out it was the guy who was taking liberties with his daughter. Or so he thought. Shot the wrong guy. Lost his wife, his business, his daughter too. Carter used to be sweet on his daughter, too, before he met Etta, before he bought the business. Owes the Sheriff a favour, remember?
Starting to feel your lip curl a bit at the thought of this story?
Now Ward’s not doing anything to make anyone feel reassured about his intentions towards budding young Poppy, and neither is Poppy, come to that. And when Carter threatens him, Ward quickly demonstrates that Carter ain’t gonna be able to do diddly-squat with his fists, or even a long stick. So, when night falls, when Poppy and ward are whispering across the landing, Carter gets his rifle, sets outside Poppy’s door, intends to set up all night.
And when he awakes from sleep, hearing giggles inside the bedroom, he batters the door open, sees a figure leaning over prone Poppy, in her bed, and blasts with his rifle. But the twist, inevitable in retrospect but I didn’t see it coming, is that it’s not Ward. He’s outside with his case, job done move on, favour paid. It’s Etta.
So Carter is arrested. T.J.’s set to move on, job gone, needs to live. Would like to run his own business, be a Mr Fixit, but doesn’t have the money. On the other hand, a low-interest loan to buy an opportunity that’s just about to come on the market, not to mention a ripening young woman, could be organised by the right kind of Sheriff, out to make things work out for his people. Mind you, that’s a favour that might get called in, one of these days.
I don’t think that story needs any further comment.
Of course, we are not without elements of the overall arc. For Caleb, it’s a Science Fair, with each kid contributing a project from their own resources. Caleb’s interested in weather, violent weather, tornados, but he’s not getting very far with a household blender. Dr Matt offers a book about how and why, Sheriff Buck’s only about winning, as in $40 to buy the makings of a tornado chamber. It’s cheating, but Caleb’s refusal is only initial. Merly doesn’t approve. Neither does Dr Matt, but in a superb example of the intelligence American Gothic credits to its audience, neither of them say anything. They leave Caleb to work it out for himself, indeed to out and disqualify himself just when he looks like winning, only for him to win by explaining the hows and whys.
As for Gail, there’s a flashback to childhood, to Deputy Buck pulling the car over for speeding, of her Mom giving her something to hide in the car. Something that’s still in the car. A little tin box, with a key on a chain inside it. More, obviously, in a later episode.
So there we have it. No wonder I got hooked on this in 1995 or thereabouts. There is something completely rotten at the heart of American Gothic. I look forward to more of it.