American Gothic e11: Potato Boy


According to the imdb episode listing, this should be seen as episode 6 of American Gothic, whereas in the DVD boxset, it’s placed as episode 19, and is a ‘lost’ episode not broadcast originally. This discrepancy between the two makes a mockery of the numbering in my heading, but I’m going tp try to stay consistent for this seriesat least.

And what a strange episode this was, with no real story to it, no forward movement of any significance, just a series of encounters, none of them completed, that gave insight into characters without producing any real fulfilment. It’s easy to see why, in 1995/96, a network would hold so focusless an episode back. Nevertheless, I found it fascinating, insightful and, in the one section irrelevant to the overall series, even eerie.

It began with Caleb’s nighttime ritual, overlaid with a voiceover from Gary Cole that continued on past the opening credits, introducing the theme. Caleb furiously brushes his teeth, turns in a circle, spits into the bowl, says ‘So be it’, and repeats. When Loris Holt asks what he is doing, he blithely says, “Brushing my teeth”, as if the whole ritual is completely normal. Then, before going to bed, he turns all mirrors and photos to face the wall: he can’t get to sleep with people watching him.

But his sleeping is disturbed by singing from outside: sweet singing, angelic singing, ethereal singing. According to young Rose (a very early role for Evan Rachel Wood), and confirmed by Boone, this is the Potato Boy. He lives in the dilapidated Warren House and is supposedly cursed due to the family’s evil ways, being born 30lb and deformed. he never goes out, only sings, day and night.

He’s the epitome of small town fear and religion about those not identical: wisely, the show holds his appearance back until the end, showing only a deformed hand, and the back of a head on which hair only appears in patches, until the end, to which I’ll turn.

The show, and Lucas Buck’s ongoing voiceover, takes in Sunday morning, and the service at the Catholic Church, to which most people in Trinity seem to belong. I assume it’s Catholic: they have Transubstantiation and the Rite of Confession, though this seems odd in a Deep South town.

It’s Caleb’s first communion, under Sheriff Buck’s beady eye. Maybe that’s why the Father spills the Communion wine, the Blood of Christ, all down Caleb, bright red and thick, when the cup slips from his trembling hands. Or maybe it’s because he’s addicted to Morphine and needs his fix?

But we spin out, dividing our time between Caleb, feeling overpowered by the number of people offering help, which makes him feel all the more helpless, and Selena, the town whore, sexually promiscuous but in desperate search of real intimacy, of feelings and maybe even heart, rather than merely body, and Deputy Ben, under Lucas’s thumb, his every day 100% compromised, without independence, autonomy or satisfaction, now seeing the Sheriff’s Union psychiatrist.

Caleb has Merly (this is another episode in which cousin Gail doesn’t appear), but she is distracted by the beauty of the Potato Boy’s singing and the loneliness of his pure and innocent life. He has Doctor Matt, himself riven by anger, hurt and hatred, powerful loathing that he admits to in Confession, loathing that the Father finds overpowering to be directed towards someone else, only for Matt – the alcoholic who drove drunk and killed his wife and daughter – to say that it’s not directed at someone else.

And he has the Father, whose name has not yet been mentioned, as I’d noticed at the time, for which there is a reason, who warns him that those who offer to help sometimes offer for their own purposes, and who offers without ulterior motive.

Everything twists and turns. Matt’s self-loathing goes no further than a shaky apology to Caleb for blowing up at him. Ben’s dilemma is eased, at least superficially, when he confesses to the Doctor that what burns him up is being unable to arrest Lucas for killing Merlyn Temple. The release of saying that was a moment I recognised from my own experiences of counseling (not about breaking anybody’s neck, I hasten to add!) and it buoyed Ben up considerably. It didn’t affect Lucas, mind you. Not since he knew that the Doctor had to leave Atlanta for fiddling with young boys. Secrecy buys secrecy.

And Selena. Caleb finds her alone in school, crying. His obvious concern touches her. As he’s struggling in history, she volunteers out of hours assistance, as much for the unforced warmth of company without any sexual demand on her. At least, not overtly. But when Caleb cuts his hand slicing the melon, she holds him on her lap, again starts crying, and Caleb is comforting her back when Lucas appears, accusing her basically of screwing Caleb, young as he is. Selena is cut deeply by his implications, spoiling a moment of innocence for her.

Caleb runs off to seek help from the Father, but is locked out of the Church: the priest is more concerned with his next fix than the spiritual help he promised Caleb. Nor can Selena get any aid from the Church. She enters it in the evening, but is driven away by ranting and roaring from the Father, refusing to allow her tp speak, telling her there is no place for her here, driving her away from even the possibility of redemption.

Because the Father is the Father: Father Coombs, his name withheld for this final sting in the tail.

But not quite final. Caleb creeps into the Potato Boy’s home, to see him, to face the ‘monster’, to bring his own growing brand of acceptance to this estranged creature. he finds him on the floor, haloed in light, watched over by Merly, whose voice is now that of the angelic singer. The Potato Boy is dying, dies before Caleb’s eyes, but is accepted into Heaven.

The end is almost upon us. The Sheriff is still trying to worm his way into Caleb’s trust. They talk trust. He counsels Caleb that most people seem to think trust lies in the eyes, but he warns Caleb that people’s eyes can lie. Caleb brushes his teeth. He turns in a circle and looks at himself in the mirror. Looks into his own eyes. He smiles at what he sees. “So be it,” he says.

An odd, but very effective episode. Progress? None. A still picture, composed of fragments, yes. A more nuanced view of (most of) our principals? Oh, indeed.

2 thoughts on “American Gothic e11: Potato Boy

  1. Ah, thank you for this! I was so lost in the dialogue as my “copy” does not have subtitles. Suddenly it makes sense!

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