I remembered this one. In fact, I remembered it so much, I’ve been waiting all season for it to come up, wondering how I would react this time, knowing what was coming. And also twenty years on in the development of CGI to put on screen what is impossible to film in real life.
Because it starts with Ben Healy coming towards the end of a date with Cindy, who’s answered his personal ad. She’s a cheerful, nice-looking woman, not a knock-out, the kind of woman a Ben Healy can relax with, feeling it believable that she could enjoy his time. She’s chirpy, enthusiastic, fun. She even insists on coming with him on a call-out to a dilapidated old house in Goat-town, where an unholy stink’s been reported. Heck, it near doubles Ben up, it’s that rank, but Cindy doesn’t seem the least affected.
There’s a light on in a window at the back. Ben climbs up to look in. What he sees is what he’s seen before: Lucas Buck breaking Merlyn Temple’s neck.
Cindy’s not quite so chirpy now. She’s not Cindy after all, she’s Merlyn. She takes hold of her own head, twists it until the neck breaks. Her head becomes Merlyn’s. And it flops forty-five degrees and falls on her shoulder.
Last time round, they had to claw me back down from the ceiling. This time, I was a bit more conscious of the SFX, and it wasn’t the shock it had been so long ago.
This episode was one of four not shown in America on the original broadcast of American Gothic, perhaps because of the visceral impact of that moment. It was another nail in the coffin of the series, because ‘Echo of your Last Goodbye’ (the title of which only became explicable in the closing seconds as Ben and Merlyn’s ghost dance to a torch song on the jukebox) was another aspect of the changing tide as the series moved towards the end of season 1.
Merlyn’s there to haunt Ben, she appears in every woman he sees, she drives him towards discovery, not least of the fact that he has a backbone after all. Ben saw Lucas Buck snap Merlyn’s neck. Lucas is open with him about it, so long, that is, that Ben doesn’t tell anyone else: a mercy killing, he describes it. But that’s not the only death he’s responsible for.
Merlyn’s goading drives Ben back to the broken-down house, against Buck’s orders. His frustrated digging into its background, without an idea of what he’s supposed to look for, draws in Gail Emory, who’s still screwing Lucas Buck (Paige Turco, in a scene that doesn’t work simply because it turns the stomach too much, records her thoughts on relationships and not trusting Lucas Buck whilst stripping down to bra and panties and getting into bed with Lucas Buck).
It’s she who uncovers the fact that the house used to belong to Judith Temple, Caleb’s mother. In a sense, Ben fulfils part of his mission from Merlyn, to save Gail from ending up like her Aunt Judith: Gail works out what we have long known, that Lucas raped Judith, fathered Caleb on her, killed her afterwards, which he openly admits. If that doesn’t end the ‘relationship’…
And Ben comes to know it too. The house is a house of ghosts, most of them children. Judith Temple ran a children’s refuge, where kids in trouble could go: without her, without refuge… Maybe some or even all of them might have lived.
Ironically, it’s a refuge still. Tina, an aggressive, thieving, bullying girl who’s picking on Boone, lives there after being abandoned six months ago by her alcoholic mother. Egged on by Lucas, Caleb gets revenge on her for Boone, callously tricking her into getting her hand jammed into a soda machine and breaking her hand. Ben finds her, saves the day, wins her trust. Caleb’s remorseful, despite Buck’s scorn that remorse is for babies, but she can’t trust him yet.
Ben can do nothing about Judith Temple: that trail has been cold too long. The episode mildly fudges whether he can do anything about Merlyn, but he makes it plain to Lucas that he will no longer look the other way. For once, the Sheriff’s threats seem to contain an element of bluster.
There’s a tide of change. There’s Billy Peale. There’s the slow will-she-won’t-she question, teased again in this episode, of whether Selena Combs will turn against Lucas. Gail Emory’s separated herself. And now Ben Healy is moving into the opposition column. What a fascinating second season, with Dr Matt due to return, this would all make…