American Gothic e20: Strangler


This episode is the last of the lost, the four episodes unaired in America on American Gothic‘s original run, though shown on Channel 4. It’s almost the last of the few memories of that initial viewing in the mid-Nineties, and it is, for the most part, what I remembered it to be, something awkward and contrived. Given that it features the infamous Boston Strangler, the real Boston Strangler, raised from the dead, I can understand why it would have been kept from the airwaves, though the episode also contained a major development that would have governed everything else to follow.

Basically: Merly is trying to get Caleb to forgive his father, but he can only say the words, not mean them. Their little meeting in the graveyard is interrupted by Lucas Buck, who wants rid of Merly once and for all. When he tries to seize her, she uses her powers to blast him back a dozen feet. So, after she and Caleb have gone, Lucas summons up a figure from the dead to do the job for him: Albert DeSalvo, the Boston Strangler.

Gareth Williams, playing DeSalvo, does a massive job, aided by the fact that Gary Cole is absent for over half the episode, leaving the show to concentrate on the Strangler. He plays DeSalvo as a quiet, content man, secure in himself, self-aware, popular and empathetic, but nevertheless struck with an insane compulsion, of which he is, if anything, proud. Never at any time does he try to justify or explain himself.

Now Lucas is off to a Convention, leaving Ben Healy in charge. DeSalvo is only supposed to murder Merly – and when the dead kill the dead, they go into oblivion – but his obsession is too powerful. He attacks and kills the pretty, short-skirted nurse Sara (Amy Parrish), he attacks Gail Emory after seeing her briefly in a short skirt but is prevented by her resistance and Ben’s arrival, and he kills another nurse in the hospital itself.

In the meantime, posing as a refrigerator repairman, he befriends Caleb, nudging him towards calling on his sister.

With Lucas out of town, and Deputy Floyd imploring him to just wrap it all up until Buck gets back, Ben starts hesitant, but gradually grows in authority and intelligence, to the point that, by episode’s end, he has a hard-working, thrumming Sheriff’s office, operating thoroughly. The man has authority and respect. Naturally, Lucas shuts it all down: back to normal.

But that’s merely a stinger. The climax comes at the boarding house. DeSalvo has dropped all pretences: unless Caleb calls Merly, DeSalvo will use his knife. Merly comes, ready to defend her brother and, when her powers prove ineffectual against the Strangler, ready to forfeit her soul for him. DeSalvo has his hands round her throat, Caleb is trying to drag him off, she’s fading out, and then comes the moment that changes everything.Caleb screams ‘Noooo!!!!’, and his powers hurl DeSalvo across the room, against the wall, and burn him up from the inside, leaving only smoke-shadows against the wallpaper.

Merly has only sadness. Caleb has saved her soul, but at the cost of using powers that will destroy his soul. She touches Caleb’s face. They can now touch one another. She says “Goodbye.”

Effective as it is in that game-changing ending, and in showing Ben as both competent and a viable point of opposition to Lucas Buck, twenty years later ‘Strangler’ still feels like an awkward contrivance. The Boston Strangler is the Boston Strangler: Boston, Massachusetts, up North, Yankee country. He has nothing to do with Trinity, South Carolina. By dragging in a real-life, and extremely notorious figure, reality in Trinity is warped out of shape. It feels more like an episode done because someone wanted an episode starring Albert DeSalvo than anything organically part of American Gothic‘s true arc. For all that he’s actually a ghost here, the Boston Strangler is too real for everybody else beside him, and it ultimately damages the episode.

But it sets up the final two episodes, as we shall see.

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