American Gothic: e22 – Requiem

This one I was reluctant to start watching, because it was the last one and not the end. I didn’t want to get to that point, which I remembered breathlessly, where the plug is pulled, the bathwater drains away and there is just a blank where season 2 should have been. But I had forgotten just how dark this last episode was.

Watching it put me in mind of the end of Blake’s 7, where a poor series 4, made under duress and boy did it show, ended up with the Seven, including Blake and, off-screen, Jenna, killed to destroy any risk of there being a series 5. It was wrong then, it’s wrong today. I am, in one sense, old-fashioned, due to my age. I grew up in an era where Good prevailed, and to see Evil prevail is, in certain circumstances, deeply wrong to me.

Had American Gothic lived as it deserved to, had seven seasons, until Caleb grew into manhood and came into his own, I think ultimately he would have rejected what Lucas Buck stood for. In this last episode, with Lucas apparently dead as of last week, Caleb embraced the power that flowed into him with all the lack of sophistication of a ten year old boy, and the only thing that stopped him was the resurrection of Lucas Buck.

There was a funeral, with only four attendees: Caleb, Gail, Selena and Ben. Five, of you count the gravedigger who showed no respect to the deceased. But then Caleb, left alone (but for the eavesdropping Selena) to say his final words, not only openly acknowledged Buck as his father but spat upon his grave.

There’s a horribly disturbing scene right off, in broad daylight, as Ben takes Caleb back to the boarding house. Caleb wants to see Ben’s gun but he refuses. He startles Ben by pulling out of the glove compartment Lucas’s gun, the one Ben didn’t know about. He sticks it in Ben’s chest, grinning, going on about how Ben was never praised by Lucas because he never showed his potential. His gun’s against Ben’s heart, he pulls the trigger, but it’s not loaded. It’s all a game: I was just funning with you.

Then he moves into Lucas’s house, against Merly’s wishes. Caleb is on the point of taking the name Buck, and doesn’t want her and her white dress around him any more. Once there, he finds Selena, at her most seductive, interested in Caleb’s potential.

At the hospital, Billy Peale has ordered post mortem blood tests on Lucas, concerned about why he ‘died’. We know he’s not dead, just buried alive, a point reiterated this week. Merlyn’s conducting a conversation with him in which he’s almost but not quite asking for help: because if he dies and his powers go irrevocably to Caleb, there’ll be no saving the boy.

But hospital boss Dr Narone, whose three year old granddaughter Ashley is with him today, is concerned about this. They’re expensive, the hospital can’t afford them, bring the results to me immediately (without looking at them yourself). And Ben, in the midst of a horde of townsfolk, demanding that they still get everything they had under Sheriff Buck’s ‘deals’ (whilst no doubt glad they no longer have to uphold their end of the bargain, not like all the dead ones), gets a prompt from a solid-looking Merlyn.

So Bill(y) and Ben go down to the cemetery at night and dig up a less-than-graciously-grateful Lucas Buck and sneak him into the hospital via the back door, so no-one else will know. Lucas is, however, weak.

And Selena’s told Caleb that Gail is pregnant by Sheriff Buck. It’s his insurance policy, an heir and a spare (how Windsorian) in case Caleb escapes him. But Caleb’s not having that: there can only be one Buck in every generation. He gets Selena to lure his cousin to the house where he makes it very plain that she’s not leaving there pregnant. Or alive, if need be.

Lucas, as soon as he learns this, skates over there, but not in time to prevent Gail from falling down the stairs: miscarriage, fracture concussion, possible spleen damage. Gail is out of it. And Selena, for playing her part in this, is definitively rejected by Lucas.

Who’s paid an unexpected visit to Dr Narone. Narone had taken advantage, tired of all the years of covering up the suspicious deaths that surround Lucas Buck. Something to temporarily stop his heat and burial alive. Lucas will be merciful: if Narone hangs himself with little Ashley’s skipping rope, Lucas will spare little Ashley. We know it’s coming but that doesn’t shake the horror when the little girl approaches Doctor Billy and Doctor Rita to tell them, in puzzlement, that ‘Granpa’s sleeping on the ceiling’.

Now it’s down to Lucas vs Caleb over who wields the power. Caleb uses a letter-opener to stab Lucas in the stomach, but it’s not him, it’s Merly, seeming to be him for a distraction. Lucas grabs Caleb from behind, but it’s too late, the only way to save him is to kill him. Lucas is going to throw him off the landing. Merlyn is frantic, thiswasn’t their deal, but Lucas Buck is a lying, cheating bastard. I won’t let you kill him, she yells. I know you won’t, Lucas says, having manipulated Merlyn into a sacrifice that benefits him. When he throws Caleb down, she is there: there is a blinding flash and she’s gone, never to return.

Caleb’s back to normal, good-little-kid normal. Buck tells him Merlyn’s inside him now: they’ll get by without her.

And it’s all over, it really is all over.

Creator Shaun Cassidy wrote the final episode. You can see in it all manner of layers and pointers for how it might have gone in season 2, in which it was planned for Dr Matt – who gets a namecheck – to return. But American Gothic was killed by its network, mistreated, neglected, denied a proper shot at an audience that I can’t believe it wouldn’t have grabbed if they’d had the proper chance at it.

But where Midnight Caller had been Saturday night dross, American Gothic gave Gary Cole a role in which he could dominate every scene he was in, and he took that chance with a vengeance, and these past 22 Thursdays, reacquainting myself with him and it has been time well-spent.

I have another series in mind for the Thursday morning slot, but what it is you’ll have to wait and see, in case I change my mind at the last minute. Thank you for visiting Trinity with me. It’s a nice town. If you do as you’re told…

American Gothic: e21 – The Buck Stops Here

And now we’re right on the brink.

This was an ideal set-up for a season finale, stirring things about to the greatest extent, resetting conditions that had been disturbed over previous weeks and introducing the greatest of new factors: Sheriff Lucas Buck is dead. Or is he?

In many ways, the penultimate episode was confused and muddy, with no clear storyline. Billy Peale and Selena Combs break into Buck’s house searching for medical files on Doris Lydon, believed to have been stolen by the Sheriff. Doris has been in a coma for two years, following some mysterious deal between Lucas and her husband, Yancey, the Hospital pharmacist.

Instead of searching for the files, Billy and Selena have sex in Buck’s bed. She talks of wanting Lucas dead, but when he comes home unexpectedly, they skedaddle out, though the Sheriff well knows what’s gone on. He interrupts Selena’s class the next day, making some pointed comments, but he also introduces Caleb to the eye in the pyramid symbol on the dollar bill, linking it to Caleb’s surname, Temple, and Lucas’s: the Buck stops here, and in every generation one rises who wields the power.

Weird stuff is going on. Caleb gets obsessed with cutting out the eye in the pyramid from dollar bills, arranging them into the third eye symbol. Gail, pregnant with Lucas’ baby, starts eating raw, uncooked beef and drinking it’s blood. Yancey blames Buck for cheating him: he gave a Judge who had upset Lucas a placebo (of which he impliedly died) in exchange for Doris’s life, but was lead to believe she would be restored, not comatose.

With the muddy waves stirring, and Merly getting ever more concerned about Caleb, someone attacks the Sheriff with a trochea, a medical implement constructed to split skulls. Billy’s there, but didn’t do it, though he’s thrown in jail at first (we all know it’s Yancey). Buck has been stabbed through the ‘third eye’, the pineal gland, the source of his power.

And he dies, just after whispering something to Caleb that we don’t get to hear.

There’s a funeral, a procession of people passing the coffin, several of them figures from earlier episodes. Reaction to his death is, to say the least, mixed. Gail admits to loving Buck. She also shoots Selena down, telling her she’s deader than Lucas.

But the worst is Caleb. He just smiles, like Gary Cole.

So it rushes towards a conclusion. Yancey is going to put Doris out of her hopeless condition but she dies first. Merly brings her back long enough to say farewell. Then Caleb enters, to punish him. Yancey winds up with his mouth and throat choked with pills: only an emergency tracheotomy by Billy saves his life. Caleb has come into his powers, it would seem.

He walks into the church, lays a dollar on the coffin lid, says, “The Buck Starts Here.”

And inside the coffin, Lucas Buck’s eyes open…

Next week is the finale, about which I remember certain things. Especially the closing scene. Hang on tight.

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.

American Gothic e19: Triangle

Imagine this in your womb…

There’s not much time left and with so few steps remaining, American Gothic comes up with the closest to a dud episode yet, primarily composed to two opposing but related strands, one of which not even having any kind of recognisable conclusion, even temporarily.

The episode title applies to both halves of the story, but in different ways, and both halves involve a triangle of two men and a woman, the shared point and fulcrum being Sheriff Lucas Buck.

On one side, the woman is Gail Emory. Gail’s quitting, puling out, leaving Trinity and taking Caleb with her. It’s been too much for her, she’s in over her head, she’s spitting defiance but she’s definitely surrendering and running away. Until the stomach cramps hit her, because she’s pregnant. With Lucas Buck’s child, another son.

Lucas is laying up insurance. Caleb’s his, but could go either way, but Luke Jr is his entirely, a little monster, pre-formed and grimacing and pointing to Gail on the ultrasound. She’s freaking out, she’s trying to abort via an overdose of vodka, she’s going to throw herself off the roof of a building, except that Caleb’s desperate pleas hold her back. She goes to church, and Merlyn appears to her, sympathising, but in the end offering no practical solution except hope and faith: look at Caleb.

And that’s all we get, a status quo of stored-up trouble, weighted in Sheriff Buck’s favour, a theme to be explored in, yes, you guessed it, season 2.

The other woman is Selena Combs, making Billy Peale the third apex. This is the more conventional triangle. Selena is slipping more and more out of Lucas’s grasp, and that’s not something he’s prepared to allow. Billy won’t play ball, under no circumstances. But his job in Trinity is done, there’s an epidemic in Uganda, and he wants Selena to come with him: Paris, Rome, Africa, where they need good teachers. But she stands him up at the airport.

Billy gets good and drunk but he comes back to her. She’s sliding towards him, they make love, but out of the blue, or rather the black, Selena’s hit with a raging fever that’s going to burn her out, kill her. Billy recognises magic, tries to beat Lucas into relinquishing his hold, but the Sheriff will only do it if Billy recognises his authority. Kiss my ring, says Buck, proffering a signet ring, though we all know that it’s asking for the good old osculam infamous, which Billy promptly and defiantly concretises with a retorted “Kiss my ass!”

The spell is lifted. Selena recovers. Billy thinks it’s love. Selena knows it is. And she knows who she really has to thank.

Neither half of the story is really satisfactory. A rare miss. And I have no great recollections of the following episode either, the last ‘lost’ episode. A week.

American Gothic e18: Echo of your Last Goodbye

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…

American Gothic: e16 – Dr Death Takes a Holiday

As I remember it happening, though not the shape of it, this episode is Dr Matt Crower and Jake Weber’s swansong, as Billy Peale and John Mese are promoted into the cast as his direct replacement, for the last six episodes of the series.

At the time, having no knowledge of how the series was faring in America, and knowing only that it was consistently absorbing and effective, I thought it a daring, even progressive move: changing a central cast member in mid-season, showcasing a change of alignment, as Selena Combs begins a movement from Sheriff Buck’s camp into the opposition ranks.

Now, with much more information available as to the show’s history, I’m seeing this from the opposite side. We’re two-thirds of the way through a season which is failing commercially, with renewal an ever fainter prospect. Much as I like Jake Weber in this role, much as he stands out as the Yankee in the South (not that anyone except Buck seems to hold that against him), it’s clear that Weber was too laid-back, too quiet, too soft to be a real focus of opposition to our over-powerful villain.

So, ring the changes, bring in a more pro-actively strong protagonist, stir things up, create new interest. Billy Peale will do all of that, even as he comes over as a laid-back Southerner. Matt Crower is broken by Lucas Buck, he’s pushed aside, more than neutralised, finished. Apparently, if there had been a season 2, there were plans to bring him back, but in the context of this episode, I cannot see how, plausibly, he could have been re-inserted, except as an occasional, recurring character.

Weber’s send-off comes in an incredibly strong episode. It begins with him producing X-Ray pictures at the Sheriff’s office showing clearly Merlyn Temple’s broken neck, refuting the killed-with-a-shovel official cause of death. Buck decides to take steps against Dr Matt, once and for all, and, building upon last week’s fever-induced hallucinations, tries to get Judge Ketteridge to sign committal papers on him. The Judge, being a principled man, refuses to do so.

Buck, being an unprincipled man, save for the principle of what-I-wants-I-get, exploits the gambling habit of the Judge’s pretty young wife, Charlotte, in a tense poker scene that sees her wipe herself out: the Judge comes home to find her in the bath, her wrists slashed. Not dead, though: and in return for Lucas clearing things up in some unexplained manner, he signs.

(At the risk of being accused of hypocrisy, whilst I’ve several times railed at Deep Space Nine for the laziness of not showing things, I have no problems with what’s essentially the same issue here. Deep Space Nine is an SF series, taking place in a scientific, rational universe, that frequently glosses over questions central to a scientific, rational story. American Gothic is a supernatural oriented horror story in which rational explanations are antithetic to its tone, and where atmosphere and a sense of mystery are central to its main character. In addition, the element of the Judge and his wife, though given weight by the lengthy and horrifying Poker game scene, are a side-issue, which would become distractingly complex if it bogged itself down in such detail.)

Meanwhile, in the other half of the story, we see Dr Matt gradually descend. He begins heroically: an attractive, albeit seriously stressed-out woman (guest star Veronica Cartwright) pulls a gun on the Sheriff in the street and he grabs the gun, forcing it down. It’s an ironic foreshadowing, for the episode will end with Matt pointing the same gun at Buck, and a combination of Gail, Billy and Ben forcing it down.

The woman, ‘Mrs Smith’, Angela, is suffering from a golf-ball sized tumour, but what’s driving her is hatred of Lucas Buck. She accuses him of being pure, unadulterated evil, and that killing him would be an act of love, not evil. She berates Matt for not killing Buck, which makes him worse than the Sheriff. She says she should know: she is Lucas Buck’s mother.

But she’s not. When he finally comes to visit her at the Hospital, where Angela is in the room where Caleb’s mother threw herself through the window ten years ago, where Lucas materialises in his usual fashion, looking demonic in his duster coat and his buttoned-up shirt, we learn she’s an ex-lover, his first, aged 16, the older woman. She’s angry, hating him for leaving her, though it’s insinuated that this was forced on them by ‘the people’, because of the age discrepancy.

Buck soothes her, kisses her, makes nice with her… and somehow persuades her to throw herself through the window. Dr Matt sees her fall, finds her body, looks up to see Luca at the window.

It’s the final straw. All episode, he’s been refusing Angela’s impassioned pleas: to kill is evil. But he’s been reading one of Miss Holt’s books on demonology, and its dragged him down. Matt takes the gun, and gives Buck everything he wants.

There’s a moment, en route to the asylum, where Deputy Ben defies his orders. He pulls up in the woods, orders Matt out the car. Matt’s cynical, conjures up an old mage of ‘Law’ in the South, the prisoner shot and killed whilst trying to escape. But Ben will let him go, tells him to go back North. Matt refuses: he won’t run away again.

So there is no escaping his fate, a cell in the asylum. And Sheriff Lucas Buck, come to gloat, come to deliver the send-off. Matt knows he’s out of the battle now, but he warns Buck there will be others. There will still be an Opposition, and one day they will win.

Not in American Gothic though. Not in the time we have left. Maybe, in some mythical, fictional later season, season 5 maybe? The changes didn’t do enough good. There are six more episodes left. I hope they’re all as good as this one.

American Gothic: e15 – The Plague Sower

I’m sure they’re going to be friends

I wasn’t too sure about parts of this episode, in which Trinity was hit by a plague that had people bleeding from the eyes and ears. In execution, it was appropriately spooky, in logic – and the brevity of its ending – it was unsatisfying. But whilst I didn’t remember the story at all, I did remember its position as a swing episode. We’re two-thirds of the way through now, and change to the established position is about to happen.

That I’ll return to. But whilst I was less than convinced by some parts of the episode, its resolution opened up some intriguing doors of insight, and gave rise to at least one deeply intriguing thought.

But let’s look at the story. In outline, there’s not that much more to it than I’ve already said. The mysterious plague has already begun when Dr Matt and Deputy Ben drive out to an isolated farm in response to an emergency call. There’s an immediately truncated detail as Ben warns that the last time the wife made this kind of call, she’d ‘accidentally’ shot her first husband, but it’s a red herring because inside, she’s in bed, bleeding from eyes and ears, and he’s hanging from the door, dead, with a scrawled note taped to his stomach: Repent.

There’s an epidemic in town. To avoid panic, Matt supports Sheriff Buck’s lie that all is well. Blood supplies are disappearing fast. Billy Peale (guest star John Mese) arrives in town. He’s a photogenic, white t-shirt, blue jeans guy, laconic, unfazed, comes from Atlanta, talks like a Southerner, an epidemiologist from the Centre for Disease Control, and in his laid-back way he ain’t taking no shit from Sheriff Buck.

He’s also Dr Matt’s replacement, though we don’t get to that until next week. And he’s already attracted the attention of Selena, who’s shortened her hem-lines already, who’s showing signs of wanting to break free from Lucas, and that’s something there’ll be more of.

But in the meantime, Dr Matt has another encounter with a sick patient writing the word Repent, and the disease hits him, except that instead of the mere physical symptoms, Dr Matt goes bible-crazy, underlining verse after verse with yellow highlighter and leaving Billy Peale to lead the action against the plague.

Which we realise, to our shock, is being spread by Merlyn Temple.

First though, there are other factors. In one of the most dubious developments of the series, and in fulfillment of a cliche that I have loathed for a very long time, Gail gives way to her overwhelming lust and goes to get fucked by Sheriff Buck. I hate this stupid, lazy,  demeaning idea that every good woman (and not a few good men) will always succumb to the utterly evil, vile, repulsive, bad boy, over all their loathing. It’s cheap, it’s nasty and if you’re going to do it, you need to establish a basis for attraction a damn sight more carefully than American Gothic ever has (and no, having the bad boy leeringly tell the good woman that she wants him, he knows it, does not add up to the characterisation needed to sell this).

There will be consequences, and one of them is immediate: Gail falls ill with the plague.

So Buck goes out into a lonely place, in a cold, foggy night (we are in January 1996, thank you Billy Peale) to confront Merlyn Temple. And this is where it suddenly gets very interesting indeed. Because he accuses her of overstepping. And he tells her she should listen to him, that he can help her avoid the pitfalls. She won’t listen: he has fallen.

And suddenly, a  large implication opens up. We know Lucas Buck as a spoiler, a man of power, running his own virtual kingdom, giving people what they want and looking out for them, providing they conform to how he sees things and wants things to go. Did he start off seeking power with the intent of doing good? Was Lucas originally on the side of the angels only for Power to Corrupt, Absolutely? This is what he is warning Merlyn against, isn’t it?

She’s defensive against the very accusation, too defensive. But Merly has an advantage that Lucas Buck may not have had, that, ironically, springs from Lucas Buck, namely her young brother, Caleb.

I haven’t said this often enough, but Lucas Black’s performances as Caleb have been astoundingly good. There isn’t an ounce of artificiality in him, and Caleb’s solid core of good sense, his downhome benevolence, is central to every episode. Here, his solicitude for Dr Matt, his fear for his friend, and his righteous anger when he realises Merly is the plague sower, are at the bottom of her decision to reverse whatever she is doing, to draw back the plague. Merlyn Temple is struggling with her role. She has been sent her to punish the wicked and save the innocent, and she has these powers to assist her, but how, and when, and why to use her powers is proving difficult to understand. The age-old question, as once expressed in a 1970’s Justice Society of America story: what good are powers if you don’t use them? But what good are powers if you use them too much?

Thoughtful, profitable questions. Merly withdraws the plague, everybody recovers with miraculous speed, especially Dr Matt and Gail, and Billy Peale decides to stick around…

American Gothic e14: The Beast Within


Firstly, we’re now back on track with the running order, as the fourteen episodes now completed by this review are the first fourteen episodes (I hope). It’s been tortuous, folks.

And I have to congratulate creator Shaun Cassidy, who wrote this episode, for turning round my early scepticism about the quality, and the point, of ‘The Beast Within’, and creating a story whose tension was steadily ratcheted up, and whose relevance came into ever sharper focus the longer it went on. And for giving me my best laugh of American Gothic to date.

The episode began and ended in dreams, Caleb”s dram, a recurring nightmare that occupied the complete open. Caleb walks down a corridor lined with cells, at the end of which a half-seen figure, almost naked, is praying. Another, even less well-seen figure (but we know it’s Sheriff Lucas Buck) gives him a razor blade, which the prisoner uses to slice open his stomach.

The stranger is guest star Jeff Perry, giving a magnificent performance as a soldier, released/escaped from the psych ward, who sets things in motion by stealing a cheap Korean watch from an appliance store. The robbery is interrupted by Sheriff Buck and Deputy Healey, who gets a tremendous shock to realise the robber is his brother Artie. In the confusion, Artie gets a bullet in the ribs, takes Buck hostage and heads for the hospital to have it removed. This means an emergency operation by Doctor Matt, with additional hostages in the form of Gail and Caleb, there out of concern for Caleb’s recurring dreams.

So far, so cheap filler set-up. It’s a cliche melodrama involving an outsider, with no point of contact to the overarching story. The melodrama is only enhanced when Artie reveals that, in addition to the bullet, he has something else in his belly: a bomb that will detonate at 11.00pm, or if he loses consciousness and his blood pressure drops below 45. And he’s got to get back to his ward by 11.00, because all his friends there are equally in pain, and he’s going to end it for everyone.

Or for Buck, Matt, Caleb and Gail if something isn’t sorted out.

It’s none of it organically arising out of Trinity, out of Sheriff Buck’s unhealthy hold over the town, out of the complex pattern of the principal characters. But slowly the tension starts to take hold, slowly what is happening starts to put out tendrils of story that attach themselves to the theme, slowly we start to be drawn into why this is happening. And, as the increasingly desperate Ben Healey says out loud for us, as he nervously rackets about, trying to cope with the unfamiliar weight of responsibility for managing this crisis and the rather more familiar weight if trying to save his brother, why is Lucas letting this happen?

Yeah, why is Lucas letting this happen? Two answers are under our noses. Ben has been bemoaning the way his son is still influenced by his stepfather (now equipped with prosthetic hand) and thinking Ben is garbage. And Lucas tells Artie that he knows about the long ago hunting trip, two Healey boys, Ben, Artie and their Dad, and how Ben shot a duck but, by accident, Artie shot their Dad, killed him straight out. And Caleb’s lost his father too, and is rejecting Buck’s offer to step in and replace him. Look, Caleb, what effect it has to have no father for you.

And in the end, Ben has to be the hero, and is the hero, though his instinct is to reject that role, both out of modesty at being in the spotlight, and an awareness on one level or another that this is all one of the Sheriff’s manipulations. Because, with Matt’s hand bust, time running out and Lucas busying himself with a pipe-wrench to get Caleb and Gail out of handcuffs, Ben has to operate on his own brother, cut him open, stick his hands outside and yank out… a packet of cigarettes!

With a wire sticking out.

Ben drops the bomb down the garbage chute into an old bomb shelter (in a South Carolina town? Huh?) and saves the day. It makes for a story, it’ll impress his son and it gets him dinner cooked by Rita, the not-unattractive red-headed nurse.

And Caleb gets a lesson too.

And who got Artie out of the psych ward, and gave him the razor to cut himself open with? These questions are not answered, but Caleb dreams again, marching down the corridor, the cells empty, including Artie’s. Out steps Lucas Buck, to be accused by Caleb of setting everything up, which we know he has. Buck doesn’t admit it, all he says is it’s Caleb’s dream. But he extends his hand, calling Caleb to him, sure and powerful in the knowledge that Caleb will.

Then Caleb has a gun in his hand and shoots Buck in the heart. Gary Cole manages a look of complete shock and pain tha’s far from what he has to do in his role as Buck, before collapsing. Caleb grins at the gun. Buck was right: it’s his dream!

What a brilliant ending!

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.

American Gothic: e09 – Resurrector

Not very sisterly…

Now I am confused.

Some of this is down to the fug of several days with a cold, too much Blackcurrant Lemsip and overdosing on Fox’s Glacier Fruits, which left me unenthusiastic about an episode of American Gothic when my powers of concentration are pretty minimal. But most of it is that, after commenting last week about the wholesale change to the credits, we were back to the original theme. Which tells me this DVD is not laid out in production order, and I’m not watching the season arc the way it should be. If this is in broadcast order, then it’s going to make the rest of the season a bit of a fuck-up.

In my zeal to avoid spoilers, I’ve not looked ahead on the remaining episodes until now, but a quick check reveals that at least in one respect the DVD isn’t running everything in its true order. Though Channel 4 broadcast all twenty-two episodes of American Gothic, four were ‘lost’ in America, and never shown: these four are tagged onto the end of Disc 3, after the show’s finale.

One of these should already have been featured according to imdb, another is the one I’m most eager to see again. So come the New Year, I’m going to have to start a bit of jiggling around to slot these episodes, as best I can, into what may be the proper running order.

Meanwhile, ‘Resurrector’ consisted of two almost completely detached stories, one of which I recalled in its closing sequence. The first, which occupied the time of Sheriff Buck, Deputy Nick and the seductive Selena, was a one-off about corruption and temptation, involving guests Mel and Gloria (Greg Travis and Irene Ziegler), a husband-and-wife radio talk show team.

The second was Caleb, growing concerned at how Merly has left him alone for a week (which might well hark back to the end of ‘Strong Arm of the Law’), taking advice from Loris Holt (the boardinghouse owner who is his temporary guardian) on dealing with ghosts, and in particular on providing Merly with a second funeral, to enable her to move on, though Caleb doesn’t want that. This story has a cameo from Dr Matt, but no place for Gail, who just doesn’t appear this episode.

We start with Mel, seeking Sheriff Buck’s patronage to get him and Gloria onto the local TV network. They’ve tried themselves, but been turned down for not being ‘telegenic’. It’s a reasonable call: they’re both good middle-aged people, but they’re not pretty enough for TV, especially Mel. Unfortunately, Buck refuses to use his considerable influence to assist the ambitious Mel, because Mel’s got no viable quid pro quo. Frustrated, Mel threatens the Sheriff, which is not the way to go about things in Trinity.

And when Deputy Ben is forced to put a bullet into the hip of a crazed, gun-totin’ man who owes money to Sheriff Lucas, Mel sees his opportunity for leverage. Selena slinks around Ben, keeping him preoccupied whilst Buck offers Mel a deal. He’ll get him on TV, but only by himself, without Gloria. Mel’s been married to Gloria for seventeen years. He still loves her, as she does him. But if Mel wants his TV shot, it has to be alone, and if he doesn’t want Gloria dragging him down with divorce…

Mel’s appalled. But in the end, not appalled enough. He can’t do it, but when the chance presents itself by accident, Gloria falling out of a boat in the middle of a late-night date on the lake, he ensures his downfall by rowing off and abandoning her. A fair exchange is made, one refusal to thoroughly investigate a dodgy claim for one cassette of dodgy words from Ben.

Then it’s off to the studios with sultry Selena to massage those shoulders, until Mel’s had just enough to drink to blurt it out. On video-tape, for the cameras. Enter Gloria, who didn’t believe Sheriff Buck when he told her what Mel planned, but who agreed to ‘test the waters’: she’s a very good swimmer. I remembered nothing of this nasty little tale of greed until that very late scene, when it became obvious that Gloria wasn’t going to be dead, and then I remembered whole images of it. Funny thing, memory, isn’t it?

That part was at least simple. Caleb’s story was another matter. Lucas Black, the boy actor, is brilliant in this series. His conviction, his utter straightforwardness as Caleb, carries the show almost as much as Gary Cole’s ruthlessness, and helps us believe in the two weird scenes that resulted from his attempts to lay Merly’s ghost for her own benefit (which he never really seemed to see might not be for his benefit).

First, at night, he burns a map, an invitation and two of her favourite foods on a charcoal brazier, with Boone to assist. Nothing happens, but when Boone leaves, the fire springs up in a sudden blaze that contains a vortex. Merly is trapped inside. She’s corporeal enough to seize Caleb by the throat, for a time.

This scares Caleb but makes him determined to try harder. To do the job properly, he needs brimstone, or sulphur to be scientific. In the one moment of crossover between the two stories, Sheriff Buck manifests himself in the garden shed to seize and smash the glass of sulphur, to keep Caleb away from harm, but fails to foresee that the determined boy could scoop up a double handful of it from the floor and sprinkle it on the brazier.

Caleb then reluctantly sacrifices the locket that holds the only photo of his mother. Instead of burning, the locket wriggles below the ashy surface. A column of smoke erupts, in which Merly appears. On her breast is the locket. Somewhat sadly, she says, “Thy will be done, Caleb,” and then she repeats those words, but this time in a deep, bass, slowed-down drawl of the kind usually used to indicate the presence of a demon…

Smash cut into the credits and a very big Oh Shit all round.

The next episode on the DVD seems to follow directly on from this one, as it does in imdb, so we’ll have that next, but then I’m going to have to start looking more carefully at those ‘lost’ episodes, of which at least one needs to be viewed sooner rather than later.