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 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: e17 – Learning to Crawl

Don’t worry, he won’t shoot

At this point in the series, and this remove in time, it’s impossible to know what was being produced to complete an order doomed to a premature end, and what is being made in furtherance of an overarching story, to be developed to an even deeper extent in season 2.

‘Learning to Crawl’ is an episode that looks, feels and plays as part of an overall scheme that is not prepared to end in five weeks time. It’s an episode that starts to change the terms of the series, and an episode that takes advantage of the removal of Dr Matt – who was directly involved in standing between Lucas Buck and Caleb – to tip the balance towards the former. It’s an episode about corruption.

It begins with Caleb, helping clean up the Sheriff’s station, accidentally electrocuting himself. He has an out-of-body experience, watching himself in the hospital, and meets Merly, there to welcome him. But Lucas Buck is also there, driving a wedge between Caleb and his sister by telling the boy what Merlyn hasn’t: that he has a choice, to stay or go back. It’s in his hands. Merly is driven to want Caleb to die aged ten because she’s afraid to let him live to make wrong choices. I mean, Buck as good as says that being like him is a bad choice, but what other choice would a ten year old boy make? Caleb takes Buck’s hand, and lives.

The rest of the episode is a chilling, slow expansion on that choice.

Without Dr Matt, without Billy Peale having quite settled in to his role as new protagonist for the Sheriff, and having made a conscious rejection of Merly, Caleb goes off on a fishing jaunt with Lucas, to the nearby ghost town of Simpsonsville. En route, the Sheriff can’t resist pulling over Selena Combs’ bright yellow sports car to fuck with her, leading her to think Billy Peale is standing her up for their symphony concert date that night to join the fishing party.

However, and this is an unfortunate contrivance that has to be ignored in the face of the quality of its development, the cabin Lucas and Caleb are heading towards is being used by a little family trio of kidnappers, who are holding a Cigarette company CEO as hostage. There’s the wild, stupid ex-con Cody, his wife, the even more vicious Jeri, and his somewhat ineffectual younger brother Ted (guest star Ted Raimi, son of Sam and future recurring character in Xena, Warrior Princess), who we later learn is shagging Jeri.

Whilst Cody and Jeri wait in vain for the pick-up of the extra ransom the idiot Cody is demanding, our CEO behaves with considerable stupidity. Used to obedience from all around him, he tries to control something he can’t control, won’t listen when Ted warns he’ll shoot him if he keeps running away, and gets shot in the back. The brief role put me in no sympathy with the ‘innocent’ victim who thought he was a Master of the Universe, even tied up, blindfolded at gunpoint.

Anyway, it’s completely thrown the weak-willed Ted so that when Lucas and Caleb arrive at the cottage, and are held at gunpoint, it’s easy for the former to face Ted down and take the gun off him. Cody and Jeri arrive to find the hostage situation reversed. They’re both stupid enough to believe that their having guns makes them in control of the situation, and they’re not. Lucas Buck is all set to manipulate all three players, playing them against each other, using the respective urges for money and love off, all for the purpose of providing an object lesson to Caleb. Caleb is shown how to control things, is lead towards the idea that love is meaningless, selflessness is stupid and control and its concomitant, selfishness, are the sole object worth attaining.

These lessons are given even sharper point by the arrival of Selena, thinking Billy’s there and intending to confront him. Though the point’s never made, the fact Lucas has effectively manipulated her to be present to provide an ineffectual counterpoint to his education of Caleb, added to Gary Cole’s continuingly awesome depiction of Buck as cool, detached and concentrated, suggests that the stumbling upon Ted and co might not not be the coincidence the show presents it as being, though the episode cannily doesn’t devote even a second to this possibility.

No, the lessons pile up for Caleb. Ted’s a broken reed, blaming CEO Ralston for his shooting: ‘look what you made me do’. Cody’s prepared to sell out his wife and brother for the money. Jeri is driven to kill him, believing Cody knows about the affair when he knew nothing at all (stupid to the last). Selena tries to keep Caleb on the straight and narrow, warning that Buck destroys peoples hopes, dreams and fears, that he’s trying to teach Caleb to hate people, though her hotheadness enables Buck to talk through her.

And even this last lesson has to be abandoned when a half-crazed, injured Jeri seizes her in daylight and puts a gun to her head.

By now, the dice have started to roll. First, Buck sends Caleb out top talk to Jeri, facing down her threats to shoot him, to plant in her head the notion that Cody knows. Then he begins to teach Caleb how to focus his thoughts, use the very same supernatural abilities Buck has, to force visions on Jeri that play on her paranpia and fear overnight.

It’s begun. And over the remaining five episodes, this strand will develop. May God have mercy on Caleb Temple’s soul.

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 e13: To Hell and Back

Redemption does not come easy

Another out-of-order episode (should have appeared after ‘Strong Arm of the Law’) which, to an orderly mind like mine is decidedly niggling, ‘To Hell and Back’ provides some much needed attention for Dr Matt Crower.

After playing such a substantial role in the opening three-parter, Dr Matt has drifted very much into the background, playing a minimal role, not exact;y assisted by Jake Weber’s laid-back, lo-energy performance. I have the advantage of knowing what’s coming, and not too far ahead, and over the past several weeks I’ve been aware of the growing reasons for it.

What this episode is about, plot-wise, is a determined effort by Sheriff Lucas Buck to get rid of both an obstacle in his pursuit of custody of Caleb and a thorn in his side generally. Even before the series began, Buck and Doctor Matt have been antagonists: the Doc is a Yankee, a Northerner in the South (though only Lucas seems to make this distinction), an educated man (who Buck sarcastically nicknames ‘Harvard’) and, most importantly, the outsider who hasn’t grown up in Buck’s system of control and refuses to be absorbed in it.

But the Sheriff’s whole powerbase is built upon weakness – in the episode where Merly came back, she called him a spoiler and said that that was where his strength came from – and Dr Matt comes with a built-in weakness. He is a former alcoholic who, three years ago, killed his wife and daughter through driving drunk.

Matt’s life is one of sorrow, regret, self-loathing and emptiness. He works because he has nothing else to do, he works because it is his penance for what he has done. But underneath everything and behind everything is the loss for which he is responsible, and the ache for the impossible dream of being able to change it all.

In one of the most callous acts he’s done so far, Buck primes the pump by recreating Dr Matt’s story. A woman at a Hospital Fund-Raising Social talks to Dr Matt about her embarrassing drunk of a husband and says she’ll drive him home. Next thing, the car has crashed, she’s in critical. Matt stays with her, confessing to himself he has nowhere to go. He begins to have visions: that she is his wife, Lily, that a wheelchair-bound little girl is his daughter Claire. The episode cleverly does not involve himself in how these are happening: we assume Lucas’s supernatural influence but the truth is that stress, fatigue and guilt are all capable of inducing such a situation.

The woman, Doreen, flat-lines and dies. The husband, Chester, banged-up and bloody, but intact and still drunk, is charged with vehicular manslaughter. He protests that Lucas told him to drive, told him he was the Man, he was alright. A purely unrelated death by car crash, to get to Matt’s demons.

The pressure Lucas applies also involves Selena. Matt’s in a bar, listening to the blues, drinking… club soda. She tries to get under his skin, ease him into sharing her drink, but he hands it back. But that only leads to a nighttime confrontation with Lucas Buck: a straight offer, accompanied by a bottle of vodka: Matt can go back, change things, and gain what he most wants, Oblivion. And Lucas gets Matt, who he claims he’s starting to like, out of his hair. Matt takes the tiniest sip.

And is back in the car, sober, with Lily and Claire. He has his chance. He’s sober, he can change things. But you can never change things, or if you do, you cannot change their course. Again, the episode is marvelously subtle through deliberate ambiguity. Matt may not be drunk but he’s confused. He has no memories. Whether the unfamiliarity of things is down to an alcoholic black-out then, or because he is genuinely changing things, or because his pain has obliterated the other pains of the time, again we have to imagine.

But Lily is leaving him. They’re driving to her mother’s. She thinks he’s drunk – Lucas’s vodka bottle is in his pocket. She won’t and can’t believe he’ll change, she hopes he can for his sake, but she stopped loving him a long time ago. Even if he saves their lives his marriage is gone. She throws him out of the car, drives off alone. And crashes.

So: did Matt change anything, only for the universe to reassert itself and produce the same end by a different means? Or is this what happened all along, and the truth has now forced its way into his head? We’ll never know.

Buck thinks he’s won, that Matt is destroyed and will leave, voiding his contract renewal at the Hospital. But Matt arrives, late and disheveled, but sober. Lucas has reneged on the promise of Oblivion: he changed his mind. Matt is now determined to get Buck. We also learn, as if in passing, that he pleaded nolo contendre (no contest) to his charge of Vehicular Manslaughter (it’s a kind of non-guilty guilty plea, not available in English Law). It would be justified in a case where Matt was innocent of killing his family, but morally responsible.

I’ve not mentioned Caleb thus far,though he is part of this episode. After a cameo at the Social, Caleb is spun off into a low-key B story where, spurred on by Boone and little Rose, he gets curiously fearful of next door neighbour, the aged Mr Emmett, who he suspects of burying dead bodies in his ‘punkin patch’.

The truth, once Caleb takes his ever-more mature and serious attitude to responsibility, is almost trivial. Emmett’s dog, Omar, has died, and it is he for whom Emmett has dug a grave at night, big enough that he not be cooped up, and he over whom he roared his grief in the night.

Then the episode takes a massive, uncharacteristic and utterly effective veer into gross sentimentality. Merly appears to Caleb, with an old, heavy, panting black and white dog at her side, who runs over to and lies down beside Emmett, though he is oblivious to it. It’s completely gratuitous, but as an antidote to the individual hell we’ve been watching, it’s definitely tear-jerking.

And it’s a set-up to its companion. In his dream/vision/re-enactment, Matt was given a love-letter from his daughter Claire, which she tucked into his jacket pocket. Now, having survived the ordeal, in a manner that echoes the ending of A Matter of Life and Death, that letter is in his pocket. It’s a gift in itself, a gift of love and faith. Matt finds himself in front of the wheelchair girl again, still sullen, hurt, miserable. He drops to his haunches, squats in front of her, and smiles, broadly, confidently. She looks at him, and slowly breaks out into a smile of her own.

Poor Doctor Matt. An episode like this was surely meant to be, should have been, a renewal of the character, a kick-start into a more pro-active role, deserved of a character placed third in the cast list. But we’ve already seen that it didn’t. Soon, we’ll see what happened next.


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: e10 – Inhumanitas

What could possibly have gone wrong?

Though I’m still somewhat confused about the true order of the American Gothic episodes I’ve seen, this latest, ‘Inhumanitas’, is decidedly a successor to Marlyn Temple’s ‘return’ last week from wherever we had not realised she’d gone. This, for all her appearances in her white dress, in dazzling light or tinkling bells, is a different Merlyn, a far more pro-active Merlyn, determined to end the danger to her living brother, Caleb, by taking action against Sheriff Lucas Buck.

And the good Sheriff was making it easy to take action against him, involved as he was simultaneously with two examples of corruption, one old, one new.

The new one was essentially a mundane case of greed overcoming principle. It was cleverly conceived, it incorporated revenge on Buck’s part for a defeat, it had its satisfying aspects in that the ‘victim’ deserved his comeuppance both for his betrayal of both morals and promises, and his essential stupidity in falling too easily for the classic Too Good To Be True trap, which was indeed too good to be true.

I did have minor reservations about the central aspect of the story, however. The ‘victim’ was a lawyer who’d won a client $600,000 damages from the Sheriff’s department on behalf of a client who’d sustained a broken arm in an arrest. Buck tempted him with a buyer eager to buy Bryan Hudson’s house and land for 750,000, two-and-a-half times what it was worth. In order to sell, Bryan had to break his promise to guarantee a home to Bertie (sounded more like Birdy, to me), an elderly, blind former servant, for life. The money wins out, Bryan sells up, the buyer agrees to let Birdy stay. The sting is that Bryan and his wife get $150,000: the 750,000 was in francs at a 5 to 1 conversion rate, costing Bryan, ooh, let’s see, how much, $600,000. But I found it hard to believe that a lawyer of any kind of competence would have signed a contract without reading any of it. After all, I worked with the buggers for over thirty years, and I never met one who didn’t examine all the terms very carefully, looking for loopholes.

That one Merlyn lost, despite her efforts to divert Bryan onto the moral path. In her other effort, she was more successful, because she had a more willing subject.

This corruption was old and, despite my lack of any religious faith, more disturbing. Father Tilden (a guest appearance from veteran actor Pat Hingle, hamming it up juicily) saw his church spared when fire ravaged the block on which it stood. Now he passes on the secrets of the confessional to the man responsible for the fire bypassing the church, Sheriff Lucas Buck.

The aging Father has reached the end of his rope in his disgust with himself and his breach of faith. He lacks the courage to set his Church alight, with himself in it, and when he hires a prostitute in hopes she can put him in touch with someone who will torch the Church for him, he is further foiled, for this prostitute is Merlyn. She gives him faith to resist.

She also begins a campaign of harassment directly against Lucas Buck. Her face appears on a statue of the Virgin Mary that turns towards him, her voice warns him. He’s finished shagging Selena Combs, who then gets in the shower (poor camerawork lets us see, continually, that she is wearing a strapless bikini-shop: I swear, American women never take their bars off for anything) and the shower starts to spray blood, not water.

Merlyn even appears in the street in Trinity, a young girl in a micro-short denim skirt. Buck recognises her, bursts out of his parked car and has to literally dive for his life because he’s walked in front of a speeding truck. Oh, Merlyn is coming for home alright. Buck’s feeling something he’s never felt before, and Selena thinks that it is scared. It makes him want to hurt someone, and it’s going to be Selena (as long as ah can hurt you too is her response).

But the conclusion is to be in the Church. Merlyn’s had Caleb take sanctuary there, sleeping in the basement. Father Tilden refuses to preach his last sermon, upon the fear of taking control of your life, because. until the preceding day, he did not believe it. Now he is taking control: he admits to breaching the sanctity of the confessional, and resigns as their Pastor. he’s challenged in Church, by Sheriff Buck, to reveal to whom he has told all these secrets, but Father Tilden simply smiles and stays silent: after all, it took place in the confessional itself.

The good father still pays for crossing Lucas: a heart attack, before he can finish gasping out the Lord’s Prayer.

Until now, the supernatural element of American Gothic has been kept as a primarily background factor. Partly this has bee because of the cost of special effects, partly it had been because the simplest of camera tricks have been more effective, and a lot of it is because Shaun Cassidy and Sam Raimi know how to manipulate a horror atmosphere. Buck appears out of nowhere. Doors and windows slam shut of their own accord. Winds blow up from nothing. It’s very effective.

But of necessity, this episode has to become more overt, and none more so than in the final scene. Tilden is dead and Merlyn confronts Buck in the Church. He’s brazen and arrogant, causes her to be consumed in flames, but he is shocked when she dispels these. She tells him to kiss her, and when he refuses to move, she kisses him, passionately, fiercely. She’s sucking the strength out of him, weakening him. As he broke her neck, so she takes him in a headlock and prepares to break his.

Which is when Caleb runs in, telling her to stop. At that instant, though we don’t initially see it, the advantage swings round 180 degrees. Caleb isn’t pleading for Buck’s life, he’s pleading for Merly not to murder in front of his eyes.But the next words out of his throat are Lucas Buck’s, encouraging her to kill the bastard. Because if Merlyn break’s the neck of Buck’s body, he will simply slip into Caleb’s, displacing the boy’s own life.

We balance for a moment upon the unseen future of American Gothic. Buck’s genes are in Caleb, but there is more to it than that. Caleb is powerful in himself, more powerful, or so Buck implies from within, that he can be even more of a force than the Sheriff. Merly says she won’t let Buck have Caleb, that she would kill him herself before she would let that happen, but Buck retorts that that would kill her, that she only exists because Caleb believes in her. Is he really saying that the ghost/angel of Merlyn Temple has been created by Caleb’s need for her out of the powers of his ten year old body? There’s a thing for future series to expound upon. If only.

So Merly is snookered. She cannot kill Buck without killing Caleb and making him a haven for Buck, a potentially even more powerful fortress. It’s a no-win situation. But the battle from hereon in is now more overt than ever.

For the next couple of weeks, I’m abandoning the DVD running order to catch up on two episodes not broadcast in America when the series was run. I remember neither of them from their blurbs, but I do recall seeing both of the other two ‘lost’ episodes on Channel 4, convincing me that the whole series was shown over here, in story order, when I first saw American Gothic twenty years ago. ‘Normal’ running order will be resumed after that: I hope things still make sense after that.

Neither Paige Turco nor Jake Weber appear in this episode. The second of the two ‘lost’ episodes focuses on Gail Emory, and may explain why she’s not been in the series this past two episodes.

Honestly,they did all of this so much better in the Homicide: Life on the Street box-sets…