I have to admit that I found this latest episode of American Gothic disturbing, not for its contents, which told a Kazantzakis-influenced story of the temptation of happiness, but for the fact that, only eight episodes in, the show underwent an abrupt change of credits.
That’s rarely a good sign. True, Person of Interest, in its later seasons, would change its credit sequence and voiceover almost weekly, but that was deliberately to reflect the changing positions the show advanced to. Remember that Tales of the Gold Monkey did a similar thing, late on. It’s usual done to try to rebrand a show, to attract more viewers, be more blatant in its attempt to keep them from changing channels.
Out went the eerie, creepy, soft music of the episodes to date. In came a new series of clippings, from episodes seen and as yet unseen, emphasising the horror aspect and, most disturbingly, in came a voiceover from Gary Cole, smooth, bland, putting his point of view about Trinity being a nice place to live as long as everybody plays by his rules, and presenting Merly, in particular, as a rebel against that.
It threw me, especially coming so early in the run, only a third of the way. And given that the new credits included at least one scene as yet unbroadcast, it causes me concern about whether I really am watching the series in its intended order. CBS really fucked around with the show, changing times, dates, dropping it for weeks, not publicising its return, showing episodes out of order, all of which played a massive role in preventing the show getting, and keeping, the audience it deserved. I’m having to assume the order of episodes on the Region 1 DVD Box set I’m watching is ‘correct’ in terms of the arc and that imdb’s listing is broadcast order, under which ‘Rebirth’ was episode 11.
With that in the back of my mind, I took a long time to settle into an episode of great darkness. It begins, for once, in darkness, Caleb mooching about on the trestle bridge, and being taunted about the ‘Temple Curse’ by a bunch of teenagers on the river. Merly appears, fretting and frustrated about how she can’t help him as she wishes, can’t even hug him. Her ethereal state, her passionless, friction-less existence, is getting to her. She says its unfair: she didn’t even get to do any of these things when she was alive. She’s less use to Caleb than Ray, the laid-back, cheerful biker, who hurls a tyre into the river, soaking the taunters.
And that’s the root of it. Marly wants to come back, wants to feel again, wants to sit on a porch with her little brother on a hot summer day, supping a cold drink. She wants sensation. And she works out a way to do it.
Her re-birth is marked by weird weather, sudden, violent winds, lightning crashes, but eventually she arrives at the boardinghouse door, as Hallie Monroe.
There’s a catch, however. Merly can do this because she is Borrowing another’s life. how she does this, what happens to the Borrowee, is not explained, nor does Caleb question this, overjoyed as he is to be able to spend time with his sister: that is, until she falls in love with/has her hormones twanged by biker Ray, and starts spending all her time with him instead.
But we the audience knowwhat’s going on. It’s no coincidence that Gail has a guest on hand, her fellow reporter and friend Christie. Christie is eight months pregnant and fretting: it’s her third pregnancy but she has two miscarriages behind her. Amy Steel is particularly good in this role, especially when complications arise out of the blue, or should I say upon the wind? Yes, Merly is using the unborn life of Christie’s baby-to-be, who she plans to name Hallie.
What of Trinity’s fly-in-the-appointment, Sheriff Lucas Buck. As usual, he knows everything, and more than ever in this episode, he’s popping up out of thin air, wherever you go, looking moody and portentous. He’s already hassling Ray even before Merly arrives, he knows who Hallie really is, he’s trying to get Caleb to doubt her and cost him his spiritual protection. And most of all, he wants Hallie/Merly to stick around. To stay alive. To enjoy the happiness of experience she is currently jonesing on.
Because if Merly stays, Christie’s baby will die, and maybe Christie too, Caleb will be estranged from her and she will be neutered in both senses, both as his guide and, by remaining corporeal, in whatever ‘powers’ she has. No doubt a young, unprotected girl can be dealt with as any man wishes?
So it becomes an ethical decision. Can Merly overcome having what she fervently wants and go back? Ray, who has been ‘bought’ by Buck to beguile her, attempts to take the moral step by running away but is intercepted by Buck, and is destroyed by being made to dig up Merly’s coffin, and see her as-yet-undecayed corpse. The final confrontation is between Buck and Merly, back on the trestle, whilst Christie is giving birth.
Marly sees the trap at last. She has the courage to do the right thing, to hurl herself from the trestle despite Buck’s attempts to stop her. Merly falls and dies again. ‘Hallie”s body dissolves. Christie’s baby is born alive. Sheriff Buck roars and angry “Nooooooo!!!” into the night.
And we abruptly cut into closing credits, with a new, undistinguished slice of swamp funk guitar replacing that eerie music of before.
I think I’ll leave it at that. I’m still not sure if the change in atmosphere I’m sensing is down to the framework or if there were things within that felt off. Certainly, the abruptness of the ending, and the absence of any scene in which the angelic Merly appears to Caleb and is blessed by him, is a change of pace. I’m anxious to see how, or if this is carried over into next week.