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: 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 e12: Ring of Fire

Watch out, there’s a ‘Carrie’ moment coming

This is the second of the two ‘lost’ episodes not broadcast in America, at least, not on first showing, and which, according to imdb, should have preceded episodes I’ve already seen in this re-watch. Strictly speaking, ‘Ring of Fire’ should have been seen immediately before the ‘Resurrector/Inhumanitas’ double. But, then again, in imdb’s episode list there are two ‘not-lost’ episodes I’ve not yet seen before even getting to ‘Ring of Fire’. To quote the late, great Spike Milligna (the world-famous typing error), “it’s all rather confusing really”.

After ‘Potato Boy’, which I watched last week, I was hoping to find some sort of common factor which would explain why these episodes had been left out. But whilst ‘Potato Boy’ was almost completely detachable from the overall narrative, ‘Ring of Fire’ is intrinsic to it.

It’s about Caleb’s cousin, Gail Emory. She’s in town to help look after Caleb, and he approves of the job she’s been doing, but she has a second reason, to find out the truth about her parent’s death in a fire at the old newspaper office, twenty years ago. Not second reason, not ulterior: it is the most important thing to Gail, and she’s reached a breaking point. She’s hit nothing but dead ends, she’s out of strength, she plans to quit and go back to Charleston.

But Sheriff Lucas Buck has other ideas. He not only plans to keep her on the trail, he intends to take her along those parts of it she can’t discover without his assistance. Given that he killed the Emorys, didn’t he, it seems an odd course to take. But then we know Lucas will find a way to wriggle out of it once the truth is exposed, and he does enjoy someone knowing the exact truth about how they’ve been screwed when there’s nothing they can do about it.

So, by dreams and visions, seemingly transporting her back twenty years, to the immediate lead-up to the fire, Buck shows Gail what ‘really’ happened (I place ‘really’ in inverted commas because there’s one moment, one particular smile on our good Sheriff’s face, that leads me to think that I don’t necessarily trust him, a caution that Gail, high on emotion, has temporarily forgotten).

First there’s a dream of a little boy, with an astonishingly articulate voice, in a perambulator, urging Gail to trust her instincts, to dig deeper, otherwise he’ll be lost in limbo forever. Then, when she decides it’s all too much, and plans to go back to Charleston, taking Caleb with her, hands and faces emerge from the earth of her parents’ graves, grabbing her in Carrie-esque fashion, demanding she solve their murder. Another dream, and Sheriff Buck’s work, he hanging around at night.

The visions slowly multiple, mosaic moments. Gail’s mother, Christine, was pregnant when she died, and none too pleased about it. Gail breaks into Buck’s home and is caught at it. He’s willing to tell her the truth, if she asks. And says please. She refuses.

But this story is a seduction, on both levels. Gail’s memory of her childhood as an idyllic time, in a house of love and warmth, is undermined by a vision of her mother letting an unknown man out of the house, and kissing him on the verandah, and her father returning from work, bitter, cynical and violent, calling the little girl Gail dirty and stubbing his cigarette out on her arm, a burn that the Paige Turco Gail receives on her arm.

By now, the shape is complete. Multiple domestic violence is just a part of it. Gail asks Lucas for his help, and says please. But the Sheriff doesn’t give help, he trades it. Gail agrees to deal. Like I said, it’s a seduction.

So we reach the denouement, the revelation. Christine Emory’s finished her column, is off home to Gail, leaving Peter on his own. But he has his own ideas about where she’s going. A shove against a bookcase stuns her. He starts drinking. In the burned-out 1996 office, Gail finds the metal box containing her mother’s concealed letters, the key to which she has been carrying about her neck the season-long. Christine’s lover loved her very much and planned to give them both a life together once Peter was out of the way. All sorts of accidental fires get started on the Fourth of July. Leave Peter on his own inside the office. But Peter wasn’t on his own when the fire started.

It wasn’t Lucas Buck after all. It wasn’t power, or manipulation, or ridding oneself of an obstacle to the climb to power, but love: True Love. The fire was set by Christine’s lover, Gage Temple. Caleb’s father. The little boy was the unbron brother Gail would have loved.

So the truth was found, at the cost of destroying Gail’s memories of her parents. She’s not ready for her half of the bargain, but Lucas can be patient.

There’s not much of Caleb this week, and everybody else just plays low-key roles. Caleb’s initially happy with Gail, mentioning that he finds things out from Merly, but she’s stopped coming to him. The second time, he’s resentful that she seems to have forgotten he is family too.

So, after this, Merly is ‘resurrected’ and we get her attack on Lucas Buck with its disastrous revelation as to his escape route, which was where we had got to two weeks ago, so it’s going to be back to the DVD running order next week. The numbering of these blogs has long since lost sense, but I’m going to continue them to at least keep straight the order of watching.

What next?

American Gothic: e08 – Rebirth

The enemy is happiness

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.

American Gothic e06: Meet the Beetles

A popular woman…

Behind its deliberately flat, punning title, and its cheerful descent into the gross-out aspect of horror, this episode of American Gothic nevertheless displayed enough subtlety to keep us from taking its path too much for granted. There isn’t necessarily going to be a complete reset at the end of any given story: the characters are too well-rounded to be entirely predictable.

This week’s story focused around the person of Selena Coombs, schoolteacher and southern bad girl. With her slow-moving ways, her dry, breathy tones and that accent, you would be looking at Brenda Bakke a long time before you started thinking of vanilla sex. Certainly that doesn’t appear to have been in the mind of Heck Waller, who has gone missing before things start, or Coach Bender, who has provided Selena with a private key to the school pool so she can don a backless black swimsuit and slowly do the breast stroke at night.

Both Heck and Coach are middle-aged, married men, bored with wives who aren’t as young as Selena, both under the delusion that they can get off with her, even though her contempt for them is as pretty naked as it gets. Maybe they’ll get lucky if she feels bored enough to play vicious games,  and they’ll put it down to their irresistability. But in reality, it gets them dead.

Heck turns up as a skeleton, under the old Temple place (now the new Buck place, Lucas having foreclosed on his loan and planning to set up a mansion), found by accident by Caleb and Boone. A skeleton, stripped to the bone. Even though Coronoer Webb only played gold with him last Friday. Thanks to my reading of Alfred Bester, I was aware of carpet beetles, and how they’re used to clean the flesh off corpses donated to medical school, and my mind went leaping, accurately, ahead.

Heck’s transformation brings State Police Lieutenant Drey to Trinity, a smooth guest performance from Bruce Campbell, openly suspicious of Sheriff Buck (Selena’s his girlfriend, two guys sniffing round her go missing, wind-up dead, equals four in Drey’s book). Because the same thing happens to Coach after he tries a little late-night swimming practice with our lady schoolteacher and has to be choked off by the ubiquitous Sheriff.

All’s not entirely well between Buck and Selena either. She’s in Drey’s protective custody, and in his faux-honest manner, Buck’s dropping hints that she might be everything Drey clearly hopes she is. And Gail’s investigating in the hope of finding the Sheriff’s finger in some kind of pie. She even visits the Trinity Museum of Natural history, where the not-in-the-least-creepy Mrs Constantine shows the the Bug Chamber, the colloquial name for the Flensing Room, you know, where the local collected beetles strip the flesh from bodies…

And there’s all these creepy shots of beetles, everywhere, which might not gross everybody out but was doing it for me.

But what of the show’s main topic? Caleb is disturbed by discovering Heck’s skeleton, but he’s even more disturbed by discovering a lop-sided gravestone in a corner of the graveyard, with his name on it. Dreams about digging it up plague him, dreams of his own leech-covered face, but when he does dig it up, who should appear but Sheriff Lucas Buck, and what should the coffin contain but cash? $30,000 worth in fact, for Caleb, a down payment for someone with the strength of mind to seize an opportunity, not to live in a boardinghouse forever.

Caleb’s tempted, and Merly’s disappointed. Her ghost fades out. Caleb comes to a decision.

Gail, snooping round Selena’s home in her absence, until disturbed by Drey, discovers hordes of flowers and heartfelt cards from Ossie. Drey goes to the museum. My sphincter muscles tighten. Gail goes to the museum. MrsConstantine sends her to the Flensing Room, where there’s the distinct sound of beetles munching. Inside the chamber, they’re munching on Drey, who’s chained inside. Still alive, mind you.

But Gail isn’t allowed to get him out. The lid is closed again by the Director of the Flensing Room. Whose name is Ossie. No, it wasn’t Lucas Buck, who arrives to save the day.

So all’s well that ends well, by implication at least in the case of Lieutenant Drey. Buck’s still trying to push his way with Gail, talking about the illusion of free will: whether she stays in Trinity or returns to Charleston, she’ll think it’s her decision. But it won’t be.

And then a reasonably pretty middle-aged woman enters, Heck’s widow. She hugs Buck, is so grateful, though he doesn’t know why. It’s the money, see. The Sheriff has given her and Coach Bender’s widow a substantial sum of money each, to tide them over is such times. $15,000 each. Isn’t that generous?

I’d barely finished laughing at that before the show demonstrated its superiority with its double ending. First, Selena in the pool again, Lucas come to talk. The charade is over, she’s had her sport, played up to Drey, who never quite suspected her enough of being the killer. Selena pouts that just because she is free, sometimes, with Lucas, don’t mean she’s easy. Still, it’s over, and he leans towards her… and she turns and swims away.

And Caleb, kneeling by his bed, saying his prayers. He’s been good, he’s resisted temptation (again), he’s sorry for lashing out at Merly. He expects her back, expects her forgiveness, her presence. All he gets is darkness, and his own tears.

Let’s leave it at that,eh?


American Gothic e05: Dead to the World

There are a number of reasons why American Gothic was cancelled after only one season, and I’ll be getting to those further down the line. But I wonder if, underlying them, there wasn’t a certain degree of queasiness at the depths into which the show could sink. There’s a lousiness to Sheriff Lucas Buck, a festering sickness to his machinations. Gary Cole was doing an incredibly good job in letting both aspects of Buck – the external, hail-fellow-well-met, town benefactor and the evil bastard – show simultaneously.

American Gothic is about corruption. It’s about trying to corrupt the decency of a ten year old boy, to turn him as evil, ruthless and conscienceless as his biological father, a man who acts not only out of the desire to do everything he wants to do, but who appears to wish to taint everything and everyone around him, just for the unholy pleasure of him.

I take it back, that’s a phenomenal performance by Cole, and to achieve it it requires some bloody good writing, and a willingness to put sick and twisted situations into play, in a subterranean manner, by implication rather than direct showing.

‘Dead to the World’ was a multi-strand episode, spinning three stories across each other effortlessly. It began with a flashback, ten years, to Deputy Buck picking up his girlfriend, Nurse Holly Gallagher, for the hospital, late at night. Holly G has stolen a file for Lucas, on a new baby, Caleb Temple. Unfortunately for her, she realises just why Buck has been so interested in this baby that has nothing to do with him. She also gets mad at how she’s been manipulated and promises to expose Buck, tell all of Trinity about him. So he drives her car off the bridge, into the river.

That’s confident story-telling for you. There’s no mystery here, the episode makes plain what it’s about. Except in one respect.

We move to Caleb next. He and his best friend Boone are practicing archery for the contest at the fair. Both are using pretty basic equipment, both are good but Boone’s better. Which is where Sheriff Buck steps in. Caleb doesn’t want anything to do with him, he’s naturally suspicious of the man, finds him creepy and a little bit oily in his constant attempts to insinuate himself into Caleb’s life (it’s one realistic flaw in Buck that he, like many people, doesn’t quite know how to talk to children: he comes over as ever so slightly patronising).

Buck’s determined that Caleb will win. He taunts him into killing a crow, which Caleb instantly regrets, he replaces Caleb’s bow with a lightweight, deluxe model, he sets out to drive a wedge between him and Boone. In the end it fails: Caleb wants to win, as does Boone, but the latter innocently as good, and if young Chris Fennell isn’t as good as Lucas Black, he’s still good enough to sell that as natural.

So Caleb, in mid-contest, hands back Lucas’s gear. He can still win it with a bull’s eye off his last shot, but falls short. Boone wins, Buck’s frustrated, the boys are still mates.

The third element of this episode centres upon Deputy Ben Healy. He’s out visiting a family. The implication of domestic violence is laid out immediately, though she’s too scared to confirm it. Or maybe there’s another reason. It’s allowed to slip out in passing but this isn’t any ordinary family: cabinet-maker Waylon Flood is second husband to Barbara Joy, and stepfather to Benji. Ben is Benji’s father.

Waylon’s one of these upfront bastards, a junior league Lucas Buck without the breadth of evil. He’s a nasty, stinking, small-minded little brute, throws his fists around, petty tyrant and always super-confident that he is right and ain’t no-one gonna mess with him. Ben’s not out for a fight but he still gets kicked in the balls, smacked in the face and punched in the stomach.

Ben’s determined to handle this himself, especially after Dr Matt warns him of the psychological damage this could all do to Benji, growing up with this as his role model. Ben rejects Buck’s offer to help and confronts Waylon again in his workshop, openly accusing him of cowardice, prepared to fight. But Waylon backs down. Ben isn’t aware but Buck has pulled up outside. Waylon starts to sweat, promises there won’t be no further trouble. Damn right there won’t. Believing he’s made his point, Ben leaves. Waylon’s still trembling. Buck returns, looks at Waylon. He backs off, stumbles, brings down a heap of stacked wood, knocks him off balance. His arm falls onto the bandsaw…

The speed with which it’s done is another American Gothic trademark. The show’s masterful at the slow creation of tension and the abrupt crash that jerks the viewer out of their seat.

But the main strand tonight is all about Gail, and all about Holly G. Miss Emory is still investigating Caleb’s birth and his Mama’s suicide and visits the Gallagher home to speak to her old schoolfriend, the attending nurse. Only then does she learn that Holly is dead, from ten years past, from mum Janice, a fluttery sort of woman, a beautician, selling makeovers, make yourself perfect.

The Sheriff confirms the details of the tragedy. Despite copious efforts with divers, the body was never found. Gail promptly heads for the bridge, hires two guys to help her. The diver finds the car immediately, only fifteen feet down, and T.J. (a fine bit of continuity from last week) winches it up. There’s no body inside. And the driver’s seat is set too far back for Holly to have  reached the pedals…

Janice is taking Gail’s attempts to find out just what happened as an attack on her. And for good reason. By a slightly dodgy contrivance, Gail discovers Janice is paying for a Sanatorium: Holly G is alive. And well, in body, but not in mind. She doesn’t recognise Gail is concerned only about if her boyfriend is there. Her boyfriend is: Lucas Buck appears out of nowhere yet again. Four minutes without oxygen has led to brain damage. Holly G lives, but all her abilities, all the potential her mother worshipped in her, is dead, and Janice can’t bear to see what’s not perfection.

And then we’re given a perfect example of just how effective Lucas Buck can be. Confronted with Gail’s accusations, and especially that he was driving, he conducts his own version of Show Not Tell. He drives Gail’s car to the bridge, to demonstrate. We immediately fear he’s going to try to disappear her too, but no, Buck’s more subtle than that. He knows the road so well he could drive it blind, and closes his eyes. He starts to go faster, telling Gail about how he broke up with Holly G that night, how she couldn’t take it, how she grabbed at the wheel and he lost control.

Just like a panicky Gail is grabbing at the wheel. On the bridge, the car slews. But this time Buck brakes before going through the fence. Leaving Gail with a perfect cover story she cannot counter. Not to mention a forceful kiss from the Sheriff.

Janice’s refusal to accept her damaged daughter is a final nasty touch in an episode of nasty touches. Gail tries to break through Janice’s shell, remind her that her daughter is alive, and would rather be home, but Janice’s fear surrounds her, she backs away.

Which makes the little scene that almost closes out the episode all the more effective in stinging the audience’s heart. Janice has brought Holly G home to her own room. Holly’s in her nurse’s uniform, Janice is reading to her from a text book, three vital signs. She names two, asks Holly G to give her the third. Smiling happily, Holly says, “Lucas Buck.” After a moment of immobility, Janice beamingly replies, “That’s right, blood pressure.” And she folds her arms round her dughter, telling her that she’s perfect.

And it is perfect. It’s a small moment, there in the dark, a miniature suggestion that it might be possible to get people to be brave, to now allow themselves to fall into the shallow courses Lucas Buck has dug for them. No more than that, not spelled out, for us to read for ourselves.

In contrast to the final scene, Buck in a hot tub, Selena teasing him with hot candlewax. Buck genuinely can’t understand why Caleb rejected the chance to be a winner. Stupid game. It’s not over, it’s along way from over.