"I'm Constance Langdon, and this is my (bleeping) house." AMERICAN HORROR STORY: APOCALYPSE gave us the flashback episode that we've all been hanging out in literal purgatory, waiting for: it took us back to the place where it all began. In AHS veteran actress Sarah Paulson's confident directorial debut, we took a "Return to Murder House," for the season's sixth episode this week-- and it did not disappoint.
In quite possibly one of the greatest episodes of the anthology series to date, we were given a nearly flawless, 78-minute episode, which felt like it could have easily stood on its own as a solid mini movie for longtime fans of the series-- by tying up loose ends from the past, while moving the plot of the current season along simultaneously.
The episode's three-act structure flowed so well, that the plot never veered too far away from its main objective, which was for Madison and Behold to dig up as much dirt on Michael Langdon as they could, in order for Cordelia and the witches to use it against him and his upcoming sinister intentions for the world. In a hilarious opening that showcased the darkly comedic chemistry between actors Emma Roberts and Billy Porter-- as their characters Madison and Behold respectively-- the faux "couple" purchases the infamous Hollywood "Murder House" in spite of being warned about its 36 people that have died there (and have haunted it) over the years.
Immediately after Madison and Behold's arrival, the witch and warlock know they have to break out some serious sage and magic against the bad juju of this damned house. When their spell works, and the spirits are (reluctantly) now visible to the living, the twosome get down to business with trying to find out some information about Michael-- but not before some wonderfully executed scares that remind us how frightening AHS used to be back in its heyday. Director Sarah Paulson managed to make AHS scary again, with her surprising use of the two burned ghost girls that were the daughters of Denis O'Hare's Larry character from season one, as well as a playful attack from the deformed Langdon family son, Beau.
Madison and Behold proceed to stumble upon some key players from Season One, such as Tate Langdon (Evan Peters), Ben Harmon (Dylan McDermott), Moira (Frances Conroy), and Billie Dean Howard (Sarah Paulson, playing double duty), who all feel right at home returning to their former characters. But the real grand ghostly entrance belongs to the return of the woman who made this show as iconic as it was: Ms. Jessica Lange, as Constance Langdon. With her biting quips and her perfectly blond beehive, Jessica as Constance steals every scene once again, as she only agrees to talk to Madison and Behold about her grandson Michael if they agree to take her mortal enemy Moira's soul away from the Murder House. In Madison's uncharacteristically attempt at doing something good for another person that isn't herself, she asks Moira where she'd like to be buried, and, in a beautifully shot scene of a walk into the afterlife, Moira is touchingly reunited with her mother in a standard cemetery (you know, where most normal ghosts are buried.)
The acting within this episode is impeccable from everyone involved, but particularly from the many scenes containing Ms. Lange. No surprise there. We watch her explain to Madison and Behold that little murderous Michael grew a decade overnight, and she decided to kill herself in order to get away from him for good. In a line so iconic and timely in these modern times of gender politics and female trauma from toxic male figures, Constance explains, "I wasn't going to give him (Michael) or any man, the satisfaction. I have always lived my life on my own terms." Ryan Murphy & co. once again continue to drag toxic men and empower the female characters this season.
The episode continues with more uncovered mysteries about Michael, as the cleverly nicknamed "tearjerker" Ben (for his afterlife habits of crying while pleasuring himself) and Vivian Harmon (bringing us the refreshing return of Connie Britton) separately explain their relationships with their Antichrist, quasi-son Michael. Ben claims that he tried to be a positive father figure to Michael, after he was abandoned by Constance, however, Michael felt rejected by his real daddy Tate's cold attitude towards him, which influenced Michael to return to his wicked roots. Once again, Cody Fern nails his scenes as the boy-in-a-grownup-son-of-Satan's body, with mannerisms completely believable for a man-child that doesn't understand his own inherent evil behavior. Vivian then explains that she too picked up on Michael's darkness, and once tried to kill him-- but Michael outsmarted her by attempting to set her soul on fire, which Tate prevented in the nick of time.
We then discover that a threesome of Satanists had then arrived to the Murder House, including Kathy Bates's deliciously Annie Wilkes-like Ms. Meade character and AHS actress Naomi Grossman (who once played fan-favorite Pepper) to grant Michael the identity that he was destined for. In a stomach-turning gory scene, which included eating a sacrificial heart out of a dead girl's body, Michael is declared as the son of Satan, and a projector-style shadow of the Dark Lord himself rises up, delivering even more chills up our spines. In a nod to 1976's The Omen, one of the Satanists proclaims, "It's all for you, Michael!" and us horror history nerds squealed in delight.
As she's wrapping up her stories about Michael, Vivian tells Madison and Behold that Michael will indeed bring upon the end of times. The witch and warlock decide that they have heard everything they need to know about Michael (and then some.) Right before grabbing their bags and getting the hell out of Murder House, Madison sees the surprisingly seldom-seen Violet Harmon (Taissa Farmiga) eternally crying over her once-love Tate. (Murder House fans will remember their complicated love story that season.) Madison decides to do yet another kind deed, and places a forgiveness spell upon Violet, forcing her to give Tate another chance, which brings the dead teenage lovebirds back together for all eternity (well, at least until the impending apocalypse.) As a person who was always annoyed by the ever-bitchy Madison in Coven, I have to admit-- I'm loving this character arc of her changing into a half-decent human being. If it's one thing that AHS is great at, it is giving us fully-fleshed out characters that often receive redemption in one way or another. Madison and Behold exit the premises, pondering what they should do next to stop Michael, and the episode ends on a shockingly happy note-- which is odd for this usually cynical horror TV show.
Additional props must be given to Director Ms. Paulson, as she effectively captured the tone of the Murder House season through daring choices in "Return to Murder House." The episode's masterful camera work sometimes uses blurriness, sideways angles, close-ups, in-and-out zooms, and shots of characters' backs walking into rooms, instead of overused shots of facial reactions. The episode also contained perfect song choices that captured the mood of each scene: "Don't Fear the Reaper" in a Satanic-styled kidnapping; "Tonight You Belong to Me" and "Tainted Love" as nods to Season One; and "Spirits in the Material World" at the episode's satisfyingly sunny conclusion.
In a season that has been up and down in terms of excitement, intrigue, and plot-development thus far, APOCALYPSE has now given us its best effort yet.