[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “AHS: 1984” through the first four episodes.]
“American Horror Story” is a wildly unpredictable series, both in its plot and its quality. One episode could be a pulse-pounding stunner that sets the season on a path to greatness, while the next could take a doomed turn into unwatchable trash. And for as much as “AHS: 1984” wants to break from its franchise’s established patterns, Season 9 is still inconsistently effective. Through four episodes, Ryan Murphy’s latest camp-fest was, at first, consumed by clichés, then took on a curious realignment of archetypes, and now it’s back to preaching the dangers of conservative zealotry. There are a few sturdy elements worth acknowledging, but “AHS” needs to dig deeper for fresh commentary if it ever hopes to become must-see TV again — or even legitimate horror.
Take its would-be central serial killer: Mr. Jingles. Played by John Carroll Lynch — who once embodied ambiguity with unforgettable levels of menace in David Fincher’s “Zodiac” — this new key-carrying baddie never even bothers to hide behind a mask. In 1970, the man formally named Benjamin Richter kills a bunch of girls in their Camp Redwood cabin, and the folklore foundation of “AHS: 1984” is set. This is the bad guy the new campers will have to survive, so let’s meet them and let the hunt begin. Soon, you’re watching Mr. Jingles slice up his new prey, strangle guards until their eyes bleed, and decapitate an escaping motorcyclist without ever having to wonder, “Is that really Benjamin doing all those things?” It’s him. He’s the killer. Just like the slow-walking, blade-dragging, giant-sized ’80s killers before him (Jason Voorhees, Freddy Krueger, etc.), Mr. Jingles is an urban legend back from the dead. His mythos is so daunting, he doesn’t need to hide.
Through the first three episodes, it seemed as though “AHS: 1984” wanted to explore this popular ’80s villain — the hedonistic serial killer who kills because he likes it — by comparing him to another serial killer, The Night Stalker (Zach Villa). This new killer made a name for himself on the streets of Los Angeles before following the one victim who escaped his grasp (Brooke, playbe by Emma Roberts) to Camp Redwood, but he was also given a sad-sack backstory about how his painful childhood turned him into a sadistic murderer — a story he was a little too eager to embrace, to the point that the skinny, goth teenager seemed pretty wimpy compared to the hulking presence of Mr. Jingles. The Night Stalker wanted to kill people to get famous. Mr. Jingles wanted to kill because he wanted to kill.
All that changed, though, in Episode 4. Right when you thought there’d be a literal battle between nature vs. nurture — or born evil vs. bred evil — it turns out Mr. Jingles isn’t the bad guy. He was a sucker; a patsy; a Vietnam veteran who, yes, was driven a bit mad by the war and started collecting the ears of his victims as trophies, but who didn’t hurt anyone when he came back to the U.S. until after Camp Boss Margaret Booth (Leslie Grossman) framed him for killing all those girls. He was then sent to a psychiatric hospital, where his brain was zapped until he believed the myth created for him. Margaret is the real killer and the mastermind behind everything.
Kurt Iswarienko FX
This is the kind of twist “American Horror Story” is famous for: It reframes the characters you thought you knew and the story you thought you were watching. It’s big and flashy, but in this case, it does serve a purpose beyond “gotcha!” — as the twist deconstructs the myth of a killer who loves to kill. Mr. Jingles’ myth as the larger-than-life big bad is destroyed, as “AHS: 1984” hands the villain role over to Margaret, a tiny little lady who’s true evil stems from the belief that God has her back. As she told The Night Stalker in an earlier episode, “You know what’s great about God? You can use him to explain why something happened, but you can also use him to explain why you did something horrible.”
Now, Margaret’s self-awareness regarding her use of God as an excuse to hurt people could end up playing back into the same homicide-loving serial killer myth “AHS” just turned upside-down — does she like to kill and uses God as an excuse, or does she love God and feel the need to kill to serve him? — but for now, it’s just an means for Murphy & Co. to keep harping on the horrors of religious zealotry. For now, it appears that all of Margaret’s conservative ideals (chastity, servitude, etc.) pushed her over the edge, and that’s why she killed her slutty, swearing, and less-than-God-fearing fellow campers. Now, she’s out to get a new batch of sinners, all while using God’s word as her shield, though her odd little team-up with the Satan-worshipping Night Stalker is about to get tested since the Dark Lord just brought him back from the dead.
But that’s next week’s problem. The only safe prediction to make is that Murphy’s liberal, inclusive, patriarchy-destroying tendencies will persist — which leaves plenty of good options left to examine, but, as evidenced by prior seasons, doesn’t mean “AHS” will find them. There’s the aforementioned juxtaposition of dual serial killers, which seems destined to crucify those who hide behind trauma as a means of acting out just as much as the show will come after those hiding behind the cross for similar self-interests, but “AHS” is also reframing what its heroes and victims represent.
Kurt Iswarienko FX
In classic horror fashion, the most morally unsound campers are the ones who’ve been offed first — Ray got killed after admitting to killing, for example — but he also was killed for running away. He could’ve stayed and helped Montana (Billie Lourd), and he decided to hop on the motorcycle alone. This came after he told everyone to “split up” (another classic sign of doom in horror movies) because he thought he could run faster than his friends. “AHS: 1984” is making a case that the real heroes are the ones who stay and fight, rather than those who run, hide, and look out for themselves. Selfish traits unite the villains and victims, while separate the true heroes — it’s not reinventing the wheel, but it’s definitely a timely allegory in a world plagued by political self-interest and isolated thinking.
And yet, aren’t these the same issues “AHS” has been investigating for years? Between the election-themed “Cult” and the faux-“Apocalypse,” plenty of recent “Horror” stories have cycled through similar issues, and “AHS: 1984” feels like it’s lacking any enticing flavors. The cast, largely populated by Murphy veterans, isn’t bad, but they don’t relish their absurd circumstances the way, say, Billy Eichner or Joan Collins did as new editions to recent seasons. And you can tell Murphy isn’t that invested in the series anymore from the joyless, by-the-book premiere. “AHS: 1984” has at least one more big twist lurking, which could jolt it into exciting TV: time travel. The new season has to figure out a way to explain the hitchhiker from 1970 who keeps popping up even after he’s been killed, but it’s just as likely to silly as it is to be shocking.
That’s the downside of watching “AHS” in its ninth season. Even the weirdness has become rote. While “1984” finds effective ways to play in the genre, the homage-y elements have been done just as well elsewhere, if not better, and it seems a little too comfortable mimicking the structure of past seasons. What made “American Horror Story” revolutionary was its anthology format. Today, that format is everywhere. Barring a behind-the-scenes shakeup, where other creators are given the chance to play in Murphy’s sandbox, it’s hard to imagine the series going anywhere truly shocking. Instead, it’s just spinning its wheels in a different decade.
“AHS: 1984” airs new episodes Wednesdays at 10 p.m. ET on FX.