American Horror Story 3×12 ‘Go to Hell’: Intercede pro me | Gotta Watch It!

American Horror Story 3×12 ‘Go to Hell’: Intercede pro me

Source: FX

The 20th century created two lasting visions of hell. One was a product of midcentury existentialism, inspired by the overwhelming sense of the senselessness of human actions and the meaningless cruelty of a history and people that was at best materialist and at worst actively evil. The other was steeped in 90s abstraction, a postmodern and self-aware postulation of a meaningless thought-experiment, rendering a very traditional view of hell in comedy as it contrasted the idea of punishment for wrongdoing against the very clear lack of will or volition in the commission of evil. One hell was a hotel room, shared with two other condemned, a bland setting free of distraction that distilled to its essence the concept of hell as being purely human and crafted by human hands. The other was a gorgeous mechanical, well, hellscape, lovingly animated with pop-cultural gags and details, set to the lovely voice of Dan Castellaneta, the screams of robots, those putative beings who lack will, volition, sense or a capacity for the pain and drudgery that defines the recognizable experience of hell, echoing off its Boschian architecture.

Source: FX

Source: FX

It’s kind of fitting, in a way, that Horror Story chose to wait until the season concerned with witches to deal with the concept of hell. The concept of guilt has always been rather shallowly understood in the show’s universe: something that you are concerned with to the extent that “just desserts” are achieved, nothing more. It’s not surprising; Horror Story inhabits the same moral universe as (surprise!) most of the horror genre, using morality as a means to explain why something that seemed unrelated happened. Karma is a common reason to do terrible things to a character, and narratively is one of the best. It’s said that Marx Brothers’ movies started getting good once they set up an evil dude for the brothers to torture rather than just some poor sap. We all know that the evil dude’s evilness wasn’t why the brothers tortured him, but the fact that they were righting that cosmic balance in spite of themselves is enough for us to jump on their side.

But now there are witches, a group that exists as common shorthand for “not-mainstream” and “not-christian”. Wiccans, a group that is in practice pagan, chose to use the witch as their symbol for this very reason. The witch trials common in Salem and throughout early modern, medieval, and renaissance Europe were expressly prosecuted by the church. Dissenters, heretics, and the leaders of the peasant revolts all found the charge of witchcraft leveled at them. Easy to charge and difficult to disprove, it’s a great tool. It was used so well in fact that it became, as I said, a perfect symbol of the rejection of mainstream christian ideology.

Source: FX

Source: FX

Which is why it’s almost funny that the moral crux of the episode comes about 15 minutes in, when LaLaurie and Queenie argue about their respective conceptions of redemption. It’s also funny that LaLaurie’s outlook is the more traditionally christian than Queenie’s. LaLaurie goes about to repair her reputation on earth, confident that her humanity can be celebrated (and her inhumanity obscured) by human terms. Her goodness is meant to be understood by the community, the sin that she acknowledges exists as immobile in her hands as the fixed stars. Queenie recommends that she make right with the community, a mix between the idea of karmic balance and the Jewish idea that sin is a debt to the community, and the remission of sin in the hands of the community proper.

LaLaurie calls out, accurately, the vacuity of the public mikveh that the tearful tell-all resignation press conference has become, with unsubtle shots of Paula Dean, Anthony Wiener, and Eliot Spitzer gracing our screen. Granted: such apologies have become worse than meaningless and so pro forma as to deny any public or private benefit from the affair. But there are worse things than the obligatory move to community service or charity, worse things than admitting that what you did was wrong, even if, as in Dean’s case, you show vanishingly little understanding of why what you did was wrong. The demand for public penance is still a step up.

We remember Sartre’s axiom that hell is other people, but forget the road that leads there. It’s the reduction of ourselves to our sins, our very beings reduced to our worst selves and deprived of agency or nuance, the reduction of self into an object in the gaze of another’s mind. No one is a murderer or adulterer or thief or fraud in their own mind; not only do we rationalize, but we experience parts of ourselves that have nothing to do with that action that brings that definition. In robot hell, the very rationalization itself vanishes and we find ourselves in a bastardized calvinist’s vision of automatons slowly marching to their own damnation, emotionless mechanical monsters in the hands of an angry god.

Source: FX

Source: FX

Yes. The alternative to public penance is clearly better.

We’re bad at penance because we don’t know what we want anymore, too savvy to expect Dante’s vision but still desiring the abject misery of the sinner. Laveau’s countless good acts vanish before her sinful nature because they aren’t on the same plane: only “god” holds our redemption, but there’s no god here. Intercede pro me, directed to those who hold the secret to the remission of sin, leaves us condemned with Laveau to a nonsensically syncretic voodoo hell. It is not likely, in its lame irony, to leave the mark of Sartre or Futurama.

Stray Thoughts:

  • Really with this fake silent movie? The Confederate States of America came out like 15 years ago, you know. They barely even tried with this, it’s like they used iMovie’s “make this olde timey!” feature. The lighting is obviously meant to evoke 20s MGM (which, why?) but the point sources are anachronistic and the focus is way too sharp.
  • Can’t tell what Lange’s pained face when she went after Queenie was meant to evoke.
  • Cordelia is supposed to be feeling guilt for not realizing Hank was a big murder, right? Can’t really tell.
  • I love that Lance Reddick is getting a chance to really ham it up.
  • Queenie’s observation shot at the LaLaurie house was terrible, like something out of a True Crime reenactment.
  • “A dog returns to its vomit,” is not a cliche.
  • Did Myrtle just truck a Victoria’s Secret reference?
  • Madison, that bow, really.
  • Cordelia’s limp reaction to the fight is so perfect.
  • Great “little deaths” wordplay, Danny Huston. I will miss you.
John M.

works for a legal newspaper in Baltimore and lives within three blocks of Tilghman Middle, the alley where Omar and Brother Mouzone have their showdown, and Pearson’s Florists. He enjoys putting his liberal arts degree to good use by watching a lot of TV and reading a lot of internet. He occasionally blogs (about Dawson’s Creek) on tumblr.

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