If there's one thing that can be said about Ryan Murphy, it's that he's always switching things up – as a creator, you never know what he'll come up with next.
American Horror Story Season 6 Episode 1 was very much unlike any other installment in American Horror Story's history. I can't say I love it for sure yet – time will tell – but I have to give the writers and directors kudos for trying something completely different.
The premise was actually pretty simple: "Chapter 1" takes the form of an episode of a true life documentary-style show, in the vein of "It Happened to Me" or basically any number of shows on the Investigation Discovery channel. The show within a show here is called "My Roanoke Nightmare."
Roanoke, of course, is referring to the "Lost Colony," an unsolved historical mystery in which colonists (in the 1500s) mysteriously up and vanished during the Anglo-Saxon war.
This Roanoke Nightmare" actually takes place in North Carolina, which makes sense because the colony was actually established in what is current day Dare County, North Carolina (thanks, Wikipedia!).
The single greatest aspect of the season (if the season indeed continues in this same format) is that we have actors "doubling up" on characters. In true docu-series fashion, "My Roanoke Nightmare" is complete with dramatic reenactments – flashbacks to the terrifying events described by the present-day subjects, in which they're played by other actors.
We're given absolutely zero context, so this is all really stuff we figure out as we go – we're literally just thrown right into an "episode" of "My Roanoke Nightmare," following the story of a young, attractive couple named Shelby and Matt Miller.
The two were happily married and living in LA until a gang initiation attack landed Matt in intensive care and induced a miscarriage in Shelby.
In the present-day confessionals, Shelby's and Matt's "in real life" versions are portrayed by Lily Rabe and Andre Holland (the latter a rare newbie to the Ryan Murphyverse). The "dramatic reenactment" versions of these characters are played by Sarah Paulson and Cuba Gooding Jr.
This marks Gooding Jr.'s first American Horror Story role but, of course, he did star in the Ryan Murphy-produced The People v. OJ Simpson limited series earlier in the year.
Lily Rabe and Sarah Paulson are far and away my two favorite AHS actors. The fact that they're both playing versions of the same character, yoga teacher Shelby, is a wonderful twist. So far, I'm enjoying both versions of Shelby equally. It's a really neat, unique move for the show.
Shelby and Matt pack up and move to North Carolina after Matt recovers from the attack and Shelby's miscarriage – which seems to be a very subtle callback to American Horror Story Season 1, when the Harmon family up and moved into their luxurious murder house after Vivien's miscarriage and Ben's cheating. Shelby and Matt did a reverse version of what the Harmons did, heading back east from Los Angeles, while the Harmons migrated west, from Boston.
When the couple outbid a group of exceedingly stereotypical (like, offensively stereotypical) country folk, things start to get a little scary. First of all, there were red flags all over the damn place during that auction scene.
Like, it was comical how much I was screaming "Run, you damn fools!!" at my television screen.
They told us that it had been built in 1792. It was in great shape.Shelby
For one, as even Matt pointed out, the gorgeous, well-maintained huge house sold for awfully cheap. For another, the auctioneer grimly mentioned that the price included the surrounding property – but that the Millers couldn't build on it because it was "protected."
Uh.... Protected? Sure, we can just assume it's land protected by the government, but this is American Horror Story – it's probably not the government who's laid claim to that land, guys.
Beyond that foreboding scene, where the trio of country dudes are clearly not happy about losing out on that property to the Millers, things start getting serious real fast. It makes sense – if this is supposed to be a single episode of a docu-series, the reenactments would actually be edited together to show everything happening super fast.
Shelby bore the brunt of the supernatural occurrences right off the bat, since Matt was frequently traveling, as a pharmaceutical salesman.
Both heard pig-grunting squeals while they were in the midst of sex, and Matt discovered garbage strewn everywhere outside of their house, but he wrote both incidents off as the work of the out-bid hillbillies.
Shelby was less convinced. Understandably so – she saw it hailing human teeth and later she was almost drowned in a hot tub by mysterious, old-timey clothes figures carrying pitchforks and torches. TERRIFYING.
At that point, we met Lee, Matt's sister, who was wonderfully played by Adina Porter (the "real" Lee) and Angela Bassett (reenactment Lee). Interestingly, we get the fullest characterization of Lee.
Oddly, I feel that we know her almost better than we know lead characters Shelby and Matt – a significant portion of screentime was devoted to Lee's backstory.
Namely, she was a successful police officer who, after being injured in a police raid, became addicted to pills. When her addiction was found out, she was fired, and her husband left her (taking their daughter). It was all really sad and, of course, depressingly realistic.
Lee was recruited to watch over an understandably freaked out Shelby while Matt was away for work. The two women were, right off the bat, clearly not fans of one another, which led to this classic line.
My brother married one jumpy bitch.Lee [about Shelby]
I swear, I want that on a t-shirt.
While Matt was away yet again, Lee and Shelby had another, more direct terrifying encounter. They were lured to the basement, forced to watch a disturbing home video of a man being attacked by a pig-man-creature, and then locked in said (dark) basement while unseen figures roamed about upstairs, stringing creepy little Blair Witch-esque stick dolls like damn Christmas lights all over the house.
Inexplicably, Matt and Lee (and the police) were still not taking this seriously. Everyone but Shelby believed that it was a series of invasive but ultimately harmless pranks by the hillbilly neighbors, intending to drive the Millers out so that the land could be bought.
This was so idiotic that it actually made me angry. Particularly Matt's denials that it was anybody but the trio of hillbillies.
At that point, Shelby made a move that had me actually cheering at my television: she picked up in left.
Shelby: At the time, it made all the sense in the world. Humans respond to fear in two simple ways: fight or flight. There's no shame in getting the hell out of the way.
In horror, that's just not a thing. Nobody ever rationally decides "Nope, bad things are happening, I'm out of here" (though they really, really should). Shelby, to her credit, attempted to escape the increasingly sinister attacks on the Millers and their home.
Of course, it didn't work out well for Shelby. Though she did the smart thing in fleeing by car, she let herself get distracted by a call from Matt and hit a woman on the road. Luckily, the woman was just Kathy Bates in more old-timey wear, meaning that she was most likely dead – a ghost or zombie Roanoke settler, I'm guessing.
Hitting the woman and following her into the woods was a bad call. Shelby got hopelessly lost, stumbling upon still MORE of those creepy Blair Witch sticks, literally seeing the earth vibrate and move beneath her hand, and, worst of all, the same group of pitchfork- and torch-wielding old fashioned folks lurking about in the woods.
Sarah Paulson is an excellent horror-gal screamer, and her scream upon seeing the zombie-like group was perfect. That's where we left off – Shelby (via reenactment), lost in the woods and encountering who I'm guessing are the lost Roanoke colonists. And screaming.
- Sarah Paulson is outrageously beautiful this season. I wonder if she stipulated looking pretty after playing that messy, drug-addicted ghost Hypodermic Sally last season?
- I squealed with excitement seeing the uber-talented Adina Porter. I love her as Indra on The 100.
- The score was excellent, as was the cinematography. This is no great surprise, as "Chapter 1" was directed by Bradley Buecker, who also directed two of my favorites in past seasons American Horror Story Season 2 Premiere and American Horror Story Season 4 Episode 10.
What did you think of "Chapter 1"? Do you love this format or hate it, so far? Watch American Horror Story online here at TV Fanatic to relive the insanity and leave me a comment with your thoughts below!
Get your first look at what's ahead on American Horror Story Season 6 below!
Caralynn Lippo is a staff writer for TV Fanatic. Follow her on Twitter.