Note: This post contains spoilers for pretty much all of American Horror Story: Roanoke.
American Horror Story’s season finales tend to arrive at closure and togetherness by the last scene — think of the reunited family in Murder House, the restored transfer of power in Coven, and the immortally allied tenants in Hotel. Last night’s closing chapter of Roanoke was no different, in that Lee (Adina Porter) finally made peace with her young daughter Flora (Jessica Pressley) by sacrificing her own life to save her child’s. The final minutes involved ghosts, a SWAT squad, an exploding house, and a graceful swan song by Porter, Roanoke’s surprise secret weapon. It was also dull as hell.
That’s in large part because this season, in a mostly successful attempt to shake up the aging anthology series, threw out the baby with the bathwater (a fittingly grotesque image) by eschewing one of the FX show’s most consistently compelling draws. One of the best tropes creators Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk have cherry-picked from horror is ambivalent and monstrous motherhood — a theme arguably too taboo for genres that hew closer to realism. Joining canonical masterpieces like Rosemary’s Baby and contemporary classics like The Babadook are American Horror Story’s bestiary of scared and scary moms. Jessica Lange alone played three: a former actress whose resentful vanity led to parental abuse in Murder House, a selfish matriarch who neglected her daughter and the teenage girls in her charge in Coven, and an exploitative maternal figure to society’s orphans in Freak Show. There’s also Kathy Bates’s Madame LaLaurie in Coven, so wicked to her daughters that they conspired to kill her; Mare Winningham’s incestuous mother in Coven, who rapes her teenage son (Evan Peters); and Frances Conroy’s twisted enabler of her murderous son Dandy (Finn Wittrock). To say American Horror Story has mommy issues is an understatement.
But it’s important to note how casually daring AHS’s explorations of maternal darkness are. They complicate our picture of motherhood, while giving interesting and challenging material to the series’s middle-aged actresses — a category of performers that continues to be underserved by the film and TV industries at large. The best variation on the theme of repulsed motherhood took place in Asylum, justifiably considered the show’s best season, when Sarah Paulson’s Lana Winters was raped by a Norman Bates-on-steroids serial killer (Zachary Quinto) and decided she wanted nothing to do with the child. (When the latter came back as an adult in the form of Dylan McDermott, she killed him after he tried to kill her.) Unlike many of the mothers mentioned above, Lana is a heroine, not a villainess, and her revulsion toward her body’s reproductive processes and the child she never wanted is framed as sympathetic. It’s unsurprising, then, that the most electrifying moment in the Roanoke finale is when Lee confronts Lana with her own troubled maternal history. Being a mother will make you do crazy things, screams the accusatory blaze in Lee’s eyes. We both know what that’s like. When Lee looks into the camera during the Lana Winters TV special and tells her daughter, “I’m never gonna give up, never stop, until we are together again,” her vow is more frightening than touching.
But Lee’s self-sacrifice disappoints so sorely because it rejects the show’s heretofore indifference toward female and maternal likability — and because American Horror Story smartly subverted the horror genre’s traditional racial and sexual conservatism by making Lee, an older, non-virginal black woman, its “final girl” last week in “Chapter 9.” Her survival was that much more remarkable in a horror context because of her moral compromises, like making a pact with the Roanoke House’s demonic spirits and killing several of her fellow hauntees to ensure that she’d stay alive. As a mother, too, Lee was a terror, killing her ex-husband, who threatened sole custody of their daughter — a slaughter that Flora had witnessed. It would have been much more intriguing to see how mother and daughter resolved that violence together, in the way that Porter’s most memorable character to date, as Tara’s alcoholic and abusive mother on True Blood, did in halts and bursts. And since the mother-daughter bond constitutes the emotional core of the concluding moments, it would’ve been more impactful had we seen Lee and Flora interact with one another for more than a few minutes over the course of 10 episodes. Packed with dumb spoofs of trashy shows, the Roanoke finale didn't just feel soft and scattered, but downright sinful by betraying the spirits of American Horror Story's most memorable women.