As with last week’s “The Replacements”, last night’s “Fearful Pranks Ensue” was a surprise, though in a much stronger way than before. One of the biggest problems with American Horror Story has been that it’s structured like a mess, blasting off badly-shot exposition and unlikable characters at such a rapid pace that you have no idea which way’s up any more. But I’m happy to say that not only was this week’s episode pretty damn entertaining in its own right, but I’ve got to admit that the focus seems to be getting a lot tighter. GASP!
After a fun opening involving Marie Laveau (Angela Bassett) summoning voodoo zombies to murder some lynching racists in 1961, “Fearful Pranks Ensue” flashes back to where last week left off: Fiona (Jessica Lange) murdering Madison (Emma Roberts) and forcing mute butler Spalding (Denis O’Hare) to dispose of the body. While the episode then has a couple of sub-plots to juggle, including Zoe (Taissa Farmiga) losing Kyle (Evan Peters) and Cordelia’s (Sarah Paulson) husband cheating on her, the main story is thankfully narrowed to the aftermath of Madison’s death and the escalating conflict between Fiona and Laveau.
I must admit that I appreciate the amount of concrete information that the episode provides us, including the first full appearance of the Council themselves. Now that’s not to say I think everything about them was spectacular, as Head Councillor Myrtle (Frances Conroy) becomes increasingly hammy as things progress, but their inclusion provided some much-needed background and insight into both Fiona’s past murder of her predecessor Supreme and her recent murder of Madison. Those flashback scenes in particular do a wonderful job of exposing new layers of deviancy from Fiona and highlighting some of the resentment that her peers and followers must have felt for her acquisition of power. Though I admit the inclusion of a gay man as one of the Witch Council raises a very confusing question about this world’s rules; is magic truly limited to women as the show has implied up until now?
Speaking of Fiona, hands-down my favorite thing about this episode was the exploration of Fiona and Spalding’s relationship, and some delving into Spalding’s personality and motivations as a character. While he’s mute and never really on screen that much in the previous episodes, he was someone with an attention-grabbing look and I found him all the more fascinating (and more than a bit scary) once they showed why he has remained Fiona’s loyal servant all of these decades. And in terms of developing a previously underused character, I have to thank the writers for FINALLY acknowledging the terrible job that Cordelia is doing as headmistress, especially considering how many flagrant displays of power, arson, and murder her negligence has allowed. Sure, they should have addressed this WAY before now, but better late than never in my opinion.
Now as fun and engaging as this episode was, a lot of the same problems are sticking around almost as stubbornly as Glee is on FOX. The over-usage of diagonal framing and swooping shots are jarring, the scenes with Cordelia’s cheating husband feel out of place at times, and Taissa Farmiga still manages to be grating and stupid despite limiting her screen time (thankfully) to about three minutes. But that being said, the spotlight on Fiona and her character relationships was a welcome change of pace for me and made “Fearful Pranks Ensue” the first episode of this season that I’d consider recommending to one of the non-initiated. At times it was a tough sell, but any episode that provides damage control on Taissa Farmiga and THANKFULLY cements the departure of Emma Roberts is one that I can’t truly hate on all that much.