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Thursday, August 19, 2021

[Review] “Game Over” Ends the First Season of “American Horror Stories” With a Playful Look to the Past

Everyone’s favorite Murder House returns in a meta season finale that questions fan service and when it’s appropriate to return to the past.

“We are like huge ‘American Horror Story’ fans…”

I initially lamented at the start of this season of American Horror Stories that an episode that’s set within an existing American Horror Story season would be a better way to end the anthology series than to begin it. Well, it turns out that American Horror Stories decided to say, “Well, why not both?” and “Game Over” also returns to the everyone’s favorite Murder House. This comes across as a discouraging way to conclude American Horror Stories’ freshman season, especially after encouraging and original episodes like “Feral” and “BA’AL.” “Game Over” retreads old territory and coasts on familiarity and nostalgia, but it’s also an episode that’s specifically critical of these crutches and effectively dissects the relationship that audiences have with their favorite horror iconography. 

There are now so many “Horror Experiences” set around major properties like Stranger Things or The Walking Dead that an episode that involves a comparable encounter for American Horror Story actually makes a lot of sense. One of the greatest strengths of “Game Over” is that it ostensibly begins like an American Horror Story haunted house experience. The audience passively follows two passionate, yet clueless, fans and gets subjected to a slew of familiar and frightening faces that function as a greatest hits from American Horror Story’s past. It’s a structure that’s fairly direct and basically delivers what it initially advertises, but it succeeds as a decent trip down memory lane that does feel like what a Murder House escape room or video game would actually resemble. It’s a fun premise for the die hard fans of the series that would have made for a more entertaining way to start the season than the more self-serious angle that was taken with its earlier Murder House detour.

“Game Over” is set within a meta reality where American Horror Story is a real thing with an intense audience. Overly horny murder freaks are nothing new for American Horror Story, but this time they’re individuals who namedrop American Horror Story psychos, cosplay as Tate Langdon, and breathlessly defend the redeeming qualities of AHS: Roanoke. They’re the exact audience that would love an episode of American Horror Stories like “Game Over.” There’s a strong energy during the episode’s cold open, but things progressively begin to go off the rails as “Game Over” throws more iconic serial killers into this murder blender. Just as all of this becomes too much and like the episode has already lost its way, it brilliantly pulls back the curtain with an encouraging and scathing level of criticism.

“Game Over” shifts its perspective from passionate American Horror Story superfans to annoyed critics in order to get across a very important message: There needs to be a purpose to return to the past. “Game Over” specifically name drops Jaws and its many diminishing returns sequels for proof that it’s not just enough to return to a familiar setting while still being scary. American Horror Stories loves to revisit its established creepiness, but it often gets so excited that the reason for why it’s happening is overlooked. This comes across as an honest question that this season has genuinely struggled to answer. “Rubber(wo)man” is the type of easy fan service that Rory (Nicolas Bechtel) would admonish, but “Game Over” works hard to fight against these empty tropes and deliver the type of satisfying love letter to American Horror Story that feels provoking and discretionary rather than lazy.

The meta commentary that “Game Over” engages in between American Horror Story and its fanbase is excellent, but the conflicted relationship between mother and son, Michelle (Mercedes Mason) and Rory, struggles. The game development angle that’s at the core of all of this is also fairly weak and feels a little out of touch. Michelle’s failure to understand American Horror Story could just as easily be triggered by her getting hired to work on the American Horror Stories spin-off and make all of this even more meta. There’s even more fun to be had if Michelle is literally a writer for a Murder House-themed episode of American Horror Stories, but she can’t properly understand her source material. It would bring an even greater level of reflection to every piece of continuity that “Game Over” employs, whether they’re justified or not. If nothing else, the game development narrative at least results in one of the more inspired opening title sequences for an episode.

One of the more interesting ideas that “Game Over” considers is what is the “point” of Murder House? Michelle is constantly told that there isn’t one and that it’s just a cynical, repetitious cycle. Michelle’s pragmatic nature leaves her determined to crack the secret of the Murder House, which has potential, but it mostly results in extended therapy sessions with the house’s ghosts. Michelle’s fascination with the Murder House as a means to better understand her son is sweet, but it’s also hardly original territory for the series. “Game Over” frames the story between Rory and his mother as its emotional center, but it often loses itself to the spectral romance that continues between Sierra McCormick’s Scarlett and Kaia Gerber’s Ruby from the “Rubber(wo)man” premiere. It’s a little jarring how much Scarlett takes over the narrative and at many points “Game Over” seems like it’s meant to tie up loose ends from “Rubber(wo)man” more than anything else. This split focus weakens the episode’s message, but it at least does find a way to justify these decisions with its twisty frame narrative. 

The final act of “Game Over” revolves around the stunt of burning down the Murder House, which serves a practical purpose for the episode’s story, but it’s also a deeply cathartic action for the larger American Horror Story universe as a whole. In an episode that’s all about fandom’s connection to nostalgia and the right and wrong way to engage in these practices, it’s significant that American Horror Stories torches its most iconic landmark. This is what needs to be done in order for this horror universe to properly move on and not just retread the past. It’s no coincidence that Rory, the audience surrogate, moans out, “I never want to see or hear anything about the Murder House again.” It’s a comforting promise, but the prospect of flashbacks and the note that the episode concludes upon seem to indicate that Ryan Murphy may not be as ready as his characters are to say goodbye to this corner of his horror world.

There’s nothing wrong with American Horror Story’s Murder House setting, and it’s satisfying to see some beloved season one players like Dylan McDermott and Jamie Brewer return, but couldn’t this have somehow been part two of what kicked off the season? It’s definitely the more fun and successful of the “two” installments. A two-part Murder House season premiere felt indulgent and antithetical to American Horror Stories’ general premise, but to feature a third episode in a seven-episode season that’s also set in that world is baffling. At that point, why not just devote the entire season to different Murder House related episodic stories and embrace a theme rather than deliver a fresh series that feels shackled to its past. 

In reality, American Horror Stories’ first season was supposed to be longer and its recent renewal actually seems to be in reference to how the show was initially picked up for 16 installments. It’s possible that an altered production schedule led to “Game Over” getting pushed in the episode order as a flashy way to conclude the first batch of episodes. Regardless of the reason, it still feels unbalanced and American Horror Stories should have picked one of these ideas, or at the least saved “Game Over” for the show’s second season.

“Game Over” shows flashes of brilliance, but it ultimately turns into a season finale that’s just slightly above average. It’s an episode that’s bookended by an excellent first act and a satisfying conclusion, but for the most part it devolves into a standard Murder House segment that lacks the reflexive criticism that’s initially present. It’s helpful that the entire episode is critical towards Murder House and questions its necessity, but there’s still endless love for it that “Game Over” can’t escape from. It’s a busy, disjointed finale that wants to have its cake and eat it too, but its awareness of the series’ sloppy nature doesn’t absolve this episode of problems, especially when it still ultimately succumbs to them by the end.

“Game Over” is easily American Horror Stories at its most fun and playful, but it also represents the series’ best and worst. It’s hopefully the step that the series needs to take to move on from its past, which can act as the catalyst for another series of episodes that have just as much to say.

Episode Grade:

Overall Season Grade:



source https://bloody-disgusting.com/reviews/3679104/review-game-ends-first-season-american-horror-stories-playful-look-past/

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