So how did it end? United States of Tara & American Horror Story
OK, confession time: I might be watching too much television.
In a relatively condensed time period, I have finished two television series through Netflix: The United States of Tara and American Horror Story.
I was reading a completely unrelated review of The Hobbit where a critic of the film said that writers are so much better at creating and opening a story than ending one. It is with professional interest that I contemplate that statement and then think about it in context of those two television series. How well did they end?
If you are not in the know, The United States of Tara is a show about a women, Tara Gregson (portrayed by Toni Collete), and her family dealing with Tara’s living and breathing Dissociative Identity Disorder, or popularly known as having multiple personalities. Tara’s mind is shattered from an early childhood trauma into “alters” that cope for her in times of stress. There’s Buck, a motor-cycle riding, beer-swilling dude on the prowl, “T”, a horny, disrespecting and rebellious teenager, and Alice, the 1950’s housewife that embodies an unrealistic form of domestic perfection that is both comforting and abhorrent.
American Horror Story is a modern take on a classic theme: family moves into a haunted house that acts as a repository of anger, fear, and hate while storing and sometimes releasing the souls of those that have died within. Of course, this family falls apart as the stresses of the house release their worst inner attributes and we get to see, piece by piece, how every family before had been consumed by this magnetic home of death. There’s also the twist of the house’s neighbor, Constance (portrayed by the fabulously creepy Jessica Lange), who used to live in the haunted abode, but knows of every fell deed and ghost within, yet cannot tear herself away from its evil.
So, if writer’s are much better at beginnings than ends, how well did these series start?
USoT develops well thanks to the ensemble cast of the Gregson family and the ensemble of characters within the lead’s psyche. The best parts of an episodes are when Tara becomes an alter to protect herself or protect her family, but the worst parts are when Tara’s alters do something awful to complicate matters or ruin things for her family. The writers (which include Juno’s creator Diablo Cody) do a great job creating interesting characters like Tara’s alters, caring son Marshall, beleaguered husband Max, and Tara’s flaky sister Charmaine. USoT goes three seasons deep, which really follow a pattern of beginning, middle, and end (even if the series creators hadn’t envisioned that kind of symmetry).
American Horror Story is a little less forthcoming with clues, but it operates exactly as you’d suspect by revealing horrors and ghosts before explaining how they became what they are. From the get-go, the Harmon family are falling apart. Vivien recently caught her husband Ben cheating before the move to thier haunted home and just as their intimacy is on the mend, he starts fits of sleepwalking, his former mistress shows up, and a mysterious figure in full body black leather shows up in Vivien’s bed. Their daughter, Violet, begins a friendship with a boy seeing her father for therapy sessions. The boy, Tate, always seems to be in the house (loud and clear hint #1) and has a penchant for violence. Plus, there’s neighbor Jessica Lange doing her best polite bitchiness and meddling. Add disfigured and mangled ghosts from the 30’s, a creepy Frankenstein baby in the basement, and another former resident of the house with half of his body covered in horrific burn scars and you have a great start to a scary story.
How goes the middle of these series?
There gets to be a point in USoT where the viewer leaves Tara’s side. I don’t know if its when her alter T kisses her son’s almost boyfriend, when her alter Buck beats up her husband for breaking up Buck’s relationship with a bar waitress, when Tara becomes a portrait of her four year old self during her sister’s wedding, or the formation of a new alter Bryce, who embodies a step-brother who turns out to be the abuser who shattered Tara’s developing mind. Sometime in the series, the alters take too much of a toll on the family and you want a order restored.
In American Horror Story, we get to learn the background for each ghost, such as Tate’s school shooting rampage (and subsequent death at the hands of the police) and the many abortions performed in the basement by the builder of the home. Even the famous Black Dahlia murder was supposedly performed in this home. Horror after horror is visited, and they’re all pretty great! The grisly, ghouly stuff is much better than the emotional stuff like the Harmon’s marriage slipping away, but its all interconnected. Vivien gets pregnant and the baby (or as it turns out, babies) gives her unbearable pains whenever she leaves the haunted home, which is exactly where she fears to be.
So, how goes the ending? Does it finish well? Are all of its stories tied up? Does it please the audience?
As I was watching the final season of Tara, the best course of action was laid clear multiple times, but the characters around Tara kept putting it off or ignoring the possibility so I had to shout it at the tv several times. “Put her in a hospital!” I shouted. Or, “She needs professional help!!” All the fun of the first season gets drained from the story as her condition wears down the positivity and exuberance of her family. Even the welcome addition of Eddie Izzard to the cast in the third season isn’t enough joy. The story wraps with exactly my own suggestion, Tara commits to committing herself.
American Horror Story wraps everything up in its own way. It would actually reveal too much for my liking to explain how it does so, but each main character gets their story tied off. We’re coming back to American Horror Story in a sec.
Looking back on USoT, I think it was a frustrating watch towards the end, but I got what I wanted out of it. It was interesting to see how Tara’s splintered alters helped her cope with her life, how they screwed things up, and the reactions by family members. Someone in the writing staff must have had someone in their family with this illness or one like it, because its a realistic ride. If the entire show is taken from the perspective of the son Marshall, a developing teen trying to gain a sense of self-identity in the face of his mother’s multiple identities, the show goes from believable naivete that everything is fine to realization that things have to change. Marshall is the most empathetic character and his struggle to know who he is when faced with who he has as a mother is as true an emotional quest that television can show us. Tara’s commitment may have come too late, but I felt it was entirely believable. This series wrapped up pleasantly. The writer/crafter of this ending did so in a way that concluded all arcs and with an audience’s wants and needs in mind.
American Horror Story doesn’t wrap up pleasantly, but the stories conclude correctly. What is curious, however, is how the show’s finale ends. Instead of showing the fate of everyone who has moved into the house, then alluding to the horrors the future might have in store, the show continues in its last episode like the epilogue of an epilogue. We see one more family move in and their reaction to being haunted. We see any and all new ghosts inhabit the house like its a holiday special with the Partridges. This last episode has such a strange and positive ambiance it’s hard to reconcile with the feeling of episodes that precede it. Rather than the grisly, show-no-mercy finale that twists your guts and makes you flinch from all the jump-scares and eerie sound bites, the finale has no punch, no kick. Everything is tied up in a neat little box with wrapping paper like nothing was ever wrong. I was really happy with how the living ended their tale in American Horror Story, but totally nonplussed by how the dead face the ending of this tale. The show ended about forty minutes too soon, someone over-wrote the ending here.
Now, American Horror Story is designed to be a mini-series in its seasons. The current season is about a completely different story line, which is an interesting and fresh idea that I like. I got a little too much ending from its first season, which is odd. Usually you get the sense that something was missing from a series conclusion, but I actually wanted less from the first season.
I want to end the story when the thrill is gone, while leaving only a few buds of a future to come. Tara’s story does that, it ends with a nice arc of completion and a positive acceptance to change. American Horror Story gave me the end, then told me how all the characters would fare, and then showed me hopes and dreams for everyone, except they live in a ghost-life where nothing changes since you’re dead.
All in all, these were great entertainment and decent story crafting. United States of Tara is adult entertainment with hints of the bygone sitcom and American Horror Story is episodic thrills and chills. I do recommend them if they fit your cup of tea.
United States of Tara – 8 personalities sharing one body
American Horror Story – 7 and a half bodies under the porch