American Horror Story, the anthology series created by Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy that frequently bastardizes history and folklore for terrorizing its viewers, has had fans on their toes for the better part of a year. The show often nods to the coming season’s theme with hints in its finales, as well as pre-season promos that (loosely) provide some context for the season ahead. But not so with season six, My Roanoke Nightmare, which premiered last night. In this year’s lead-up, Murphy and his team remained tight-lipped, and even admitted they were purposefully throwing fans off their trail with misleading promotional material. The mystery amplified the hype, so the show had a lot of expectation to deliver on—especially in the wake of last season’s Hotel theme, which had fans and critics polarized. But damn it, Ryan Murphy—he somehow managed to game the system and deliver one of the creepiest season premieres yet.
Let’s start with that rumor that season six would weave together all of the past themes and spoil us with a basketful of Easter eggs. Forget my own theory that this purported connectivity was adopted by the show’s writers after spending too much time reading AHS reddit threads—Falchuk and Murphy have (perhaps at times too obviously) managed to create some overlap in recent seasons with returning characters as well as narrative flashbacks, both of which allow for the show to move easily across time. But with last night’s premiere, the show’s creators by some extraordinary task managed to bring it all together. Elements of Murder House, Asylum, and Coven (Freak Show and Hotel nods seem to be a bit of a stretch thus far) were crammed into the hour-long “Chapter 1” episode without feeling too contrived—and better yet, it appears Murphy and Falchuk have opted for more Kubrick-level subtleties this time around.
“Chapter 1” begins as a documentary/investigative report—think an episode of Dateline—on the experiences of terrorized newlyweds Shelby (Lily Rabe) and Matt (André Holland). Presented as “inspired by” true events, the show uses flashbacks to recount the sordid tale of how Shelby and Matt came upon an abandoned farmhouse in North Carolina (i.e. the site of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, confirming one suspected theme for this season) that they purchased for a modest $40,000, the entirety of their life savings. In the “dramatic re-enactments” of their memory of events—which, by the way, do not always overlap in their retellings—Shelby is played by Sarah Paulson and Matt is played by Cuba Gooding Jr. (both of whom played the leads Marcia Clark and O.J. Simpson in Murphy’s other anthology series American Crime Story). Are you still following?
Falchuk and Murphy have used flashback mechanisms since as far back as season one, originally as a means of giving us context for all the overlapping storylines of the home’s trapped ghosts. It was also used in later seasons—perhaps most prominently in Freak Show—to intertwine the overarching narratives of its many themes (i.e. giving Pepper, a fan favorite from Asylum, more backstory in Freak Show; or when medium Billie Dean Howard of Murder House checked into the Cortez in Hotel). Viewers are now used to the show’s story-within-a-story approach, however contrived it sometimes feels. But that’s where My Roanoke Nightmare (the jury’s still out about how much the show’s willing to borrow from history for this theme) splits from the typical conventions of AHS storytelling and puts a refreshing spin on its new season. Season six is a story-within-a-story within a story, and one at times so confusing that we’re not sure as viewers what is inventive first-person storytelling, a confusion of the way things actually occurred, or the spooky, IRL way events unfolded for the show’s three protagonists (the third being Lee, Matt’s ex-cop sister, played in present by Adina Porter and in the reenactments by the always incredible Angela Bassett). Their often conflicting accounts only serve to further muddy the waters.
So what does this mean for the future of the series? Is My Roanoke Nightmare going to utilize this bizarre docu-drama method of storytelling for the entirety of its convoluted season? Are we finally going to see the writers make good on those promises that all the show’s themes are indeed connected on one gargantuan timeline of murder and mayhem? And how much is the show going to borrow from the real Lost Colony? The truth is, none of us really have any fucking clue—and that’s more thrilling than anything.