A little over a year after the debut of “American Horror Stories” (AHS(S)), the dynamic duo of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk is back with the show’s second season. Not to be confused with “American Horror Story” (AHS), AHS(S) acts as a loosely related spinoff of the popular FX horror show but is formatted as an anthology series.
Although viewers return to the fan-favorite Los Angeles “Murder House” location from AHS in the first season of this series, most episodes in the first season of AHS(S) have little to do with its predecessor. This lack of connection gave showrunners Murphy and Falchuk the freedom to flex their creative muscles without the constraints of a serialized show.
The second season is not located anywhere familiar, nor does it contain recognizable aspects from season one, or so we may think.
“Dollhouse,” the first episode of the second season, takes place in Natchez, Mississippi in 1961 and follows Coby Dellum (Kristine Froseth), a young woman who attends a job interview for a doll-making factory run by the peculiar Mr. Van Wirt (Denis O’Hare).
As a longtime fan of both AHS and AHS(S), I had pretty low expectations starting the first episode of the second season. Murphy is known for bringing new faces to AHS(S), but it often goes awry–the AHS(S) fan community did not take too kindly to Kaia Gerber’s acting skills in the first season. That being said, the appearance of longtime AHS veteran O’Hare made me feel more at ease with the episode’s potential.
Unsettling remarks, in typical AHS(S) fashion, began flying from the first dialogue of the show. Mr. Van Wirt tells Coby that he sees dolls as a mask of perfection for humanity–they have “no flesh to mortify” and “no soul to lose.” “So God would love us more if we were made out of plastic?” Coby responds.
From Mr. Van Wirt’s reaction and this exchange, I could tell the plot was about to take an unsettling turn.
In the midst of the interview, Coby is suddenly accosted by her potential employer. She wakes up in a life-sized, Victorian-era dollhouse with other young women, and Mr. Van Wirt forces her to dress up as a doll, porcelain mask and all, for what Van Wirt refers to as a “pageant.”
I’m not going to lie, the series of pageant-related activities that followed bored me a bit. To keep a long story short, the purpose of these activities was to find a woman suitable to fill in as a mother for Mr. Van Wirt’s son, Otis (Houston Towe). The whole “imprisoning a woman and justifying it because my kid needs an ideal mother” trope is overdone, sexist and stale to me (multiple episode plots of “Criminal Minds” come to mind), but I decided to wait it out to see how the storyline developed.
While there are the twists and turns of a typical AHS(S) episode, the storyline turned out to be relatively predictable at first. Van Wirt’s desire to turn women into perfect, obedient dolls to exert control isn’t much of a shocker after we learn that he murdered his wife due to her infidelity.
Of course, Coby conveniently has some rare telekinetic skills to charm young Otis and becomes the last “perfect doll wife” standing. After “winning” the pageant, Coby is made “even more perfect” as she’s encased in porcelain and transformed into a doll. In the typical style of Murphy and Falchuk though, this resolution simply cannot be how we conclude the story. That would be pointless.
This turn of events is where the story began to pique my interest.
For avid watchers of AHS like myself, the overarching doll theme might remind you of another doll-obsessed character from AHS: Coven, also played by O’Hare, from AHS. I don’t want to spoil the final events of the episode, but let’s just say that it provides a compelling origin story of sorts for Coby that connects with the events of AHS: Coven.
Murphy and Falchuk’s tendency to sprinkle in Easter eggs and connect characters and worlds from both AHS and AHS(S) seems to be leading toward an overall shared universe that fans are starting to refer to as the “AHS Cinematic Universe.”
The ending of “Dollhouse” left me absolutely satisfied on the whole, largely because the “AHS” references did not fly over my head. As a newcomer though, I doubt I would have left my viewing speaking as highly of the new season since what made it so remarkable was the comfort of revisiting old, yet beloved, past storylines.
If this episode serves as a bit of an origin story for one of AHS’s most compelling side characters, it leaves me with questions about the future: Will the second episode be a continuation of “Dollhouse”? Will this season of AHS(S) be an anthology of origin stories for other mysterious side characters from AHS?
We shall see. New “American Horror Stories” episodes come out every Thursday on Hulu.