THR's weekly breakdown of the FX franchise's most mysterious season yet.
[Warning: This story contains spoilers from the ninth episode of American Horror Story: Roanoke, "Chapter 9."]
American Horror Story: Roanoke opened with a timely scene on Wednesday.
Though the date for the penultimate episode of the sixth season had always been set for the day after Election Day, the words packed a very different punch given President-elect Donald Trump's stunning win on Tuesday night.
Making her anticipated debut on the mysterious season of Ryan Murphy's FX horror anthology series, Taissa Farmiga joined the ensemble as a blogger for a My Roanoke Nightmare fan website who seeks out the haunted Roanoke house for the site's social media. When recapping the true-crime docuseries that sits at the center of the story to her co-workers (played by Jacob Artist and Jon Bass), she described the series as follows:
"On the surface, it's an interracial story set in a post-racial world, which of course is a lie," she says, referring to the protagonists, mixed-race couple Shelby (Lily Rabe) and Matt Miller (Andre Holland), who are haunted by ghosts of the pre-16th century Lost Colony of Roanoke in the present time. "But they're really talking about the colonization of America — The Butcher and the Roanoke colony, which became a matriarchy in a patriarchy system. That's why it's so timely."
It's a story that still baffles real historians to this day. More than 100 colonists mysteriously vanished from the North Carolina colony. In AHS: Roanoke's retelling, the governor's wife (Kathy Bates) takes over the colony in her husband's absence and ultimately becomes its immortal and murderous leader, The Butcher.
When her fellow blogger says the popular series was a hit simply because it was scary, Farmiga's character shoots back: "Yeah. Racism is scary. Patriarchy is scary."
Even Adina Porter, who plays Matt's sister, Lee Harris, acknowledged the unforeseen power of the moment on Twitter, saying she wished it "wasn't so timely."
Pretty appropriate @AHSFX opening, huh? Wish it wasn't so timely.— Adina Porter (@AdinaPorter) November 10, 2016
Murphy, who hosted and participated in several fundraisers throughout the election season, and much of his cast had thrown their support behind Hillary Clinton, who conceded the presidency to Trump in an emotional speech earlier in the day. Sarah Paulson, who plays Shelby Miller in the Roanoke Nightmare reenactment scenes, has been active on social media since the shocking upset by Trump. Shortly before the results were final, she posted a photo holding a Clinton doll saying, "I've got you and I'm not letting go." Lady Gaga, who plays the Witch of the Woods in the series, protested Trump's win in front of his Manhattan Trump Tower on Tuesday night and Cheyenne Jackson, who plays series producer Sidney, compared the results to the show, tweeting: "A true American Horror Story."
Ahead of Tuesday, co-creators Murphy and Brad Falchuk, like all the pollsters who got it wrong, anticipated the scene would be airing in the midst of a celebratory Clinton win. Instead, the message was sent to a divided nation, as thousands of people took to the streets across major cities in the U.S. to protest Trump's win.
For many viewers looking for a needed escape from election coverage, the rest of the episode continued on its twisty and bloody path to its conclusion, revealing the sole survivor before heading into next week's finale. Read a recap of the episode and analysis of the season below, and share your thoughts with THR in the comments.
As Murphy promised, the big twist of the season arrived three weeks ago, flipping the story on its head and spiraling it into its most twisted territory yet. All of the stars of the true-crime docuseries My Roanoke Nightmare — the talking heads and the actors seen in the dramatic reenactments — were reunited at the Roanoke murder house for a Big Brother-inspired reality show sequel pitched as Return to Roanoke: Three Days in Hell. The sixth episode revealed that every participant, except for one, was murdered in the following three days, the never-before-aired footage discovered after the fact.
Heading into the ninth episode, remaining survivors Audrey (Sarah Paulson) and Lee (Adina Porter) are joined by returning actor Dylan (Wes Bentley), who was told to arrive late in the game to "shake things up" as the fake Piggy Man. The trio returned to the farm of the cannibal Polk family so Audrey can find the missing Monet (Angela Bassett) and Lee could secretly retrieve the footage of her murder confession. Though Audrey finds Monet alive, Dylan is killed by a Polk brother and the pair leave a now-missing Lee behind when the torch-bearing colonists arrive. Back at the house, a suspicious Monet plays the found footage of Lee confessing to killing her husband, something long speculated by the cast and fans.
Meanwhile, a trio of millennial bloggers from a My Roanoke Nightmare fansite arrive to take photos of the house to grow their social following. Sophie (Farmiga), Todd (Artist) and Milo (Bass) stumble upon a ghost, realize everything is real and try to tell the cops, but it's to no avail. The silver lining? They gain 20,000 followers from their video of the dead woman and are now going viral. When they return for more proof, filming with GoPros, they find Lee. While lost in the woods, however, the Witch of the Woods fed Lee a boar's heart and she is now possessed. She kills Todd and sends Sophie and Milo running for safety. They end up in the edit bay where they watch as Lee makes her way back to the Roanoke house.
Audrey and Monet are too busy yelling at Lee to notice she is possessed, something Audrey realizes after Lee shoves Monet down the spiral staircase to her death. "These grounds must be cleansed with fire and blood," Lee recites, sounding like The Butcher. She stabs Audrey and locks her in the nearby cellar.
A title card reveals the next scenes are from found footage off Todd's iCloud. (The warning says sensitive viewers should refrain from watching the graphic images.) The episode then cuts to Milo and Sophie being dragged to the house by Lee and the real colonists. The pair are staked and burned alive as an offering of their souls.
The next day, officers arrive at the scene, shown through their body cams. They discover all the dead bodies and an alive Lee, who appears to be in a state of shock and back to her normal self. Audrey is miraculously still alive and when she climbs out of the cellar, she sees Lee and screams, "Murderer!" She takes one of the officer's guns and points it at Lee, but is quickly riddled with bullets. The officers then cart Lee away, making her the sole survivor of the Roanoke sequel.
Lana Winters is back with another big exclusive.
Scenes for next week's finale show the fan-favorite Asylum character (played by Paulson) getting her big Roanoke scoop when she lands a coveted interview with the now-famous sole survivor, Lee Harris. "She's one of the most provocative and polarizing figures of our time," says Lana as Lee is shown in a flashback in court and then glammed up for the live TV interview. "Welcome to the Lana Winters special."
With season "six" — a number that holds particular weight in horror — Murphy promised the sixth episode's twist would usher in a new chapter for AHS: Roanoke. And Falchuk revealed that the season could be divided into three: Episodes one through five, six through nine, and then a standalone 10. With Chapter 1 as My Roanoke Nightmare and Chapter 2 being comprised of the Return to Roanoke footage, the final episode appears to be jumping ahead to bring a conclusion to the events of My Roanoke Nightmare and Three Days in Hell.
Here are THR's burning questions for the finale:
Between the title card warnings and well-edited footage at the Polk home, it's clear the sequel had an editor. Who is behind the presented found footage?
Who is left for Matt Bomer to play?
Will the dead actors return as ghosts in any capacity, or have we seen the last of those stars?
Who is playing the real Scathach and will Gaga return? Will the finale tie this season to Coven, since Murphy confirmed she is the original Supreme?
Is the Antichrist theory dead? Much emphasis was placed on Scathach's need to fulfill her womanly desires, and she is conspicuously left out of the cast that Sidney planned to reunite. The Antichrist spawn of Matt, a mortal, and Scathach, an immortal, could be Murphy's tie-in to the entire universe. Season one's Murder House also featured a child born of human and spirit, its existence warned by another Paulson character, Billie Dean: "A child born of human and spirit will usher in the end of times."
Ushering in AHS: Roanoke's most violent and terrifying episodes thus far, the seventh episode served up every horrific element of the season onto one Blood Moon platter.
After Rory (Evan Peters) became the first victim at the end of episode six, Sidney and his crew were stabbed and disemboweled while watching the camera feed from inside the house. Agnes then sliced Shelby with her cleaver while in character as the murderous Butcher, sending Audrey, Lee and Monet fleeing the house and running through the woods, filming their evolving nightmare with handheld cameras, Blair Witch-style.
As the Blood Moon appears — signaling the one time of year when spirits can cross over to murder the living — the trio encounter colonial ghosts carrying torches and are abducted by the real Polks, the cannibal neighbors who tortured the Millers in the telling of My Roanoke Nightmare. Missing until this episode, AHS franchise star Wittrock made a brief appearance as one of the Polks, who films the abduction from behind a camera. This time, they season Lee's leg before cutting it off in pieces they then force-feed to Audrey and Monet.
Back at the house, Matt is beckoned by the real Scathach (who was played by Lady Gaga in the dramatic reenactment) for a midnight sexcapade. When Shelby and Dominic (Cuba Gooding Jr.) interrupt them, however, Matt confesses that he came back for Scathach, who he is in love with. Shelby responds with rage and bashes his skull in with a crowbar. When Dominic leads her upstairs, they watch as the real Butcher and her colonial ghosts storm the house — just as they did in Shelby and Matt's retelling of the Blood Moon haunting. Agnes kneels in front of her real-life counterpart and then receives a cleaver to the head from the real Butcher.
The eighth episode continued to focus on the Polk family (think: The Hills Have Eyes meets Deliverance), with Wittrock holding Lee captive as Jether Polk, the only member of the family not featured on the TV show. (Murphy had teased the role as Wittrock's "most f—ed up [AHS] character of all time.")
But Jether is outsmarted by Lee who escapes as he attempts to seduce her, despite missing a massive chunk of her upper thigh, shoulder and her right ear. She finds Audrey just in time, as Mama Polk (Robin Weigert) was in the midst of plucking the actress' teeth as Monet fled from the remaining Polk boys in the woods. As revenge, Audrey bashes in Mama Polk's skull — the second brutal skull-bashing after Shelby's the week prior.
Audrey and a nearly dismembered Lee make their way back to the house, where they discover Matt's dead body along with Shelby's. Dominic tells the pair that Shelby slit her own throat over the guilt of killing her husband, but the women refuse to believe him — Audrey saying she is too narcissistic and Lee claiming she's too in love with Matt. They lock him out of the room, putting him right in the path of the Piggy Man, who, in turn, stabs Dominic to death. ("He really was such a wonderful scene partner," says Audrey.)
With everyone dead, except for a missing-in-action Monet, Audrey is ready to leave with Lee. But Lee, who had confessed to killing her husband Mason on Jether Polk's camera, convinces Audrey to go back to the Polk farm to collect the evidence of their murders. (Ironically, this confession is all the late Sidney wanted.) As they prepare to leave the house, they encounter Wes Bentley's actor, Dylan (who played Ambrose White in the reenactment), dressed as the Piggy Man and are relieved to see him.
When the promised big twist of season six arrived in the sixth episode, things got very meta.
After the culmination of My Roanoke Nightmare, Sidney stepped in front of the camera to document the journey of creating the sequel season to his massive TV hit. As was predicted, Sydney returned to the Roanoke murder house with his crew and cast and put his stars under 24-hour surveillance. His pitch was that the real-life drama, combined with the mind games from being in the actual house, would serve as the perfect guilty-pleasure combination to top the inaugural season's massive 23 million viewers. (The first season's ratings even topped Sunday Night Football, Empire and The Walking Dead.)
Debunking several online theories, the twist episode — which was directed by co-star Angela Bassett — revealed that Shelby and Matt Miller and Lee Harris, were, in fact, the real people they claimed to portray, while the reenactors and spirits were actors. The docuseries made them all instant stars, and with fame came the pitfalls of stardom: Shelby and Matt separated after Shelby had a fling with the actor who portrayed him, Dominic. Fans created an online petition to charge Lee with husband Mason's unsolved murder, and the actress who played her, Monet, is now an alcoholic. The Butcher actress Agnes was diagnosed with schizoaffective disorder, sentenced to six months in a mental health facility after a breakdown and was served with a restraining order to stay away from set.
The actress who played Shelby, Audrey, was revealed to be British and newly engaged to her co-star, red-headed Rory (Evan Peters), who played the home's 16th-century builder, Edward Mott — the only happy result of the docuseries, noted Shelby.
After only a few days back on set, unexplained acts occurred and producer Diana (Shannon Lucio) was murdered by the Piggy Man, the incident revealed on footage discovered three months later. During the first night of filming, the cast was reintroduced as they trailed in, receiving room assignments and serving up drama like the first episode of every The Real World. The newlyweds were the first to arrive and, after an attack by Agnes dressed as The Butcher, Audrey revealed that the co-star also attacked her when she took home the trophy at the acclaimed horror awards The Saturns. The rest of the episode played out like a stereotypical reality show, with drinking, hookups, backstabbing, fistfights and the "stars" taking turns in a confessional booth — only this reality show upped the game by throwing murder onto that list.
The show cut to a text reveal that over the next three days during the Blood Moon, every participant — except for one — in the series died under mysterious circumstances. The show planned by producers never aired, and the footage being shown, found from the hidden and handheld cameras in the house, was gathered after the events. In the ending moments, the ghosts of lethal nurses Miranda and Bridget murdered Rory, the final letter in their long-awaited "Murder" message. "R is for Rory," said Matt to the group, signaling the first housemate to bite the dust in Return to Roanoke.
After a lead-up shrouded in secrecy, the sixth season of American Horror Story revealed itself as AHS: Roanoke following the Sept. 14 premiere. The first five episodes played out unlike any other in the long-running hit horror series by sticking with the narrative of My Roanoke Nightmare as it flip-flopped from the present talking-head interviews to past dramatic reenactments. Sidney existed only as a voice from behind the camera.
Each episode featured a callback to its respective AHS season, a nod to the special number attached to the season; showrunner Murphy announced ahead of the premiere that season six would begin to tie together the mythology of the entire AHS universe.
Shelby and Matt's story began in similar fashion to the premise of the inaugural season, Murder House, with the pair moving into a haunted mansion in hopes of starting over. The Piggy Man arrived and as in Murder House, the Roanoke ghosts are bound to the land. The second episode's lethal nurses were reminiscent of season two's Asylum; the third corresponded to Coven with Leslie Jordan's return as a medium; the fourth provided a Freak Show shoutout with the introduction of Dandy Mott's (Wittrock) ancestor Edward Mott; and the fifth featured Hotel's human-swallowing beds.
Through the Millers' and Lee's retelling, viewers learned that the trio were haunted by the ghosts of the Lost Colony of Roanoke, who were able to cross over and murder the living during the six-day period before the Blood Moon on Halloween. As the story goes, more than 100 people vanished without a trace, leaving only the word "Croatoan" carved into a tree during the pre-16th century event that baffles real historians to this day. In the AHS version, the colony wasn't so lost after all.
Scathach, the Witch of the Woods, is the evil spirit worshiped by The Butcher. Centuries ago, The Butcher was Thomasin White, wife to the governor of Roanoke, John White, and mother to Ambrose (Wes Bentley). When John went away, Thomasin was in charge and overthrown by the colonists. Left to die in the woods, she gives her soul to Scathach and is reborn. Later, after initiating a mass sacrifice, she returns as a ghost forever protecting the land. In the third episode, Shelby caught a trance-like Matt having sex with Scathach and later, the witch again seduces Matt, leading to speculation that Scathach could bring about the arrival of the AHS Antichrist (a child born of an immortal and mortal union). Scathach was recently revealed by Murphy to be the original Supreme witch of Coven, and that her connection to Coven — and possibly to the entire AHS universe — would be followed up on in a later season.
Other threads left over from the first half of the season are Lee's likely involvement in the murder of her husband and how her first daughter, like Flora in Roanoke, was also abducted (but never found). In addition to surviving the spirits, the Millers and Lee also escaped from a local, cannibal family, the Polks (Frances Conroy and Chaz Bono played Mama and Lot, respectively, in the reenactment). With every cent they owned tied up in the Big Shaker Mansion at 900 Sappony Road, the Millers refused to leave until the culminating events of episode five.
This isn't the first time Roanoke has come up on AHS. During the first season of Murder House, Paulson's psychic character Billie Dean Howard tells of the colony of Roanoke when Violet (Taissa Farmiga) asks for her help to banish the ghosts in their home.
"It’s difficult to banish a spirit, but not impossible. The most successful attempt I know of happened when America was known as the new world," begins Paulson's season-one character. She then tells the tale: "In 1590, on the coast of what we now know as North Carolina, the entire colony of Roanoke — all 117 men, women, and children — died inexplicably. It became known as the ghost colony because the spirits remained. They haunted the native tribes living in the surrounding areas. Killing indiscriminately. The elder knew he had to act. He cast a banishment curse. First he collected the personal belongings of all the dead colonists. Then they burned them. The ghosts appeared, summoned by their talismans. But before the spirits could cause them any more harm, the elder completed the curse that would banish the ghosts forever. By uttering a single word. The same word found carved on a post at the abandoned colony: Croatoan.'"
During the third episode, Lee recounted the horror myth of Roanoke, though she said 116 settlers disappeared without a trace. (Is the missing person significant, or a result of stories being passed down the lane? Since Lee clearly can't be trusted.)
Billie Dean mentioned she was filming a Lifetime series and when her character reappeared in the fifth season, Hotel, she was starring on a Lifetime show — an example of the AHS universe being connected. Murphy confirmed to THR ahead of the season that six will be the cycle when the AHS seasons finally start to come together. "The seasons are connected, for sure. You'll see it this season, and then you'll really see it after this season," he said. "We lay a lot of pipe, and you'll see it explode in seasons seven and eight [the seventh has officially been picked up]." He continued, "This is a show that could be like The Twilight Zone and run for multiple, multiple seasons and have its own inner mythology. So that's how we're approaching it. I'll keep doing it for as long as we have the ideas and the momentum."
The main castmembers were confirmed in the credits at the end of the Sept. 14 premiere: Sarah Paulson, Lily Rabe, Angela Bassett (above, right), Kathy Bates (above, left), Wes Bentley, Denis O'Hare, Evan Peters (who arrived in the fifth episode) and Cheyenne Jackson (who was heard by voice only until the sixth episode).
Rabe plays Shelby Miller and Paulson her actor, Audrey Tindall. Bassett plays Monet Tumusiime, Shelby's onscreen sister-in-law Lee Harris. Bates is actress Agnes Mary Winstead, who played The Butcher in the docuseries. Bentley acted as The Butcher's son, Ambrose White, and later returns as war veteran-turned-actor Dylan. O'Hare plays Dr. Elias Cunningham, a former owner of the Millers' home who was killed in the fifth episode reenactment.
Lady Gaga plays Scathach, the immortal Witch of the Woods and is credited as a special guest star in the episodes in which she appears. Evan Peters is actor Rory Monahan, the husband to Audrey who played Edward Philippe Mott, the original builder of the home, in the reenactment. Jackson plays My Roanoke Nightmare producer Sidney James.
The third and fourth episode saw the return of guest stars Leslie Jordan, of Coven, playing medium Cricket Marlow and Frances Conroy — of Murder House, Coven, Freak Show and Asylum — as the matriarch of the Polks in the reenactment. The seventh saw the teased return of Finn Wittrock as a real member of the Polk family, Jether.
Taissa Farmiga, of Murder House and Coven, made her return in the ninth episode as My Roanoke Nightmare fansite blogger Sophie, making Matt Bomer the last of the confirmed familiar faces still set to return. Sophie was killed in the same episode when offered as a human sacrifice by the colonists.
Murphy also confirmed on Oct. 31 that Paulson's Lana Winters (from Asylum) would return. Lana was a journalist investigating the Briarcliff asylum who was then imprisoned by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). She eventually escaped the Bloody Face killer (played by Zachary Quinto) and was shown in the future reuniting with and killing her and her rapist's son (played by Dylan McDermott). On last season's Hotel, Paulson also played Sally and returning Murder House psychic Billie Dean Howard. Murphy had teased many surprises and returns to EW when the season began: "This is the year where you see the greatest hits in terms of actors of American Horror Story, and they all love doing it."
Murphy delighted the FX audience by bringing Cuba Gooding Jr. over to AHS to reunite with his People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story co-star Sarah Paulson. (Viewers on Twitter squealed with delight when O.J. Simpson and Marcia Clark had a sex scene early in the premiere.) Gooding Jr. (above, right) spilled the beans that he was tapped by the showrunner before the season began. “When Ryan calls you and says, ‘Hey can you do this? Would you like to do that?’ It’s an immediate yes, no matter what it is,” Gooding Jr. said. He even teased the intimate scene with Paulson: “It’s really been a treat to finally engage with her on camera, because when we did The People v. O.J., it was more about my scenes and then her scenes and us being in the courtroom but separate — but we’re not separate no more!”
Andre Holland (The Knick, above, left) and Adina Porter (True Blood) are two of the new and main players to join this season as Matt Miller and his sister Lee Harris, respectively. Another fresh face is Cher's son Chaz Bono playing one of the hillbillies, Lot Polk, in the reenactment, as well as the officiant in Audrey and Rory's celebrity wedding. The reenactment killer nurses Bridget and Miranda are played by Kristen Rakes and Maya Berko, respectively, and Saniyya Sidney (Roots) plays Flora Harris in the reenactment. Shannon Lucio (The O.C.) plays Sidney's producer Dianna Cross, who was murdered by the Piggy Man, and Susan Berger is the real Butcher. Robin Weigert played the real Mama Polk. See the rest of the cast list here.
Murphy also courted another alum from his previous show, as Jacob Artist, who hails from Murphy and Falchuk's Glee, turned up in the ninth episode as a My Roanoke Nightmare fansite blogger, Todd, who was killed by Lee Harris. Jon Bass plays Todd's co-worker, Milo, who is burned at the stake along with Farmiga's Sophie in the ninth episode.
Ahead of the premiere, the cable network and Ryan Murphy, who co-created AHS with Brad Falchuk, kept the subtitle, plot and main cast a secret. To switch things up for the devoted fan base, FX marketing boss Stephanie Gibbons and Murphy told The Hollywood Reporter that the mysterious marketing campaign would continue throughout the season.
FX released 26 trailers teasing the possible theme. Among them, FX confirmed one was real and the rest were misdirects. "The truth is in there, we made absolutely certain," Gibbons told THR before the premiere. "It’s like the needle in the haystack or the pebble in your shoe: It’s tiny but boy, do you notice it and that’s what we wanted."
The AHS fan base launched into conspiracy theories and some of the speculation turned to the "Lost Colony" theme after photos claiming to be of the AHS set showed the word "Croatoan" carved into a tree. Indeed, the premiere revealed itself to be a docudrama involving Roanoke. After the premiere aired, AHS revealed the subtitle (and the premiere ratings turned out to be one of the franchise's best).
Gibbons confirmed to THR that there would be no bait and switch: After the premiere, viewers would know the theme. But that didn't mean they'd know much else about the season as a whole. "As we’ve seen with other seasons, much lies ahead," she said (most recent case in point: Hotel's Ten Commandments Killer reveal). "You know more when you’ve read the first chapter, but it’s far from the end of the book. … It's one twisty-turny season."
Will the finale have one last, big twist in store? Share your thoughts in the comments below and check back after AHS airs Wednesday at 10 p.m. on FX.