Every season of American Horror Story follows a similar structure, with the show throwing so many increasingly crazy stories out in the first half, and often struggling to tie everything together in the latter half. Some seasons have pulled this off, while others haven’t even attempted to find a method to their own madness.
“The Ten Commandments Killer” gives us a fairly obvious twist that the entire season has been building to: John is the murderer that he has been tasked with going after. The evidence has been everywhere since the season’s beginning, with John constantly blacking out, having no idea how he spent that time and the insanely obvious induction of him into the Hotel Cortez’s annual serial killer dinner for no apparent reason. John made himself blind to the evidence all around him, but as the audience, you’d have to have been pretty blind to not put together the obvious direction that American Horror Story was heading in.
And yet, despite the obvious nature of where John’s story was heading, “The Ten Commandments Killer” is successful because it is the beginning of AHS bringing its various strands together into a cohesive whole, and is the rare example of the show achieving this in a fulfilling way.
For the most part, the episode explains everything we could ever want to know about the eponymous killer, and fills in all the pieces showing how John could become such a monster. “The Ten Commandments Killer” has John explaining his entire backstory—which he miraculously remembers all of a sudden—to Andy in a very noir-ish way. John came to the Hotel Cortez five years ago during a bender, hoping to forget the cruelties of the world. In his search to get blackout drunk, he came to the hotel for a great martini, but left with James Patrick March’s will seeping into his brain.
March saw a rage in John that he knew he could exploit. After ninety years of searching for a person to take over his Ten Commandments Killer persona (and the mentoring of many serial killers that didn’t have the right motivation), March finally found his successor in John. All John needed was a little push before he could dole out the vengeance and order that he saw the world lacked.
Getting into the origins of John as a serial killer, American Horror Story seems to have an uncharacteristic amount of focus. The Countess stole John’s son Holden so that he would hate the world and lose all hope, allowing him to let the anger finally come out. In order for John to unknowingly go through these things, John’s secret lover Sally sent the recently deceased Ren to follow John and keep an eye on him. In a world where chaos had ruined John’s life, not only does he believe himself to be making the world a cleaner place by committing these murders, but he’s also getting justice for the son he lost.
Of course, John’s story has lots of holes that get written off with simple explanations as well. John has been in a daze, so he doesn’t know what he’s truly doing. March did say that John would make himself blind to what he doesn’t want to see, but this episode also posits that the hotel somehow has a weird hold over John’s memories, until he awakens himself.
While John’s story is told as best as could be expected, there’s still too much of it. For weeks, John has had one of the weaker stories that always drags the show down when he pops up. The entire episode features him going into a flashback of the last five years that made him the monster he just discovered he is, but occasionally it just gets silly. For example, he kills Andy for having coffee with his wife, since you shouldn’t covet your neighbor’s wife, or when we see John kill the Oscar blogger—since he worships false idols—even though John believes his real crime to be child pornography.
When American Horror Story tries to explain itself in broad terms, it’s easier to make sense of what is happening. Yet when the show gets into the minutiae of its plots, the flaws really start to pop out. We didn’t really need an explanation for all his various killings, in fact that’s where the mistakes start to come out. By focusing an entire episode on John’s background, it’s complete overkill. Get in, explain the things that need explaining, then get out. This is especially important when you realize how much else is going on this show, from the Countess’ many plans and attempted murderers, to a band of murderous schoolchildren running around seemingly with no problem. These are things that should be addressed, but likely won’t integrate with the main plot at all.
By focusing the entire episode on John’s noir flashbacks, the show starts to drag. In the Countess’ flashback from a few weeks ago, almost every detail showed us more about her. John’s backstory doesn’t do this, but rather just attempts to explore the grim details of his transformation. None of this really gives us much insight into who he is. All it really shows is that he’s a puppet who has been manipulated to indulge his deepest desires. It’s just a shame when American Horror Story indulges its own desires, to the point where it hurts the story instead of helping it along.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow him on Twitter.