Once known simply as “6,” American Horror Story’s sixth season, Roanoke—the first since the premiere of Ryan Murphy’s runaway hit, American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson—debuted in a veil of secrecy. In hindsight, it replicated many of AHS’s most common problems, with wild ideas and stories that went nowhere. But Roanoke was also the most arrestingly structured, unconventionally told story in AHS history, a bold (if not always successful) experiment.
Here are Paste’s top 10 highlights from American Horror Story: Roanoke:
The return of Lana Winters, absent from the American Horror Story universe since Asylum, is more interesting in theory than it is in practice. Roanoke often integrated the mythos of past seasons in subtle ways, but Winters’ reappearance is one of the season’s most strained connections. Much like Queenie’s unnecessary appearance at the end of Hotel, “The Lana Winters Special” at the end of “Chapter 10” exists simply to toss a familiar character into an intriguing new situation. Thankfully, the episode’s comparisons between Winters and Lee Harris make the appearance worthwhile: The pair’s solidarity as strong women with a singular goal isn’t an essential addition to Roanoke, but it’s a nice way to cap off AHS’s most self-referential season to date.
The end of “Chapter 2” brings with it Denis O’Hare’s return to AHS. In a hatch near their house, Shelby and Matt Miller find a videotape of O’Hare’s Dr. Elias Cunningham, recorded in 1997, in which Cunningham explains the origins of Miranda and Bridget—two nurses who start a nursing home in order to kill patients whose first names begin with the letters in their favorite word, “murder.” (Is this the dumbest serial-killer plan ever? Very possibly so.)
The two women only got to “murde,” which they wrote on the walls of what is now Shelby and Matt’s house. Before they could finish their twisted word game, they succumbed to an evil even worse than themselves. Later, in “Chapter 8,” they finally get the “R” for their puzzle, but the moment in completely irrelevant at that point—just a way to tie up one of the season’s many loose ends.
Still, as evinced by the videotape—an ode to The Blair Witch Project—Miranda and Bridget are legitimately creepy, and the tape’s aesthetics are quite effective: Cunningham zooms in way too close on his face when speaking into the camera, and drops it while investigating a house’s horrors. With Roanoke, AHS borrows from a bunch of different inspirations and blends them together surprisingly well, but it’s the Blair Witch homage that works most consistently over the course of the season.
One of the funnier decisions in Roanoke is to have Kathy Bates’ Agnes Mary Winstead—who plays The Butcher in My Roanoke Nightmare—believe she’s the real Butcher. Winstead’s delusions are conveniently timed, but Bates’s ability to straddle the line between insanity and control makes hers one of the best performances of the season.
Winstead, believing herself to be the The Butcher, terrorizes the participants in My Roanoke Nightmare, pissed that she wasn’t invited because of her mental issues. Winstead occasionally wavers in her dedication to the character, choosing not to kill certain people and lamenting the need to extract a bullet from her body, but when she meets the real Butcher, the façade crumbles completely: Her fear is palpable, right before she takes a cleaver to the face. It’s a fitting conclusion to a ridiculous character, played to perfection by Bates.
When Lee, Audrey and Monet are captured by the cannibal Polk family, their desperation and terror make “Chapter 8” one of the season’s best episodes. For Lee, it’s a turning point: Until now, you could either see her as a misunderstood character unjustly blamed for her husband’s death, or a murderer trying to protect herself and her daughter. After “Chapter 8,” it’s clear that Lee’s the latter.
The real star of Roanoke, then, is Adina Porter, and “Chapter 8” showcases her talents: The episode might well have devolved into torture porn, as the Polks cut off body parts and discuss eating their new captives, but Porter imbues Lee with humanity, honesty and heartbreak. When Lee admits to her daughter, Flora, that she did in fact kill her husband, she resonates even more as a character, sympathetic in her determination not to lose her daughter again. It’s Porter’s finest scene, in a season full of them.
If Lady Gaga’s witch holds the strings, Kathy Bates’ Butcher is her puppet. As we see the lost colony of Roanoke thriving in “Chapter 4,” we learn that it’s the result of the Butcher’s human sacrifices. Yet everyone but the Butcher is torn between their current success and their love of God. As the rest of the colony decides to turn their backs on the Butcher and return to God’s fold, the Butcher and the witch have a different plan.
At a dinner for her followers, the Butcher apologizes for turning against God and offers the diners an unknown fruit. (Pro tip: If you’re ever in the woods and a person who’s likely a witch offers you fruit, don’t eat it.) Of course, the fruit makes everyone sick to the point of vomiting, and the Butcher takes this time to hack them all to death, including her own son. When the massacre ends, with those she killed becoming the Butcher’s “servants for all eternity,” the Butcher offers her own throat to Gaga, who then slits it. It’s brutal.
Taissa Farmiga return to AHS for the first time since Coven in “Chapter 9.” As Sophie Green, a fan of My Roanoke Nightmare seeking Internet stardom, Farmiga doesn’t survive even one episode, but the character’s death is one of the season’s most memorable.
Green and her friends are doomed from the beginning: If Roanoke teaches us anything, it’s never go into a damn haunted house during the damn period in which almost every damn person that visits dies. When The Butcher and her crew capture Green and company, they impale them on pikes and light them on fire. We’ve seen burnings at the stake before, in Coven, but the camera strapped to Green’s head depicts the grisly incident from a new perspective. Green’s death might be the season’s most horrific, but it’s a fitting welcome/send-off to one of AHS’s favorite regulars.
Roanoke’s strongest tie to past seasons of American Horror Story is the revelation that the Sappony Road mansion was built by Edward Phillippe Mott, a relative of Freak Show’s Dandy Mott—one of AHS’s most over-the-top characters ever.
With “Chapter 5,” we meet Edward, which also brings Evan Peters back into the AHS universe. As James March, Peters was the highlight of Hotel, and he brings much the same grandiosity and flamboyance to Mott. But it’s also easy to see how the elder Mott would begin a family line that would end with Dandy. In Edward, we see tantrums reminiscent of Dandy’s, and both Motts build their legacy on the suffering of others. American Horror Story uses Peters’ talents brilliantly, but sparingly—a smart choice, since too much of these broad characters could be overwhelming.
Murphy promised that Roanoke would be the season to tie AHS’s seemingly disparate stories together, and Season Six frequently delivers, depicting the origins of the Mott family and featuring more than a few allusions to Murder House. But one of the most prominent crossovers belongs to Coven’s Cricket: In “Chapter 4,” in which nearly every character that could give Matt and Shelby answers is killed off, even the demise of Elias Cunningham—shot full of arrows—is nothing compared to poor Cricket, who’s quickly disemboweled in one of the season’s most gruesome scenes.
The twist in “Chapter 6” might not have been as unbelievable as Murphy made it out to be, but the change in direction is a fantastic choice nonetheless. In past seasons, AHS has dedicated itself to one idea, and then forced itself to make that idea work for an entire season. Roanoke takes a different approach: The first half of the season presents the docudrama My Roanoke Nightmare, before switching in “Chapter 6” to the creation of the follow-up Return to Roanoke: 3 Days in Hell. The swap divides Roanoke into two distinct arcs, preventing the season from wearing out its welcome. Combining the characters of My Roanoke Nightmare and the re-enactors also allows for some interesting dynamics, including a very meta look at AHS itself.
It’s rare for a TV show—especially one as popular as American Horror Story—to surprise viewers anymore: Consider how fans seem to crack every big mystery in Mr. Robot, or how each major death on Game of Thrones is preceded by weeks of speculation. By contrast, American Horror Story was able to keep even the most rudimentary details of its sixth season under wraps, turning Roanoke into the most anticipated edition of AHS in years. Was this season going to be titled “The Mist,” as many predicted? Who was going to appear? (Even though some series regulars were confirmed beforehand, it wasn’t clear who’d be making a return in Season Six until the first episode’s end credits.)
This, coupled with the decision to turn the screw from My Roanoke Nightmare to Return to Roanoke: 3 Days in Hell, might be the season’s greatest accomplishment. For a series that’s often telegraphed its premises and influences rather loudly, Roanoke was shrouded in mystery, and American Horror Story is at its best when the only thing left to expect is the unexpected.
Ross Bonaime is a D.C.-based freelance writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can find more of his writing at RossBonaime.com and follow him on Twitter.