‘American Horror Story’ fails to punch above its weight with a deep, raw idea that’s unfortunately stuck in a shallow episode and grave.
“For a minute. For a thousand years. Forever.”
Horror is full of fascinating figures who make enthralling arguments for why the dead are more valuable than the living and the persecution that frequently follows this philosophy. Titles like Re-Animator, Deadgirl, The Autopsy of Jane Done, and so many others uniquely examine life, death, and the blurred lines in between the two. American Horror Stories’ “Necro” attempts to also bring grief and romance into the equation with this failed experiment that falls short in some seriously tone deaf ways, but still manages to scratch the surface of some compelling ideas.
“Necro” focuses on Sam, a passionate mortician who finds herself at a crossroads in life. Sam has to shoulder most of this episode and Madison Iseman (Goosebumps 2, Annabelle Comes Home) rises to the occasion in the role. Her performance remains a highlight through the installment’s messier portions. “Necro” is at its best when it just allows Sam to bask in her work and the episode captures the genuine artistry that’s behind the craft as well as how this is a gateway towards Sam’s deeper relationship with her subjects. She even engages in thought provoking discussion over what a sacred honor it is to be involved with the death process and how it connects her back to ancient Egyptian rituals.
This introduction on Sam and death is effective, but the larger concerns that begin to plague her are where “Necro” grows more generic. Sam struggles with her bland-yet-on-paper-he’s-perfect boyfriend, Jesse (Spencer Neville), who’s never been able to understand her and pushes her further towards a “job or him” scenario. This ultimatum is hardly fair, but these concessions turn into a running theme for Sam through the episode. She finds herself talking more to the corpses that she works on than her living boyfriend.
Jesse hammers the idea into Sam that it’s her “weird” job that’s the problem, which is a destructive thought that begins to work for her until she meets Charlie (Cameron Cowperthwaite), the antithesis of Sam’s close-minded, safe existence. Charlie is a sage gravedigger who sees corpses as more than just hunks of meat, which naturally touches Sam. There’s heavy flirtation that stems from steamy conversations over reincarnation, cremation, and other death rituals. They make for entertaining ice-breakers, but they also help build upon “Necro’s” themes. This earnest relationship helps Sam and Charlie confront their past trauma, with both of them experiencing difficult childhoods where they’ve overcome substantial loss, yet in ways that have also taught them to better value death and its connection to life.
“Necro” is a surprisingly patient episode of American Horror Stories and there’s not much danger within the first-half beyond Sam’s errant trauma flashbacks. This creates more of a mystery over what all of this is building towards, which is also unfortunately where “Necro” ultimately falls apart. While this isn’t exactly American Horror Stories’ necrophilia episode, it for all intents and purposes will go down as such. It’s a wild generalization to equate grief and trauma to necrophiliac tendencies and a death kink. It’s actually not a terrible idea to attempt to earnestly pathologize this condition, but it’s far beyond the capabilities of American Horror Stories, a series that rarely traffics in tact and nuance. In the end, a lot of this just feels empty, but kudos to Iseman who goes all in here and commits to a lacking script.
The final act goes on to progressively torture Sam, which includes the worst intervention of all-time, until her life further devolves. “Necro” continually stigmatizes Sam until all of her pain cascades into a devastating, bitter conclusion. The chemistry between Sam and Charlie never comes together and their scenes mostly amount to flashy, yet empty, dialogue like, “This is what it really means to be alive!” and “You’re disgusting…and beautiful.” None of this ever properly elevates from creepy to romantic. The same is true for “Necro’s” big finish, which aims for Romeo and Juliet style catharsis, but feels completely unearned. Sam also shouldn’t feel that she needs to kill herself out of embarrassment over how far her life has fallen. It leaves her even more powerless than where she begins at the start of “Necro,” lifelessly going through the motions with Jesse.
“Necro” is directed by Logan Kibens, a newcomer to the Ryan Murphy universe, but she’s no stranger to horror television having previously cut her teeth on Amazon Prime’s I Know What You Did Last Summer as well as an episode of Hulu’s Monsterland anthology. Kibens does a serviceable job here in an episode that’s well-acted and keeps moving along, but it lacks a distinct visual language and fails to do anything that stands out from past installments. The most evocative sequence in “Necro” is Sam’s “romance,” where ethereal music and gauzy lighting temporarily take over to harken back to ancient rituals, but it still falls short. Like many American Horror Stories episodes, the greatest shortcomings here are the script rather than Kibens’ direction and I’d be curious to see what she does with another episode of the series that’s more entrenched in supernatural material.
“Necro” is a glib, reductive, disappointing episode of American Horror Stories that takes big swings in a completely different way than last week’s “Facelift.” American Horror Stories isn’t the first series that one would expect to apply empathy to its subjects, but the sarcastic, sensationalist nature of “Necro” becomes one of the episode’s biggest hurdles. Even the title itself plays like a stigmatizing playground slur that’s meant to hurt Sam rather than celebrate or understand her unique condition. American Horror Stories isn’t beyond telling tender, careful stories about humanity, but there’s not enough to hold onto in “Necro” and what is there just feels too mean-spirited or delusional at the cost of its victims. That’s not to say that “Necro” needs to “fix” Sam or idolize her perturbing pathology, but there are still ways to execute this concept that can be full of frightening, sterile visuals that also highlight the haunting romance of Sam’s story.
“Necro” is cold in all of the wrong ways.