American Gothic (1995) s01e05 – Dead to the World

This episode’s got five writers credited, apparently two different teams (Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess on one, Shaun Cassidy, Michael R. Perry, and Stephen Gaghan on the other). Guild arbitration or extreme fairness? Regardless, World works better than almost anything else with five credited writers; the episode’s all “Gothic”’s strengths, none of its… well, weaknesses is a little extreme (though not inaccurate given last episode’s teenage girl objectification issues). None of those problems here, though Barnaby Carpenter is back from last episode, now running the town junkyard.

He’s helping Paige Turco investigate the accidental death of her childhood friend, played by Melissa McBride. Now, we, the audience, know McBride’s death wasn’t accidental. The episode opens in flashback; McBride was dating Gary Cole (then still a deputy, which is an interesting timeline), and he had her snooping on just-born Lucas Black. McBride figures out he’s the baby’s daddy and freaks out, so he drives her into the river to drown her quiet.

The opening flashback, with the sped-up video, is the worst-looking sequence in the episode. James. A. Contner is probably the series’s best director so far, definitely for Turco. Turco’s intrepid reporter is still too bold but has a complex layer of compassion beneath it. Once she starts questioning McBride’s mom, played by Linda Pierce (quietly and eventually devastating as a Southern belle caricature), Turco pretty quickly figures out Cole’s involved somehow. Only when she confronts him he’s not too worked up about the implications.

Cole and Black have the B plot. Black’s in an archery competition with his best friend, Christopher Fennell, and Cole tries to teach him winning’s more important than anything else. So it’s a supernatural villain figure trying to instill toxic masculinity in Black, juxtaposed against the C plot, where sheriff’s deputy Nick Searcy tries (and fails) to protect his ex-wife and son from her bastard new husband (a too soap opera-y John Shearin).

Meanwhile, Sarah Paulson can just watch sadly as Black falls into Cole’s clutches. She and Black have an exceptional scene where he asks her about getting smarter after dying—which she’s done from his perspective, but maybe not her own. The show hasn’t gotten into the rules of Paulson’s spirit existence at all, which allows for big swings (and hits).

Then Brenda Bakke and Jake Weber are both around a bit too. Weber is the one telling Searcy about Shearin being abusive, while Bakke’s using her role as school teacher to screw up Fennell’s chances in the contest. We finally get to see her and Cole canoodling, and it’s fantastic. We also finally get to see the new sheriff’s department set, which is solid; it’s nice they’ve got a recurring location.

There are some 1995 TV bumps, mostly the guest star acting or just the general shot composition, but World’s finally got everything clicking, even if the regular cast’s too big for an episode. Cole’s particularly great this episode, Black and Searcy are fantastic, Turco’s coming along, Bakke’s finally to act even if briefly, ditto Weber.

“Gothic”’s great.

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