First things first: Lin Shaye. The showrunners behind American Gothic would be smart to keep Lin Shaye, who plays Madeline Hawthorne’s scam-artist waitress mother, in every episode from here on out. We shouldn’t hold our breath, but the veteran character actress who began as a colourful bit player in the Farrelly Brothers’ comedies and then found a place in elevating Jason Blum-produced chillers is a welcome presence here. Shaye aside, Episodes 5 (The Artist in His Museum) and 6 (The Chess Players) offer up a few juicy revelations to push the story-lines along and more DNA tests than you could shake a stick at. Logic be damned, one can’t really accuse American Gothic of being boring.
Last time we were with Garrett Hawthorne, his date with Christina was about to turn fatal, or at least it seemed that way. Conveniently, Garrett is interrupted by her dog walker just as he may use the possible Silver Bells Killer belt. Meanwhile, Madeline received a letter in the last episode, demanding she pay a visit to the sender. As it turns out, it’s Madeline’s mother Lila (the terrific Shaye), who makes a living as a waitress at a diner and stealing from customers but lives in a trailer and has a problem hitting the bottle. Madeline has been paying off her mother to stay away from her grandchildren, and while it seems to actually pain Lila a bit this time, she takes the doubled amount to keep her distance.
The main focus of this episode, though, is Cam. Since he is a main suspect in the SBK case, Cam finally tries to detox with his siblings’ help. Suffering major withdrawals, the junkie begins hallucinating and seeing the ghost of his father and someone dragging a body down the stairs. As Detective Cutter makes her rounds to interrogate members of the Hawthorne family about Cam’s whereabouts, she makes a stop at the household, pounding on the door as Garrett and Tessa keep Cam hidden. While another DNA test comes back to prove Cam is innocent, the blood on the belt is still familial. Uh-oh.
In the final analysis of this episode, Lin Shaye is still the MVP, and Cam’s hallucinations are actually creepily executed and strive to be disturbing enough for a network TV show. On the less compelling side of these story-lines, a millennial campaign staffer threatens to blackmail Alison and Naomi, as she has seen them burning the midnight oil and getting cosy.
Episode 6 (“The Chess Player”) begins with Alison’s mayoral debate, where the news gets out that the DNA on the belt is connected to her immediate family. Cue the stirs in the audience. Next thing we know, the Hawthorne clan is getting swabbed in their house by the cops and quirky DNA analyst Dana (who pointed out to co-worker Brady that her name is “only one letter away from DNA”). This leaves room for some family in-fighting, pointing fingers and Madeline forcing her children to sit down at the table for a questionable dinner. Finally, Madeleine demands they stay strong because they’re Hawthornes, dammit.
Around the margins, more plot threads stack up. Alison and Naomi’s relationship is getting more serious, and Alison’s husband knows it’s more than just heavy petting, tricking Naomi to meet her in the yard of the family estate. Alison finds a copy of her father Mitch’s favorite book Wuthering Heights, but instead of skimming passages about Catherine Earnshaw and Heathcliff’s destructive passion, she finds a few incriminating secrets about Daddy. When Alison and her siblings consult mommy dearest, Madeline confesses yet another secret: she had an extramarital affair that ended deadly when Mitch beat up his wife’s lover and dragged his body down the stairs.
From there, Tessa finds Garrett’s medication prescribed to him by a “Christina Morales.” This alerts Brady, who realizes Christina is the daughter of the SBK’s last victim and that Garrett might have kidnapped her. As the cops go on a manhunt for Garrett and Christina, the two are out on a camping trip—or a picnic?—in the woods. When Garrett goes to fetch something, Christina is approached by three men who most likely pose less of a threat than her date. Like a knight in shining armor with a hunting knife, Garrett comes to threaten the “predators,” while Christina leaves and listens to a message from Brady. The message warns her that Garrett is a suspect. This understandably unsettles Christina, who blames Garrett for killing her father. They have a scuffle and one of them is stabbed. When Brady comes to the woods, he finds Christina with blood that belongs to Garrett. The real kicker of this episode is the final reveal after the hundredth DNA test comes back — after all of this, Mitch was the Silver Bells Killer. Or was he?
American Gothic treats the viewer like a yo-yo most of the time, but it’s never not a divertingly twisted and twisty whodunit. Does it always play fair with the audience? Not always, but there is enough trashy amusement to forgive the nitpicks. The show has increasingly found its MVP in the messy-haired Justin Chatwin (Showtime’s Shameless), who has a great wit about him as Cam even as he struggles to get clean. Only 11 years old, Gabriel Bateman could also be his generation’s Haley Joel Osment with his demented turn here as Cam’s death-obsessed son Jack, as well as his recent work on Showtime’s “Outcast” and big-screen role in late-summer horror film “Lights Out.” What’s most refreshing about this classily lensed family-secrets soaper is that it holds no pretensions whatsoever; it’s not really about anything more than sordid mysteries. Episodes 7 and 8, here we come.