“Dollhouse” is a decent little story that feels more purposeful after the climax links it back to a classic season of AHS.
This recap of American Horror Stories season 2, episode 1, “Dollhouse”, contains spoilers.
Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s anthology series American Horror Stories was a mixed bag when it debuted last year, delivering a hodgepodge of isolated stories that varied wildly in their quality and connections to the wider mythology. Nevertheless, though, the show is back for a second go-around, the strength of the IP clearly not to be trifled with, and the premiere, “Dollhouse”, is a decent enough little chiller with a pleasing link back to the third season of American Horror Story, “Coven”.
American Horror Stories season 2, episode 1 recap
Here’s the premise: A wealthy, eccentric toymaker – the horror genre has really done a number on that profession, hasn’t it? – interviews young women for a position as his secretary, but ends up kidnapping the overqualified candidates to be dressed up as playthings within his custom-built dollhouse. His latest addition is Coby, who joins a group of fellow “dolls” as they’re forced into chores and entertainment for his entitled son, Spalding. Failure or inadequacy of any kind is punished by mutilation and/or death.
There are all kinds of obvious horror staples here, from dolls to creepy kids, and the escape-room feel of the setting helps to develop tension by emphasizing how trapped the women are and how forward-thinking their captor is. There’s a welcome sense that everyone involved, including Coby, might die, and that’s what you want from a horror story – to buy into the peril.
Where “Dollhouse” differs is by giving Coby psychic powers. They’re relatively unimpressive as such things go, but she uses them to impress Spalding – a creepy kid just looking for some love – and get herself out of a few scrapes. Initially, the purpose of this development is elusive, beyond it being a convenient way for Coby to survive longer than she otherwise might. It’s only towards the end of the episode when Coby’s escape plan has been exposed and she has been forcibly turned into a literal doll, that we learn her abilities are nascent witchcraft. She’s saved from her fate by some fellow witches and taken, along with Spalding, to Miss Robichaux’s Academy for Exceptional Young Ladies.
I like this tie-in, honestly – especially how it provides a kind of origin story for Dennis O’Hare’s Spalding, the academy’s mute butler in “Coven”. Yes, looping back to the most popular spin-off in the franchise after the first season of this anthology was met with a hefty amount of scathing reviews can be read as a bit desperate, but also pretty smart, in its way, and it’s only continuing a precedent set by the first season’s ties to “Murder House”. It also gives what seem to be isolated stories a bit more heft.
And this is just as well since “Dollhouse” isn’t that good, really. It’s fine – it has nice production design, some clever framing, and respectable performances, but little about it felt fresh, frightening, or especially tense. The puzzle-box approach to continuity really works in its favor, and in this golden age of interconnected multimedia storytelling, there’s no reason that American Horror Stories can’t excel in sneakily using its odd tales to flesh out the stories and characters that people actually do like.
You can stream American Horror Stories season 2, episode 1, “Dollhouse” on Hulu.