In Season 1 of "American Horror Story," Moira alternates between a youthful, amorous persona and a downtrodden, matronly maid who loathes men. Despite her duplicitous role with plenty of screen time, Moira is primarily a vehicle to illustrate Ben Harmon's weak will and subsequent evolution. His apparent attraction to the older, one-eyed Moira is a novel comedic element. (Poor Violet was surely traumatized by the sight of her adulterous dad sharing a romantic embrace with an elderly gal.) Finally seeing her older form demonstrates his newfound maturity and dedication to his wife.
Unfortunately, Moira's own story is not nearly as powerful because she portrays two extreme caricatures that never quite meld into one rich character. Shelley seems to have a similar problem in "American Horror Story: Asylum." Trapped in an institution and deemed a nymphomaniac by 1960s standards, she could make a bold statement about gender roles, sexuality, and nonconformity. So far, she is as outrageous and perplexing as Moira.
The seductress and matron
While working as a young housekeeper, Moira's male employer attacked her. His wife, Constance, found the couple together in bed and hastily shot them both. Ghostly Moira accepts the role of temptress, using seduction to control the men who see her as an object. Her mission is to get someone to discover her grave and liberate her from the haunted house.
As a ghost, she reclaims the title of harlot, but the younger incarnation of Moira often appears desperate instead of dominant. Her power comes from explicit overtures and wildly provocative clothing instead of some intoxicating allure. Ben is physically attracted to her but harshly rebuffs her seduction attempts. Meanwhile, Constance uses her natural charms to masterfully manipulate men.
Older Moira embodies years of suffering with a weary appearance and lumbering gait. She euthanizes her elderly mother in what should be a very touching scene. Instead, it is a brief and somewhat vexing part of a frenetic Halloween night because viewers know so little about her relationship with her mother.
Moira's loyal friendship with Vivien is a treat, but her story lacks insight into her life and aspirations. Focusing on her perpetual suffering and provocative antics emphasizes her victimization even as she tries to assert her power. Her happy ending finally comes when the Harmons embrace her as a family member, but it is a small triumph, considering her decades of torment.
The unsympathetic nymphomaniac
Like Moira, Shelley often plays the role mistakenly assigned to her. She relishes the chance to taunt Sister Jude and make others uncomfortable with her spicy dialogue. As she tries to seduce Dr. Arden in exchange for a few moments of sunlight, she reveals how she became institutionalized.
She boasts about her misunderstood lifelong penchant for carnal pleasure, including self-pleasure. She found kinship with freethinking jazz musicians and married a bass player. Ultimately, her wedding ring bound her to housekeeping duties while her beloved slept around. When she retaliated by welcoming two sailors into her bed, he sent her to Briarcliff. Shelley lamented that men are never labeled whores and believes her only crime is enjoying sex.
Shelley's confusing blend of extreme personas makes it hard to sympathize with her. One persona is a woman with a sexual appetite so insatiable that her mother covered her busy hands with mittens. Would this nonconformist expect to enjoy a monogamous marriage? The other extreme is a passionate woman seeking love and acceptance during an era of judgment. Her angry tears hint that her husband's cruelty and infidelity drove her over the edge. That scenario would make more sense had she simply committed adultery. Having sex with two strangers in her marital bed is too extreme to evoke repentance from her husband or garner sympathy from others.
Is Shelley merely another outrageous creature in the "American Horror Story" menagerie? Will she grow beyond her supposed malady? Tune in to find out.
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