Warning for a graphic screenshot
The Washingtonians was the 12th episode of the 2nd season of The Master of Horror. It was directed by Peter Medak, who doesn’t have the most notable directing career of the people involved with this show; he did, however, direct the masterpiece The Changeling. So his filmography overall might not stand out to those that aren’t the most devoted of fans, he does have a few things sprinkled in that average horror fans will recognize. The Washingtonians is without a doubt one of the episodes that leans much more into horror-comedy rather than straight horror. While it is not the silliest episode, it is up there.
The episode follows Mike Franks and his wife and daughter as they move into the home of his deceased grandmother. One day while playing, Mike’s daughter finds an alarming picture of Washington, behind which Mike finds a disturbing letter supposedly written by the founding father and a fork made from bone. He tells a family friend about this, only for that friend to get uncomfortably insistent on Mike handing it over. Mike refuses, and things start to snowball. Throughout the course of the episode, Mike uncovers that Washington was actually a brutal cannibal who would murder his own men for meat and delighted in eating the flesh of natives and redcoat supporters, especially their children. The Washingtonians are a group of people who like to dress in period costumes, and while trying to hide the true nature of Washington, also honor that same nature, you know, by being cannibals themselves.
This episode is… interesting. On the one hand, I appreciate that it is clearly trying to be a bit of an anti-propaganda piece. Mike is someone who believes that most people are blind to the truth, and while what we are exposed to is made up, there does seem to be a bit of self-awareness in saying, “the founding fathers are not all we made them out to be.” The cannibalism taboo is a powerful one so putting forward the notion that Washington was one and a cold-blooded killer at that is pretty intense.
The problem I have, though, is that it’s also a bit pro-propaganda itself. Picking something so extreme is effective at terrifying the audience and making us shudder, but it also sort of hides the nature that there were actually terrible things about Washington; they just weren’t that. It’s sort of this weird dichotomy where it ends up being both, so it doesn’t fully succeed at either. It just leaves me with an overall dissatisfied feeling at what could have been an interesting point about the nature of our heroes of history.
The episode itself is also pretty tongue-in-cheek, which ends up being entertaining but softening any real attempts at a message. The Washingtonians themselves are so goofy and over the top that they end up more hilarious than frightening, at least mostly. The cannibalism scenes are pretty intense and brutal, and again it is an effective way to terrify most people. This episode leans more into the Texas Chain Saw Massacre style cannibalism, where the scenes are raw, messy, and violent. They are good and well done and fit with the goofy nature of the cult as a whole. However, I also think given that they dress up and pretend that they are experiencing something that only the best do, I think going more White Glove Society from Fallout New Vegas might have fit better. While cannibalism in all forms is sure to freak me out (it’s actually one of the types of horror that bothers me the most), I think there is an added creepy element when it is treated like a classy experience instead of an animalistic one. But given the overall tone of the episode, the right choice was probably made.
The episode also has fairly decent pacing. Mike starts to go through a few stages ranging from total disbelief to even the sight of people in town eating meat terrifying him. I will say that the first time the Washingtonians make their appearance does seem a bit early, if not a bit too much. It is a rather huge moment, but then the family is left alone until the climax, which feels… off. It is the only part that really disjoints what is overall a nice episode that plays out well. It manages to build, even with the time restrictions, and the final dinner scene is pretty awful, in the best possible way.
The episode also ends on a really odd note. The family is put into hiding while the news about Washington is spread, and George Washington is replaced by George Bush on the one-dollar bill. It’s a sort of attempt at an ironic ending, especially from a show that has had some pretty openly anti-Bush sentiments, but I think it rounds back to undercutting what could have been a good anti-propaganda message. It also feels a bit hamfisted, but that could be just as much due to the show overall not aging perfectly.
So bottom line? This is not my favorite Master of Horror episode, but not my least favorite either. It has some interesting moments, and again the cannibalism taboo is always a strong horror note. Still, I felt that it failed to be anything more. It’s kind of a goofy episode that, while entertaining, doesn’t manage to do much with what could have been a compelling plot and attempted message. It’s sort of the nature of the beast with this whole collection, though. Each director had their own purpose with their episode, so it depends on what you, the viewer, want. If you want a slightly goofy episode featuring some creepy cannibals, well, here you go. If you are looking for more outright scary or strong messaging, there are better episodes in the series for you.