American Horror Story: Asylum was certainly more ambitious than the show’s first season, now retroactively re-titled American Horror Story: Murder House. The scope of the story was bigger, the production values higher and the characters murkier. And while I personally felt like it wasn’t nearly as scary as the inaugural outing (more on that in a minute), I do think that the show made all the right strides toward developing not only as a series, but also in terms of being taken more seriously than just a gimmick-y horror show that changes stories whenever it gets bored.
Um.. think you've got a little something in your eye there, Sister... nope, still there...
Certainly a major theme of the season was misogyny is all its ugly forms. The repeated number of rapes in this season would have been laughable if it wasn’t disturbing. Lana bore the brunt of most of the anger against women, but Sister Jude saw her fair share as well. And poor Shelly could not have been a clearer message if she was wearing a neon sign instead of the drab jumper and mutation make-up she spent most of her time in. It’s tempting to chalk most of that up to “the times they lived in” and try to remember that this was a period show for the majority of this season, but it felt like more than that was going on. Just like it could be tempting to unravel all these threads into some kind of statement about religion or the Catholic church’s oppression of minorities, women, homosexuals and anyone it didn’t agree with, but then the corroborating evidence never seemed to arrive.
Which may well be the main takeaway of the season – the subplots that never really plotted. When aliens first showed up at the beginning of the very first episode, I was honestly not surprised. AHS is a series that will throw literally anything to the wall to see if it sticks, so aliens were actually almost quaintly conventional. But what did they do? We never got what they were after and we never learned anything about them other than that they apparently had nothing better to do with their time than muck about with Kit’s life. Likewise, why did Arden’s Nazi past matter so much if we never got anything for it other than the parallels between the Nazi internment camps and the Asylum itself and returning theme of the inmates, including those woods zombies, as chattel in either case?
I was legitimately creeped out by the second episode “Tricks and Treats” when the possessed boy was brought to the asylum for an exorcism. Exorcisms and possession scare the daylights out of me (blame my Catholic upbringing) and when I saw that demon possession was going to a component of this season, everything clicked for me. The 1960s was probably the last great era of Catholicism in the United States and so to pair that timeframe with a demonic possession story seemed inspired to me. But then, that pesky little devil never really did anything other than get the best one-liners and generally make Sister May Eunice one of the most fun characters to watch. Much like the aliens, it felt a little like the demon’s heart just wasn’t really into this story.
It leads to the question of what really is horror, especially on a television series? True to promises made last summer before the season aired, this season was completely ghost-less, a remarkable turnabout from the parade of endlessly horny poltergeists in Murder House. Asylum’s horror was much more rooted in how frightening average, normal people can be all on their own, which is probably why the alien and possession subplots fell so flat and why watching Lana’s transition from Intrepid Girl Reporter to rag doll abusee to eventual Living Moral Ambiguity Machine was so interesting. The entire question gets summarized nicely in the end of course, as Sister Jude not-so-subtly reminds the viewers of the very Nietzsche-esque message of the season - when you stare into madness, madness stares back at you.
Is it a mirror? Is it a reflection? Is it an album cover?
A final takeaway, though an obvious one, is that Jessica Lange continues to rock every single scene she finds herself in. I don’t know if an established career actress can ever legitimately be said to be the breakout star of a show, but if that’s possible than that’s what Lange has done in two seasons. Her award-winning depiction of Constance the fading southern belle was every bit as memorable as the harsh, demented but ultimately sympathetic Sister Jude. Given enough time, American Horror Story may be able to run an effective season without Lange, but thankfully it doesn’t have to just yet.
Speaking of which, it’s never too early to ponder what we might see from season three, premiering in just a scant seven months. Here’s what we know so far:
First, several veterans will be returning for the next season including Lange, Francis Conroy (Old Moira, the Angel of Death), Sarah Paulson (Lana), Evan Peters (Kit, Tate), Lily Rabe (Sister Mary Eunice) and Taissa Farminga who played Violet in season one. Kathy Bates (Misery) has also been announced as a main character based on someone who was apparently real. As is now practice for the show, creator Ryan Murphy says that he has dropped a hint as to next season’s story and location in this year’s episode “The Name Game”. Given the jukebox playing “I’ve Put A Spell On You”, speculation is leaning strongly toward witches being a theme next season. Murphy has also said that he wants to get back to the “evil glamour” aspect of the show, which bodes well not only for Jessica Lange never having to wear a habit again, but also serves as a possible hint itself.
Call yourselves warned, people. You’ve got seven months to stitch together your Pillow of Fear in preparation.