FX series American Horror Story is back for a second season, with Asylum. Some of the actors from the first season have returned, notably Jessica Lange who stars as Sister Jude, the autocratic administrator of Briarcliff Sanitarium. The setting has moved from (mostly) modern day urban California to (mostly) New England in the sixties, but the show remains thoughtful, gruesome and creepy.
As the series opens, plucky reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson) scams her way into Briarcliff, pretending to do a story on their bakery. What she really wants to talk about is Kit Walker (Evan Peters), who is accused of being vicious serial killer Bloody Face. Frustrated by the iron Sister Jude, Lana blackmails innocent Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) into sneaking her in. This doesn't end well, and soon Lana has been committed herself, for "treatment" of her lesbianism. It looks like she may be saved by the intervention of the upright Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto), but then again, pretty much everything you see at Briarcliff isn't what it seems.
As the show progresses through its thirteen episodes, we come to know more about the residents and staff at Briarcliff: the stern Dr. Arden (James Cromwell), who conducts twisted, and often fatal, experiments on the inmates, and may or may not be a Nazi war criminal; Grace (Lizzie Brochere), who murdered her family with an axe; Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes), whose lust for power, and desire to change the world, cause him to overlook the more unsavory aspects of the asylum he supposedly runs.
One of the things that the producers of American Horror Story: Asylum do very, very well is that they force the viewer to evaluate and reevaluate the characters constantly. Those who begin as sympathetic and decent, may decline into wickedness and evil, while those we started out thinking of as villains gain our sympathy over time. As Solzhenitsyn said, the line between good and evil cuts across every human heart, and these folks know it, and are interested in showing us the whole person. That's not to say that there aren't clear goodies and baddies, it's just that the mixture of each has to be reassessed as we move along.
Below is a list of episodes, with synopses as provided on the discs:
Episode 1: Welcome to Briarcliff
Episode 2: Tricks and Treats
Episode 3: Nor'easter
Episode 4: I am Anne Frank Part I
Episode 5: I am Anne Frank Part II
Episode 6: The Origins of Monstrosity
Episode 7: Dark Cousin
Episode 8: Unholy Night
Episode 9: The Coat Hanger
Episode 10: The Name Game
Episode 11: Spilt Milk
Episode 12: Continuum
Episode 13: Madness Ends
Season 2 stacks up pretty well to Season 1. The tension is still there, and the disturbing imagery and themes. Season 2 does tend to go more quickly to the sexual deviancy angle, which comes off a little bit as a quick win at the expense of more subtle disturbance. And there are a few plotlines that are very reminiscent of ridiculous and trashy seventies horror films (the Christmas themed episodes in particular). But these are relatively small quibbles.
The performances are exceptionally good. Jessica Lange particularly is transcendent as the compassionless yet earnest nun. She struggles with her past, but undergoes at least two complete reversals, and is utterly believable at every turn. Lily Rabe as the innocent Sister Mary Eunice who is corrupted by a demon is also quite good. We completely believe the naïve and soft spoken Mary Eunice, and yet Rabe throws herself so completely into the possessed version that the transition doesn't seem forced or artificial. The show also has several really great guest appearances: Franka Potente as the woman who believes she is Anne Frank, Chloe Sevigny as the sex crazed Shelley, and Ian McShane as the Christmas obsessed serial killer are all evocative and fun. And, of course, Zachary Quinto turns in an even better performance than the previous season, the nature of which I won't reveal since it would give away important plot points.
The look of Asylum is also well executed and has a strong feeling of solidity and reality, even though it is shot almost entirely on constructed sets. It's visually interesting and Briarcliff truly becomes an additional character, adding significantly to the feelings of disquiet.
American Horror Story: Asylum is a worthy successor to the first season. It is somewhat less coherent thematically, but deals head on with such cultural issues as interracial marriage, the treatment of the mentally ill, social views of homosexuality, and a lot more, in an organic and thoughtful way. And it's pretty frightening and disturbing. Highly recommended.
What is American Horror Story Asylum
Welcome to Briarcliff Manor