Every week in Slate’s American Horror Story TV club, J. Bryan Lowder will have an IM conversation with a different AHS fan. This week, he rehashes episode 2.1 with Slate editorial assistant Katy Waldman.
When American Horror Story wrapped up last season, devotees were left at loose ends: Was the spawn of Vivian Harmon and the ghost teenager Tate really the Antichrist? Would the Beetlejuice-like attempts of the Harmon family to scare off prospective homebuyers really keep new families from suffering the same violent fate that they had? Show creator Ryan Murphy has ensured that we’ll never know, because with Season 2, AHS has undergone a complete makeover, featuring a new storyline and cast of characters (though many of the actors, including Lange, return). We’re not even in a haunted Los Angeles house anymore, but instead the Massachusetts asylum of Briarcliff. And what insanity is Sister Jude housing within those antiseptic walls? If last season is any measure, we can expect quite a bit indeed.
J. Bryan Lowder: Good evening Katy, I hope you've recovered from just seeing the painfully wide-eyed visage of Bloody Face! (I'm not sure that I have yet.)
Katy Waldman: It was pretty scary, but the nuns say I'm on the mend.
Lowder: Yep, those asylum check-in procedures are a doozy. Speaking of which, I gather this is your first time visiting the macabre environs of American Horror Story, so I'm very interested in your first impressions.
Waldman: Well, I can see where the "horror" part comes in. I'm not sure I'm feeling the vibe in the same way you do.
Lowder: That's quite all right! But did you find anything redeeming about the show's break-neck ride from aliens to serial-killers to lusty nuns?
Waldman: Sister Jude mentioned the 3 Ps that govern her asylum: productivity, prayer and purification. I'd amend that to perversity, pulp and some synonym for "gross" that begins with P.
Lowder: Ha! Let's talk about what most critics (and the Emmys!) agree is successful in the show: Jessica Lange. Do you love her, or do you love her?
Waldman: Ooh deranged nuns. They are my favorite kind.
Lowder: Mine too! I know you didn't see her as the Southern Gothic belle in the last season, but I'd argue that her performances are the glue that holds this show together, as far as that goes.
Waldman: I can't decide whether she's supposed to be sympathetic (lusting after monsignor...another version of illicit love) or pure evil.
Lowder: I loved her hard-scrabble Boston accent and especially that ambivalence you point out.
Waldman: The accent was great!
Lowder: But like you, I definitely feel whiplash about her character so far.
Waldman: What did you make of her line: "I always win against the patriarchal male”? Which she followed by licking her lips like a snake.
Lowder: I liked it, but I thought her use of the word patriarchal sounded out of place. At least to my mind, that would be an academic or countercultural kind of word in the 60s.
Waldman: Me too! The line seemed jarring. It made me wonder whether it was supposed to stand out. I thought maybe the show was clueing us into some of its symbolism. Like, she's some elemental female evil to complement the doctor's male devilry.
Lowder: Hmm, possibly. But I think you're sharp to highlight the strange strand of feminism that runs through this episode. Aside from that comment, we also have her sparing a rather silly young nun from punishment when the girl calls herself dumb. She says: “Don’t ever call yourself stupid” and lets her go.
Waldman: That's really interesting! But I saw that moment as repression of desire. She said she would flog the young nun if she called herself stupid again. And the prospect seemed to excite her, no?
Lowder: Oh that's interesting; maybe I just wanted to see that as a kind of moment of sisterhood. As in: enough men think we're stupid, so let's not do it to ourselves. You're totally right, of course, that there is a strong S/M streak in Sister Jude. The camera lingers on her wardrobe of implements often enough.
Waldman: Well, I think you're right that she could be a (seriously twisted) feminist heroine. She definitely comes across as forceful and passionate in that red lingerie under her habit.
Lowder: Seriously twisted, like everything else in the show! Including especially that blackmail scene of the lesbian couple. While I generally take AHS with a grain of camp, that moment hit home on an emotional register I wasn't expecting. Did you find it convincing?
Waldman: Yes! Lana's partner was one of the purest characters we saw, I thought. It’s interesting that she teaches science.
Lowder: Right, I loved her line about trying to get evolution on the curriculum. I have a feeling that the battle between science and faith will be a main theme of the season. We also have it embodied in the mad scientist character that is clearly creating some kind of mutant creatures in the bowels of the asylum.
Waldman: Yes; I think we’ll be exploring whether or not they’re mutually exclusive for some time.
Lowder: It’s rich territory, but I found some of the dialogue surrounding those encounters between religion and reason to be trite, but, this being the first episode, I think I’ll give it a pass for the time being.
Waldman: You know what I loved most? Those mysterious creatures lurking outside in the woods. Those moments had such a fairytale feel!
Lowder: That's true, they did! I can't wait to find out what they are. What I am not looking forward to is having to see more of the contemporary story starring Adam Levine. I just found that whole thing to be inane and unnecessary; the time shifts in the last season were compelling, but this just felt like an excuse for a cameo.
Waldman: Agreed! As if the episode needed to be more complicated…Do you think they just included it so that they could put a young, beautiful couple through the horror paces? Or was there some other meaning we were supposed to pick up?
Lowder: That's a really good question. My feeling right now is the former, because we always have to eroticism before the killer busts in. The scenario just didn't interest me that much, and by the final scene of the girl getting chased by Bloody Face, I was really annoyed by it. Clearly all the mystery is in 1964, not 2012. It all just felt a little tacked on. But looking for meaning in AHS may be a mistake; I really do think it's all about feeling. Will you be extending your stay at Briarcliff?
Waldman: I'm on the fence! I think it might be a sensibility you ease into in the same way that you're shocked at first by the premise of Dexter, but then you get used to the fact that your golden man kills people. It's just that in Dexter, the adjustment is sort of intellectual, and in American Horror Story, it's all about your emotions. Still, you’ve made a pretty convincing case for sticking around.
Lowder: That straitjacket they have you in must be pretty convincing as well!
Thursday: What other writers and Slate commenters thought about Episode 1.