American Horror Story, Season 2

Appreciating American Horror Story’s Look and Sound
Talking television.
Jan. 11 2013 4:22 PM

American Horror Story, Season 2

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AHS's postmodern beauty.

Barbara Tarbuck as Mother Claudia, Joseph Fiennes as Monsignor Timothy Howard.
Barbara Tarbuck as Mother Claudia, Joseph Fiennes as Monsignor Timothy Howard.

Photo by Byron Cohen/FX.

While most viewers of this week’s episode were probably (and understandably!) distracted by the disturbing fixation on breastfeeding-under-duress, I found myself paying more attention to the visual and aural landscape of Briarcliff—and, judging by the comments on our previous chat post, I wasn’t alone. A number of viewers complained that they were bewildered by the hearty mixture of camera techniques episode director Alfonso Gomez-Rejon brought to the table, which certainly makes sense. But for me, the rich visual vocabulary on screen—from fisheye lenses to long tracking shots to the side-of-head mounted camera on Sister Jude—brought the wonderfully gothic, jittery environment of the asylum into relief to an extent that I had not experienced before.

Indeed, though so much of AHS’s aesthetic appeal emanates from the well-chosen cast and their performances, none of that would really mean much outside of the context of the world that Murphy and Falchuck have created. In the Murder House season, we were treated to a sort of macabre fantasia on American domesticity, all of our hopes and fears metaphorically—and, for the ghosts, literally—confined within one darkened, melancholy home. Asylum works in a similar way, though Briarcliff exists in more of a fugue-state-meets-fever-dream; it’s a place where identities are lost and found, commitments are challenged, and one’s moorings to reality are constantly subject to fraying. There’s somehow more energy here than in Murder House, something black roiling beneath the eyes of the stony icons that makes my skin crawl. It’s the kind of place that makes you look twice, makes you jumpy, makes you doubt your own senses.

The camerawork in this episode matched that mood perfectly. As a visual metaphor for the stupor that “horse tranquilizers” undoubtedly bring on, the head-mounted camera in whose field we saw both part of Jude’s face (most importantly, her darting eyes) and a partial view of her surroundings was inspired. And the perfectly scored tracking shot near the end of the episode, in which we move smoothly from the Monsignor’s office down into the kitchen and finally into the cell block of the asylum (where Jude is being secretly held) communicated the ant-like frenzy of the place—which was all the more compelling because we know that a Lana-sized boot is quickly falling toward Briarcliff with deadly weight.

Aside from the visual work, the score of this episode was also particularly well-curated; as we’ve mentioned here before, AHS does not shy from obviously borrowing notes from the back-catalog of horror movie music. As one commenter helpfully pointed out, the main theme heard a number of times on Wednesday was Philip Glass’s underappreciated score for Candyman. The music is haunted, to be sure, but not scary; there’s a sense of meditative searching, of longing for a lost memory, in the simple, delicate melody.  If the final two episodes are as action-packed as I expect them to be, the (dis)quiet of much of this hour represented a moment of elegy—for all that has been lost in this God-forsaken place and for the violence that will no doubt be required, in the words of the Mother Superior, to “tear it down and salt the earth.”

J. Bryan Lowder is a Slate assistant editor. He writes and edits for Outward, Slate’s LGBTQ section, and for the culture section.