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 2.12 with Daniel Engber, a columnist for Slate.
J. Bryan Lowder: Hey there, Dan! Welcome to the chat. I understand that you have only recently become a fan of our little show, so I’m particularly excited to hear your thoughts tonight, considering that you’ve experienced both seasons over the course of a few weeks. As we approach the finale next week, I’d love for you to briefly discourse on the relative quality of the two seasons—I have a feeling we both agree that Murder House was somehow “tighter” than Asylum, though, even so, I find it one of the most compelling shows on television. What’s your reading?
Daniel Engber: Yes, I'm like Mena Suvari in Season 1, or Ian McShane in Season 2—a late, brief (but high-octane) addition to the cast of this TV Club. So, yes, let's talk about the house and the asylum. It's really an apples-versus-candy-apples comparison, I think. The new season feels a lot like the old, but coated with an extra layer of gloss and silliness that doesn't always hide the flaws in logic. The glory of Murder House was in its exquisite creation of a world that was both utterly absurd and internally consistent. Asylum is absurd as well, but inside it's a little... crazier.
Lowder: I totally agree: Your apples are a great image. With Murder House, I think that somehow the limits on space—that the action mostly happened within a house, that the ghosts were physically limited to that house, and that the underlying anxiety of the show had more to do with violations of the domestic than with anything supernatural—are what made it "internally consistent," as you said. With Asylum, we are mostly in Briarcliff, of course, and yet there is much more of the external world to grapple with. To mix my metaphors, it's like too much fresh air breaks the dusty spell that the first season so effectively cast.
Plus, there is just so much more stuff going on in this season, which is why tonight's episode, which I found markedly more, hm, languorous, than previous entries, struck me as an odd preparation for the finale. Somehow, the writing here—Murphy’s own hand this time—was more controlled and somber (while also reaching a deeper level of camp at moments). What did you make of that? What do you think it portends for the big conclusion?
Engber: I liked this episode, as it happens. Seems to me that the episodes with Ryan Murphy writing credits tend to be stronger than the others. The show is always in such peril of falling off a cliff, and having all its disparate elements shatter on the ground, that we need a writer with sure feet. Murphy is a mountain goat! I think the Murphy episodes may also have the best one-liners (e.g. "Gumdrop mountain is mine, chickens" and "Why don't you hightail it to the HoJo's across the street"). Which parts of this episode, exactly, filled you with languor-anger? And don't talk about the aliens—I love the aliens!
Lowder: Ha, languor-anger. Well, maybe I should clarify that I didn't dislike the episode (or the aliens!)—I just found it a surprising change of pace. My screening companion commented that it felt like the start of a new season, not the penultimate episode of an ongoing one, and I kind of agreed. However, perhaps that was just due to the jump forward in time, from 1964/5 to 1968/9, I believe. It could also be because we've very rapidly thinned our character herd. We always knew Kit and Lana would be there at the final stand (along with Jude, of course), but the unceremonious dismissal of Grace and Alma tonight left the halls of Briarcliff a little echoey, if you know what I mean. And the Monsignor is gone, so my question is, what malevolent force is left for the final three to go up against?
Engber: It's the force of CHANGE, man—get hip to it. The themes of Asylum really came together for me in this episode, when late-sixties-style Grace was telling Kit why she's not afraid of aliens: They're better than us; they're the future. And then she gets axed by Alma, who doesn't have the heart (we later learn) to live in interesting times. The aliens are everything that's new, and everything that we don't yet understand. Are you afraid of what's to come, or will you embrace it? Will you walk into the light?
Clearly, the aliens are the psychiatrists and priests and nuns of the coming age. Notice how they control who lives and dies—they resurrect. But so does the Monsignor, when he engineers the bureaucratic death of Sister Jude. And so does Dr. Arden, he stops Kit's heart from beating, and then restores him. It makes sense to me—if a weird and psychedelic sense—that we'd end up at the decade's close, in the midst of social change. The world was not ready for Kit's interracial love, nor especially for his polyamory. But those lights are in the sky.
Lowder: I think you may have just provided the best interpretation of the aliens that I've read! To add to your evidence, recall that Dr. Arden descends into his suicidal episode not only because Sister Mary Eunice had compromised her purity or whatever, but also because the aliens' advanced technology had demoralized him, made his own scientific endeavors seem paltry and pointless. He essentially removes himself to make way for the coming CHANGE you mention. I'd also add to your list of changes the fact that 1969—the year we're currently in—saw the summer of the Stonewall rebellion, which is not insignificant to Lana's life and future success. Suddenly the “Sapphic Reporter” goes from totally culturally illegible to merely controversial, which always makes for great book sales, of course.
But where does that leave us with Sister Jude? She has surely undergone a great deal of change herself over the course of this season, but one wonders if she can survive it, at least mentally. Of course, she may not survive at all…
Engber: Yes, where indeed for Sister Jude? Will she make it out of Briarcliff alive, to spend her final days in drunken disillusionment? Or will she find a deeper peace inside, as the rightful Queen of Candyland?
Lowder: We shall see. And what of the Dylan McDermott timeline? My bet is that he's not actually Lana's child, but I have no idea what confronting her in either case will accomplish thematically.
Engber: The modern plot has left me cold from the start. The low point of the season came when Bloody-Face-fils killed the Bloody-Face impersonators: A lame and lazy callback to the re-enactors from back at Murder House. And it hasn't gotten any better. Seeing McDermott with breast milk dribbles on his chin had a certain American Horrific charm, but as for what else he's yet to do... yawn. I just don't care right now.
Then again, my favorite thing about this show is just how wildly unexpected it can be. If you'd talked to me a few episodes ago, I never would have figured that we'd be at a point where—as you said—most main characters are dead, or their storylines resolved, and several years had passed. So who knows?
Lowder: Who, indeed? Well, Dan, this has been a fascinating and enlightening chat. But before we go, can I cajole you to say for the record that provocative thing you said to me offline, about what other "serious" show AHS is better than?
Engber: Sure. For all its nuttiness, American Horror Story has a bolt of purpose running through the story. It makes sense to me on the deeper level (especially in Season 1, where all the weirdo threads came together in a satisfying knot), which is more than I can say for some other cable shows. While I've been binging on AHS, I've also done some catching up with Homeland, and the difference could not be more apparent: Sure, Homeland may be less silly in its particulars, but next to AHS it looks implausible and ridiculous. I'm done with Brody and Carrie Mathison, and all the British actors who try to pass as real Americans, and the bogus, panting plot. No, I'll take Kit and Jude instead, with fake-y Boston accents, battling the devil. They're more believable by far.
Lowder: BOOM. There you have it, folks. AHS > Homeland. Let's hope that bears out next week, when we'll return for one last look at Briarcliff.
Later This Week: Further analysis of Episode 12.
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