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 2.13 (the finale!) with Jen Chaney, former American Horror Story: Asylum recapper for The Washington Post's Celebritology and current freelance writer/Downton Abbey recapper for Vulture.
J. Bryan Lowder: Well, Jen, that’s that. The end of American Horror Story: Asylum. Welcome to the chat. Tonight we witnessed the ending of many things—Briarcliff via Lana’s exposé, of course, but also the lives of the Monsignor, Sister Jude, Jonny (Dylan McDermott) and presumably the rug and upholstery so rudely soiled by the latter’s blood. Still, after the final strains of “Dominique” faded into silence, I was left with a feeling not of loss, but of something like “artistic satisfaction.” Meaning: While I didn’t love everything about this season of AHS, I felt like the show at least presented an coherent vision that was ably wrapped up in this episode.
But before we get to larger questions, I’d just love to hear your initial impressions. Did this ending work for you or leave you hanging?
Jen Chaney: I agree with you that it felt satisfying even though I, too, wasn't totally in love with every element of this "Asylum" season, particularly the past couple of episodes. The finale did raise some questions for me, like: Why is Kit wearing that insane poncho? And: since when does the Kennedy Center Honors dole out its medals to gotcha pseudo-journalists? But at certain moments, I also was incredibly moved by it, particularly the scene where Jude finally let go and gave into Frances Conroy's death kiss. The way she said, "I am not alone" reminded me of Jude's drunken performance of "You'll Never Walk Alone" from the "Nor'Easter" episode, a nice synch-up since that nor'easter figured so prominently into Lana's narrative of events as well. Which raises an important issue I'm curious to get your take on: based on the ending of this episode, did you assume that Lana had made up everything we know about Briarcliff, that all of it was just a story? Because I think it would not be unreasonable to interpret things that way.
Lowder: Ha, yes, that poncho! I suspect we'll never understand some of the fashion choices on this show—Lana's getup at little Jonny's school had me similarly vexed. And I do want to talk about old-Lana's characterization as some kind of low-brow Joan Didion (at least in terms of cigarette posture), but first, to your question: The coda of this episode, when we went back to Lana's initial encounter with Jude at Briarcliff, suggested for a moment that maybe we were going to find out that it was all a confabulation, driven by the young gumshoe's desire to make a name. After all, many people during that period were already aware that asylums were sketchy to the extreme, so the story wouldn't be hard to sell. But I don't know. If that's really meant to be the take-away, it's just sooo Sixth Sense. I choose to believe that it all (mostly) happened.
Chaney: Yeah, there's definitely something in me that rejects the notion that everything about the show was a concoction. This show was about Nazis and aliens and that time Jessica Lange briefly turned her brain into a mental hospital version of Hullabaloo. And dammit, that's all real! Perhaps the more important takeaway comes from Jude's line: "If you look into the face of evil, evil will look right back." In other words, if you're seeking the darker side of human nature, just look in the mirror. Lana became a household name because she was so quick to judge the actions of others, particularly—and for understandable reason—Dr. Threadson. But that sort of attitude can turn a person just as cold as being a psychopath. This whole show, to me, was about the slippery divide between sanity and mental instability and how all of us are capable of sliding back and forth, between the two.
That said, I sort of enjoyed the Didion Lana, especially her partner Marion, a nod perhaps to Marion Crane from Psycho. Turns out her leading lady in life didn't die in the shower after all.
Lowder: Thank the Lord for small miracles! I liked the caricature, too, but my goodness if they didn't lay it on thick—lusting (even journalisitically) after Julian Assange (ew), Sondheim birthday dinner tonight, dear, and an interview with Madoff? With all that, where does one find the time to shop for asymmetrical metallic breast-plate necklaces? But I digress. I like your idea about the thin line between sanity and crazytown, but I also felt like this episode was insistent in driving home some point about AMBITION. The coda we discussed earlier brought into stark relief the similarities between Jude and Lana in that regard, but I'm not sure what moral (God forbid) we're supposed to take away from that point. Like, will striving get you a nice apartment with a well-stocked bar or will it bring you to shooting your estranged son in the face? Can you make heads or tails of that?
Chaney: I'm not sure if I can, but I will try. Because I am AMBITIOUS. In the context in which Jude used the word, I think she meant ambition that's born out of self-absorption and that becomes so all-consuming that it drives one's decisions entirely and with no sense of compassion. The monsignor had all kinds of ambitions within the Catholic Church, for example, aspirations that justified (in his mind) covering up the atrocities at Briarcliff. Lana's ambition came from a noble place—I'll expose all this horrible mistreatment!—but ultimately it morphed into something self-serving that allowed Lana to give herself a pass on truly helping others in need or telling the whole truth about her son. I have to wonder what happened to all those poor souls who desperately needed treatment once Lana "brought down" Briarcliff. I'm also still having a hard time processing why Lana shot Johnny—residual anger at Oliver? The fact that she never wanted him to exist and, by killing him, she got her wish? Or was she punishing herself, putting herself in a position to be imprisoned (or committed yet again) for her sins? I don't know, last I checked, if you confess to having a son in a TV interview and then you kill the kid in cold blood, like, a half-hour later, right before the Kennedy Center Honors, you're probably going to get caught.
Lowder: Oh, I think Lana's too much of a "sleuth" to get caught; she'll just roll up that rug, toss a throe onto that chair and tell Marion she's in the mood for some redecoration. But as to why she did it, that's a great question: Much of this episode was very, shall we say, warm, for a show that has otherwise been a big sticky pile of gruesome. I actually found myself cheered by Jude's final days in the care of Kit the benevolent children of the corn. So I had a sneaking suspicion that at some point before our K-Center interview was over, something appropriately twisted had to go down. And that shot was it—watching the episode here in the office, I may have pushed back my chair and audibly exclaimed "WHAAA?" to the bemusement of my cubicle mates (they've heard a fair amount of that over the season). To put it simply, I think it was just a style thing. She had to take him out, because he had worn shoes on the carpet and turned down perfectly good scotch...or something.
But speaking of Sister Jude-on-the-farm, were you convinced by her Free to Be You and Me sojourn with the kids? As I say, it warmed my heart, but the feminist moments felt a little forced (Maybe Murphy read my essay from earlier this week and changed everything last minute!). But perhaps you were happy to just let Jude rest?
Chaney: I'm not sure I was "convinced" by it. It was unclear to me just how Kit was able to get her out so easily in the first place, for one. My theory about the kids—and this goes back to what I said earlier about the tenuous division between mental stability vs. instability—is that the kids were more capable of seeing Jude's breakdowns and occasional tirades as evidence of a sadder problem. The fact that they embraced her suggested there is hope for breaking the stigma that surrounds mental illness, and for compassion that comes from a holy place not necessarily sanctioned by the Catholic Church. And by that I mean: the aliens. Grace was convinced the kids had special gifts conferred upon them by their contact with the ETs, who they did not find scary at all. As cockamamie as it sounds, I think there's something to that. Dr. Arden told Kit the aliens were involved in eugenics. Maybe the traits they were trying to weed out were the ugly, racist and judgmental aspects of humankind, which is why they swept down and reclaimed Kit, allowing them to create a whole generation of self-actualized, uber-kind individuals. Translation: If aliens eventually show up on this planet and they all look like Evan Peters, you'll know why. And I can assure you that many females who frequently use Twitter will be super-jazzed if that occurs.
Lowder: Ha, I don't doubt it! I'm glad you brought up the aliens, too, because that was my one nag with this finale. I like your pseudo-spiritual interpretation (and Dan Engber's "they represent change" theory before), but I'm still left a little hungry for more of a explanation that what we got. Was their grand experiment really to make pair of professionally successful children who don't blink when Dad disappears? I guess I should be willing to let them be more symbolic, but the sci-fi guy in me wanted more information about their motivations. But it's getting late, so before we go, I'd be jazzed myself to hear any parting thoughts you have about this season as a whole, even as it compares to last season. Both ended the same way, with almost everyone dead, but this time around we have lonely Lana in a bloody living room instead of a ghostly family around a tree. Weighing the two, I'm kind of digging the classical tragedy aspect of Asylum, but maybe other viewers won't agree. I'm rambling. Care to offer a benediction?
Chaney: An assessment, Bryan, yes, but no benediction. I'll leave that to the sisters ... or possibly, Pepper, who may have been the wisest one in the Briarcliff bunch. I think the first American Horror Story was more consistent and created a tension-filled arc that held my attention to the end—I really wanted to know what was going to come out of Tami Taylor's uterus! But I think American Horror Story: Asylum's highs soared higher and were more profound than those in the first season, if that makes sense. We've seen haunted house stories before and we know the tropes, even if AHS gleefully tinkered with them. But even though we've also seen films about nasty mental institutions, AHS: Asylum felt fresher and darker and capable of going to places that, with the Harmon family in tow, the series didn't dare visit. I am still let down that Arden got off so easy—I think I would have felt better if Jude had tossed him in the fire herself. But perhaps that's my Hansel and Gretel complex talking. I am gratified by the fact that, until the truly bitter and bloody end, this series was still making us ask questions of both the absurd poncho-related and truly profound variety. That's the mark of fine, albeit twisted as all hell, television.
Lowder: I couldn't have said it any better. If you can get past the roiling surface, I really believe that AHS, in its exploration of some deep American mythology, is one of most thoughtful shows on television, even if it sometimes gets lost in the murk. I can't wait to visit this universe again next fall, and I hope more viewers will join in then. Will I see you there—wherever "there" is next time around?
Chaney: You sure will. Especially if "there" is in Washington, D.C., where the Kennedy Center is haunted by the Ghost of Bono-Napkin-Sketches Past. Thanks for inviting me to join you today to say a proper farewell to Lana Banana.
Later This Week: Further analysis of the finale.