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 2.4 with June Thomas, Slate's culture critic.
J. Bryan Lowder: Hello June! I hope you're warm and cozy and safe on this snowy evening in New York. We cannot say the same for the poor residents of Briarcliff, inmates and wardens alike. How are you holding up?
June Thomas: I am in a state of deep perturbation and confusion. I'm also determined to stay away from slide shows. This was my first exposure to AHSA—and I'm kind of hooked. It's not what I was afraid it was like. It's a big puzzle!
Lowder: A very big puzzle indeed! And while I know you aren't caught up with all the pieces we've gathered thus far this season, I can assure you that an impressive number of new ones were revealed tonight. Dr. Arden's background as a Nazi scientist was strongly suggested, and we got back-stories of various levels of trustworthiness from Kit, Grace, and, the strangest addition of all, ANNE FRANK. Tell me, how did that turn strike you?
Thomas: Intriguing. It's on the edge of offensiveness, but there was a certain boldness in her appearance. You can't use Anne Frank in a sexy horror show—unless you're really willing to take on taboos. Though, of course, it's not as taboo as if Anne Frank had been in any way flawed, which she doesn't seem to be ... yet. And I love Franka Potente. She had a terrible role in the BBC America show Copper, and I was slightly despairing. But more important, how did it seem to you?
Lowder: At first, I was certainly a little circumspect, but the inclusion of such a knowing character in the mix was wonderful. To have someone just drop in who seems to know all of Arden's secrets was very satisfying. And, in any case, I have a feeling we'll find out that, though she probably was at Auschwitz, she's not actually THE Anne Frank.
Thomas: There are such potentially interesting issues brought up by seeing the past through contemporary eyes. The treatment of Lana seems so horrific (though of course the pray the gay away types still use variations on that aversion/conversion nonsense), but at the time I am guessing it would have seemed like a kindness to save her from a life of decadence and misery.
Fortunately, the Holocaust—and the presence of war criminals—is an example of something Anne Frank can scream about, and we AND the people of the 1960s know that if it's true it's repellant and needs to be addressed. I doubt anyone would investigate Lana's case if she ever was able to share it. Not that the two examples are the same, but it’s a reminder that while some things have always been recognized as repellant, others appear differently in different eras.
Lowder: That's a great point, and I think that lack of empathy on the part of Lana's 1960s world is what makes her situation the scariest to me. Not only in terms of the misguided and inhumane therapy tonight, but also just in her slow descent from smart, ambitious journalist to maybe really crazy person, only because of the stress she's under. Murphy has said that the non-supernatural elements of this season were meant to be the scariest, and it's working on me, particularly because I'm a fellow "invert."
Speaking of which, I can't decide if I think Dr. Threadson is a member of our clan as well. His little line tonight about seeing something of himself in Lana and feeling like they both have something to contribute in spite of the injustices of the system set off my gaydar just a little.
But I could be confusing Zachary Quinto with his character. What do you think?
Thomas: Exactly—and again, even in our enlightened times (in which even referenda approving something as conservative as marriage is approved so narrowly and seems like a major triumph), there's something very powerful about the picture of her lover. Even today many of us have experienced that fear of being "discovered" (even if we're out in other circles) and having something that means something intensely personal and joyous be used as evidence against us.
And I got the same vibe, but you're right, it's impossible to let go of the knowledge that out gay and lesbian actors are playing the roles. But even in my short exposure to the show, I already have a sad suspicion that Threadson might be playing with her. Thread son ... son of the man who sews up ... whatever is going on in the super-scary room.
Lowder: HA, now that's a theory I had not considered. Arden has been keeping some monsters out on the ground surrounding Briarcliff, and tonight, we saw up close the newest member of his brood. Shelley looked truly grotesque, like in Alien: Resurrection, when Ripley finds that botched clone. I'm not sure I think Arden and Threadson are connected, but I do have a feeling his plan next week to save Lana will tragically fail. In terms of the ghastly ghouls on this episode, how did you feel? Did they actually scare you? Some people have criticized this season for not providing enough chills…
Thomas: No ... and I'm grateful for that. Fear of how frightened I'd be was the reason I hadn't ever watched the show. Now I know I can handle it. And the things that really scared me—that got me worrying about the fate of fictional creatures, because I knew how scared I'd be in their positions—were the medical threats. Sister Jude's threat to sterilize Kit and Grace, and my worst imagining of how Dr. Threadson might use Daniel to convert Lana. And I think that was because doctors and religious authorities still have power that reason sometimes can't appeal to.
Lowder: That is a very astute reading that I hadn't quite verbalized myself, but which is totally spot on. Almost all of the fear in this season comes from powerlessness: against the church, the state, the medical establishment. (I'm sure we can expect some Foucauldian academic explications in the next few years.) And perhaps more than that, how much the show highlights the fact that those in power are either hapless, sadistic, or just corrupt. When the Monsignor is collaborating with chief Nazi physicians, where can you turn?
Thomas: Right! And even if you're not evil, you might just be weak. As the mother superior told Sister Jude, "God loves to test us. He loves to see us triumph," but there must be some failures along the way, too. I was struck by the relatively subtle introduction of some what you might call texts for study, too. Mad Men is always doing that—showing book titles or quoting lines from something to send the obsessives looking for clues. Even as the show was still airing, I was looking up to words to “Dominique.” There aren't very many, but they're all about wandering the world talking only of the Lord.
Lowder: YES, I know you didn't see this, but an earlier episode featured an early edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Sister Jude made Julia's Coq Au Vin.
Thomas: Ha! And Lana was trying to remember "Mending Wall." Which is about keeping people in their places, I guess. Or building fences out of habit instead of need. Actually, I don't quite know what it's about, but I can imagine pondering it (or, if I were of a more academic bent, folding it into my dissertation!).
Lowder: Well, it's getting late, and I need to fold into bed, but I take it you may be joining us at Briarcliff for the remainder of this season?
Thomas: I think I will. I'm a fan of Ryan Murphy's work, and now that I've dipped my toe in, I feel safe to take the full plunge.
Lowder: I'm pleased to hear it! Just don't get to feeling too safe—Arden’s bound to need new subjects soon!
Thursday: What other writers and Slate commenters thought about Episode 4.