I loved the first season of American Horror Story. Let’s just begin with that. I thought Jessica Lange deserved the Emmy and Golden Globe. Evan Peters was robbed by not getting any nominations for "Best Crying." (I’m working off the presumption that if this was an actual category, it would just go to Claire Danes for Homeland.) I even have a sketch of Tate Langdon crying above my bed. That is how into American Horror Story I am.
I was so amped up for the second season that I must have watched those creepy promos a million times. Scary nuns! Straight jackets! M.C. Escher staircases! American Horror Story looked at shows like Twin Peaks and True Blood and correctly realized that it’s impossible to keep audiences both terrified and invested in the characters after season 1.5, so they are making each one a self-contained narrative, with it’s own cast. But since Lange and Peters did such a good job last time around, they were hired to play two new main characters. You can pretty much imagine the state I was in last night for the premiere.
Still, I had my fears. I had my hand-wringing concerns. I was uneasy about American Horror Story’s propensity for straight homages to other scary movies, sometimes at the cost of the series’ own plot. Last season, this predilection gave the show some of its strongest themes—like the whole Rosemary’s Baby thing—but also contributed to its weakest moments. (Two thirds of the second episode was spent literally remaking The Strangers, with a couple Funny Games allusions thrown in for good measure.)
Luckily, this doesn’t seem to be the case in the new American Horror Story, which is set in a Boston mental institution in the 1960s. Except wait! Last year, the premiere began with a flashback to the ’70s. And as we begin our delve into the heart of darkness this year, we start in the present day… a flash-forward. Did American Horror Story just give itself a masturbatory self-homage? Very clever.
A little less clever, however, is the couple we are introduced in this cold open: Mrs. Channing Tatum (Jenna Dewan) and the guy with the douchey tattoos from The Voice. That’s right, Adam "Smugface" Levine is (finally?) flexing his acting chops. He’s a horny newlywed who has agreed to the world’s creepiest honeymoon: his wife wants to go have sex in the biggest haunted attractions in the country. And it just so happens that the now-abandoned Briarcliff Manor for the Criminally Insane happens to be their last stop. "So…this is goodbye," indeed. (Alternate joke: He should "move like Jagger out of there!") Instead, they fuck on an operating table.
Mrs. Tatum explains that in 1908, Briarcliff was the largest tuberculosis ward in the East Coast, which is already super scary because no one wants to die like Nicole Kidman in Moulin Rouge. Mid-century, the Catholic Church bought the property and turned it into a state-run mental institution. Still, the "death chute" used to funnel bacteria-infested bodies got to stay, because it slipped everybody’s mind that a building that would be housing the CRIMINALLY INSANE should probably not come equipped with its own escape tunnel to the outside world.
Also, fun fact: Among the residents of the Briarcliff was the infamous BLOODY FACE, a serial killer who skinned his victims alive. When Adam Levine hears about BLOODY FACE, he gets so scared that his arm falls off. (Hopefully it was the tattooed arm.)
Mrs. Tatum tries to act scared now that they are trapped inside, not having sex. And they are stuck in the abandoned sanitarium with whatever scared Adam’s arm off. There’s only one way out, and it’s tuberculcious! She’ll really need to Step Up now! (Alternate joke: Too bad she didn’t take The Vow of silence before coming up with this terrible Honeymoon idea!)
CACHA! CACHA! SHZZZZ! (That’s my impression of the opening credits, feel free to make your own phonetic guesses.)
Now we are in 1964, and some jerk is having his gas pumped by a snappy youth. The guy is complaining about how it cost three whole dollars to fill up his tank. It’s supposed to be one of those moments where we role our eyes and tell this guy "You jerk! Three dollars is SO CHEAP! Wait till the future!" The problem is, three bucks is actually an insane price for gas in 1964.
Even though he has a right to be mad at the gas price, he loses our sympathy when throws his money on the ground. The poor attendant, good-naturedly suffering what is probably the latest in a long string of gas-related indignities, bends down to pick it up. He straightens up to yell "Drive Safely!" while the camera spins around the reveal…Tate!
Well, not Tate. But Evan Peters, playing some guy named Kit Walker (Pronounced "Wah-kah." Remember, this is a Boston period piece, and Kit sounds like he’s channeling Leonardo DiCaprio’s "duly appointed fehdahral maaaahshal" character from Shutter Island.). Kit doesn’t even care that he has a dumb job, or that his friends are pretty menacing and try to steal his gun within, like, two seconds of showing up at the gas station. Kit isn’t going to let that bring him down, because Kit has a secret. He’s in love! Not just in love, but married! And not just married, but married to a pretty black lady! And it’s 1964, or at least an alternative-reality 1964 where Boston has annexed itself from the north and moved down to the Deep South, where a mixed-race couple is the second worst thing you could be, besides homosexual. (Don’t worry, the show will awkwardly force a lesbian storyline into the pilot as well.)
After awesome sex with his beautiful chocolate bride, Tate sees lights outside and assumes the worst. He grabs his gun and orders Alma to stay inside. Unlucky for him, it’s not his friends or the KKK but ALIENS.
Generally, I don’t find aliens scary, but this whole sequence was terrifying. There were no little green men or slime-covered monsters. Just piercing light, screaming, objects attaching themselves to the ceiling, and a confusing sequence of shots: Kit—now sans wife—is naked, bathed in pure light one second, and then receiving electroshock therapy (presumably) at Briarcliff the next. Guess no one bought his Area 51 story.
But before we can find out what lead up to Kit’s incarceration, we meet the rest of the cuckoo’s nest. Nosy reporter Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson, who played the psychic last season) goes to Briarcliff on the pretense of writing a story about the asylum’s delicious molasses bread (no, seriously) and meets the madhouse. There’s Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe, looking considerably younger and less bitchy than she did last season as the haughty ghost-mistress of Terror House), a prostrating ditz who acts as second in command to the totally dom Sister Jude (Jessica Lange). Jude is an uptight nun who is only lax in the accent department, which comes and goes as the mood (moo-awd!) strikes her. When we meet her, she’s been shaving nymphomaniac Shelly’s head, but stops halfway to take a meeting. (Lucky for Shelly, she’s played by Chloe Sevigny, so the half-bald thing kind of works for her.)
Lana is more interested in the inmates than the cooking. Why was she giving Shelly a totally punk rock Chelsea, when that hairstyle wouldn’t be in vogue for 30 years?
Jude—whose own hair must be wound pretty tight behind that habit, since her skull looks like it is about to burst out of her face—curtly informs Lana that Shelly had been brought to the asylum after being diagnosed by a psychiatrist. "A psychiatrist," she spits, "who gave her a preposterous diagnosis comparing her to a wood nymph." (Get it??)
So, to sum up the scene: the woman running a mental asylum for the CRIMINALLY INSANE thinks that mental illness is just a new-fangled devil’s term for sin. She’s already giving Nurse Ratched a run for her money.
But Jude and her closet full of whips might not even be the worst of the asylum’s staff. The god-fearing woman is rightfully suspicious of the other "head" of Briarcliff, Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell, Babe and Babe II: Pig in the City). Boston’s answer to Joseph Mengele has been performing secret experiments on some of the patients, and has enlisted Sister Mary Eunice as his accomplice in getting rid of the evidence. Sister Jude thinks it’s fishy that Dr. Arden’s "patients" a) all seem to die right on his operating table and b) don’t have any surviving relatives to complain about it. Then they have a fight that goes something like this, where Sister Jude is like "Blah, blah, GOD!"
"Blah, blah, SCIENCE!" says Dr. Arden. "Also, look at this mutant flower I made…with SCIENCE!"
"Blah, blah, Jesus is watching, abomination, blah, blah, blah." Sister Jude takes her leave. She needs to make dinner for her secret crush, the hospital’s Monsignor, Timothy Howard. (Played by Joseph Fiennes, who finally found the role worth to follow up his portrayal of Shakespeare in 1998.) Sister Jude has a dirty little sex fantasy during the meal after the Monsignor says that her cooking belies a decadent streak. Also, she is wearing a sexy red slip under her cloister. What kind of nun is she?
Well, she had a rough day: It turns out Ms. Walker wasn’t interested in molasses bread at all! She used it as a cover for her real story, about BLOODY FACE, who was due to arrive at the hospital that very afternoon. As Sister Jude prissily marches Ms. Walker out of Briarcliff, the reporter locks eyes on the man who allegedly murdered and skinned three women. Hi, Kit!
Kit does not have a good first day in the asylum, because he is tied to a bed and forced to listen to a nun smugly taunt him about his crimes. Later, he meets a hot new friend named Grace, who sneaks him food and allegedly murdered her whole family. She’s got a cute French accent. The two are instant besties.
But even that fleeting pleasure is cut short. Dr. Arden wants Kit for a brain experiment! Which doesn’t seem smart, seeing as the kid is very high profile and about to go to trial, but whatever. I’m not the crazy doctor here, what do I know? Before Kit can get a fun icepick lobotomy, Arden notices a lump in his neck and decides to cut it out. You know, in case it’s treasure or something.
Unfortunately, it’s not treasure, or even candy. It’s a microchip. Of course, no one in 1964 knows what a microchip is, so the two men stare at the thing like it’s about to sprout legs and run away. Oh, wait, there it goes!
Blah, blah, science, indeed!
Nosy Lana wants to sneak back into the mental asylum and break the story about Sister Jude’s inhumane treatments wide open. Her lesbian girlfriend (see??) think that sounds like a great idea, probably because she just finished getting high. Off her marijuana cigarette. Lana finds Sister Mary Eunice scrambling back out of the woods after feeding those monstrosities Arden is taking care of. She blackmails the nun into sneaking her in the asylum through the death chute, whereupon she is immediately attacked by a monster hiding in a supposedly unoccupied room.
This is why you never take advice from your stoned girlfriend.
When Lana wakes up, she finds herself strapped to a bed in Briarcliff, with a nasty-looking Saw-device on her head. Sister Jude thinks Lana is too nosy, and pulled some strings to have her committed. Despite being mentioned in the episode, Sister Jude has apparently never heard of Nellie Bly.
Things look bleak for Lana, and even bleaker for Mrs. Tatum, whom the show cuts back to for the final sequence. Who is that in the chute? Why, it’s BLOODY FACE! Quick, get your husband, who is finding it "Harder to Breathe," and pull out A Guide to Recognizing Your Local Saints.
It looks like you’re going to need it.
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