We're All Mad Here

After yesterday's Christ-awful terrible cinematic abortion that was See No Evil 2, I felt like we deserved something really, really good today, and boy-howdy, do we have that...


American Horror Story
Season 2: Asylum - 2012
Created by Brad Falchuk & Ryan Murphy

I really enjoyed Murder House, the self-contained first season of American Horror Story.  It was a ghost story (my favorite flavor of scare), bursting at the seams with ghosts and interesting character relations, but there were definitely some nagging narrative weaknesses that suggested either incomplete planning or late-season scheduling conflicts.

The second season's story, Asylum, fixes what was broken and improves everything that wasn't, resulting in one of the finest and most compelling horror stories ever created.  The show's team actually courts disaster by filling it with SO MUCH that it should trip over its own subplots and varied ingredients, and yet it pulls it off masterfully.

Roughly spanning the 60s (with trips back and forth through time) in the asylum at Briarcliff Manor, we have at least three serial killers, two axe murderers, a mad scientist Nazi war criminal, the twisted victims of said mad science,  a sadistic nun, a demon possessed nun, the Angel of Death, and, oh yeah, space aliens.  That's just the boogeymen (and women, to be fair).  To each of those spooks, there's at least one human story attached, and usually more.  Those stories then entwine with one another, creating a tangled web of "I HAVE TO FIND OUT, BUT DON"T LET IT END!" storytelling.

Honestly, this is one of the single best narrative arcs in television history.  Yeah I said it, and I meant it.

Several cast members from season one are back in new roles.  The most fascinating of these is perennial show-stealer Jessica Lange in a radically different and vastly more complex role.  She plays the tough-as-nails Sister Jude, the nun charged with running the asylum, who has turned it into her personal domain.  Lange has played no shortage of Southern belles throughout her career (including season one), so it's a real delight to see her take on the role of a hard-bitten New England nun with a secret past.  As strong as she is as Sister Jude, she really takes it a few more levels up when she ceases to be Sister Jude and suffers her comeuppance.  This was a remarkably complex character whom we despise and then pity, and ultimately mourn. Okay; Jessica Lange.  Now I get it.

It's virtually impossible to summarize the story (stories) without falling into the trap of a breathless "And then that happened, and then she said, and then -- OH YEAH, I forgot to tell you about..." recounting.  Virtually every character has their own story, and roles to play in other characters' stories.  Every time I start to say "In addition to Sister Jude, there's one other key lead" I realize there was another.  Then when I'm prepared to commit to three leads, I recall another major arc that may not have been key, but certainly was significant.  The strength of this storytelling and juggling of characters compels me to mock the failure of Lost to do the same, despite pretending that it did.  Dear producers; Do this.  Not that.

Realistically speaking, there were indeed three primary characters and their analogous structural story lines.  In addition to Sister Jude, there's the brave and bold reporter, Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), unjustly imprisoned at Briarcliff for attempting to expose its corruption, and Kit Walker (Evan Peters) who is also unjustly imprisoned there, believed to be the serial killer Bloody Face.  Shockingly, his alibi that he'd been abducted by aliens doesn't help his case.  Both of their stories are strongly rooted in issues of social justice, which apply strongly to their unjust imprisonment.  Like the best of horror, Asylum deals not only in imagined evils, but in genuine evils, and addresses the human condition through one of our most damning and damaging traits; our fear.

Performances are uniformly good-to-outstanding.  I can't think of a single character that I ever wanted to get off the screen so I could see someone else, and I frequently wanted more or just about everyone.  Perhaps the most tantalizingly brief appearance was the few episodes we got with Ian McShane as the hilarious and menacing Santa Claus killer.

I freely admit that the relatively "up" ending went a long way toward formalizing my enjoyment of Asylum as a whole.  So many characters went through their own personal Hells that it was gratifying to see their struggles pay off.  Not that anyone exactly lived all that "happily ever after" and a lot of good people died along the way.  The end felt both authentically human as well as satisfying the narrative.  We don't see that often on television or (even less so) in horror.  Hell, after Glee, I wouldn't have even guessed that Ryan Murphy was capable of either.

If you have any interest in quality television and/or quality horror... [Shalit] ...you'd have to be completely CRAZY... to miss American Horror Story's Asylum. [/Shalit]

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