The article below contains spoilers for the second season of “American Horror Story.”
“Asylum,” the second season of Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk’s FX anthology series “American Horror Story,” began with a garish crescendo of sex and gore and ended with quiet, dark tenderness. It wasn’t a direction one might expect from the show, which last year seemed to only charge forward at a wild-eyed, erratic lurch, nor one that you’d think to find coming from Murphy, whose TV work has showcased a exasperating willingness to throw out internal logic and consistent characterization to chase the impulse of the week.
But this season of “American Horror Story” has managed an unlikely and moving overarching vision of how the victimized deal with the systems mistreating them, whether by trying to forget them, internalizing them, embracing them or being forever shattered by them. Sometimes it was outrageous camp and sometimes it felt more like outsider art, but it was like nothing else on TV — because where else are you going to see Chloë Sevigny transformed into a mutant amputee?
“Asylum” began with a pair of modern day horror fans (played by Adam Levine and Jenna Dewan-Tatum) getting frisky and then getting violently attacked in the abandoned remnants of Briarcliff Manor before flashing back to the terrors that made the place so notorious. Alcoholic nuns, demonic possession, amputations, coat hanger abortions, demented microcephalic inmates, Nazi doctors experimenting on patients, serial killers who made masks out of the skin of his targets, aliens and angels of death — there were seemingly no limits to the show’s exploitation feverishness, as seen when it introduced first a housewife who claimed to be Anne Frank (Franka Potente) and then a murderous Santa played by Ian McShane (for the holidays, you know?).
But by last night’s season finale “Madness Ends,” written by Tim Minear and directed by Alfonso Gomez-Rejon, so much of the supernatural had faded away like a bad dream, and what was left were a group of people dealing with the aftermath of trauma, with surviving something terrible and trying to go on in a world filled with other who had no idea of the suffering and subjection the characters had experienced. The bulk of the show had been set in 1964, but by the last few episodes years had passed and counterculture had emerged, the civil rights movement was in full swing, and old structures were being challenged or brought down.
It was no accident that so many of the characters in show were representative directly or indirectly of an oppressed group — they were gay, like Lana Winters (Sarah Paulson), or in an interracial relationship like Kit Walker (Evan Peters), or bullied like Sister Mary Eunice McKee (Lily Rabe), or a strong woman at a time when there was no easy place for such a thing, like Sister Jude Martin (Jessica Lange), or actually mentally ill, like the patients who lingered in the backdrop and who Lana eventually came to advocate for.
It’s not that all the genre trappings that defined the show’s beginnings turned out to be metaphors, though some of them, like the aliens, grew to work best in that way, as frightening but potentially hopeful images of a very different future. But they faded in importance as AHS came to and end and revealed that all along it wasn’t just a festival of exaggerated evil in all its outrageous forms but an exploration of how people live with and sometimes come to enforce cruelty. When we revisted the scene in which a man was gored in the first episode, on the other side of the door we finally see not a legendary monster but an unhappy would-be psychopath listening to an audio book.
While the show’s patriarchal figures in power, the men of science and of religion that were the oblivious or willfully heartless Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) and Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes), were blithely sure of their place, it was Sister Jude who was the enraged, conflicted participant in the system that also kept her down. In her desire for power and recognition, for the promise of following her object of desire Howard to Rome, she made herself complicit and sadistically controlled the asylum’s population, keeping them in line until others conspired against her and she ended up getting committed herself. It was Jude who enabled the show’s moment of grace in the finale, as Kit, the boy she’d tormented and almost had sterilized, retrieved her from a Briarcliff that had since been handed over to the state and brought her home to live with him and his children for a brief but poignant interlude.
Kit’s forgiveness of Jude was the break in the cycle of abuse the show followed, a type of horror that was different from the more lurid tropes that ended up on screen. It represented an act of letting go his wife Alma (Britne Oldford) wasn’t capable of, as she proved when she took an axe to her unintended sister spouse Grace (Lizzie Brocheré) when the latter wouldn’t stop talking about their extraterrestrial abductors. And it was one that Lana only came around to too late, after she gave up the son fathered by her rape by Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) — a choice she regretted, and that led to the boy growing up to follow in his daddy’s footsteps, her choices coming around to haunt her in a way she was painfully prepared for.
“You know he’s the asshole, right? You should report him!” she fruitlessly tells her young son the one time she tracks him down, after rescuing him from a bully. But in the commiserative world of “Asylum,” those systems can’t be counted on for protection — they’re often used by those in charge to maintain the status quo at the expense of those kept down by it. Individuals in power stay in power, and those without power are far too easily wronged.
Lana, guided as she has been by ambition and self-aggrandizement, manages the series’ other act of redemption when she heads back to a Briarcliff now plagued with more mundane types of terror and exposes the conditions inside to the world, closing it down as she’d promised before. And even with the speaking out, the present day is far from perfect — note the sharp edge of the moment when the reporter interviewing Lana mentions how they’d agreed her partner wouldn’t appear on camera.
It was crude, it was disgusting, it was outlandish and silly and occasionally tasteless, but “Asylum” was also kind of a beautiful thing underneath the human skin mask, and it had a cast that managed to carry the story from its outsized beginnings to that surprisingly poignant end — with Lange as the MVP in going from scenery chewing to a lovely last scene when meeting up again with Frances Conroy’s angel of death. Murphy may be a small screen force with maddeningly scattershot tendencies, but the closing coherence of this season marks him as also one to be reckoned with.