This article contains spoilers for “I Am Anne Frank (Part 1),” the November 7th episode of “American Horror Story: Asylum.”
In only four episodes, FX’s “American Horror Story: Asylum” has already presented aliens and demons, multiple limbs forcibly amputated or torn off, Nazi doctors, deranged serial killers and mutants living out in the woods. It feels like literally anything could happen on the show, between the genuine frights and the campily over-the-top ones, and anyone could be sane or insane. But in Wednesday’s episode “I Am Anne Frank (Part 1),” in which Franka Potente turned up as Briarcliff Manor’s newest inmate and the show’s most recent wild twist, claiming to be the famous diarist all grown up, a theme has started to emerge from the madness. “American Horror Story: Asylum” may be, as a series, nuts, but it also seems to have an overarching vision in mind about how victims of oppression fight each other instead of the system keeping them down.
Almost everyone at Briarcliff, including some of those in charge, is representative of someone who challenges societal norms of the 1964 era — a member of some sort of minority group. Anne, a survivor of Auschwitz who lashed out at businessmen at a bar when she heard them say “don’t let them jew you down,” is the latest and most obvious example. But there’s also the accused murderer Kit (Evan Peters), who was secretly married to an African American woman. There’s the lesbian Lana (Sarah Paulson), whose lover was blackmailed into committing her with threats of exposure of their relationship. There’s Shelley (Chloë Sevigny), who’s labeled a nymphomaniac but who might just really like sex, and who ended up in Briarcliff because her husband found her in bed with other men. And Grace (Lizzie Brocheré) revealed in last night’s episode that she was imprisoned after killing the father who molested her and the stepmother who gave her candy to keep quiet about it and not break up their family.
Even Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) fumes over the restrictions placed on her because of her gender, snapping at her nemesis Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) that “I’ll always win against the patriarchal male,” but channeling that anger into keeping others in line with the system. And yet the individual abuse that each of these characters has faced at the hands of a society in which they’ve been stripped of power hasn’t given them the urge to work together. Lana knows she’s not crazy, but refuses to believe the same could be true of Kit and acts to prevent him from escaping. Kit’s sympathy for Grace fades when he finds out she lied about her backstory. And Anne isn’t inclined to trust anyone — and given that Arden was apparently an SS doctor who experimented on her fellow concentration camp internees, it feels like she’s earned it.
None of these characters seem all that crazy, but given the choice to accept their alleged deviancy and conform or to possibly remain and die in Briarcliff, they start to doubt themselves. In “I Am Anne Frank (Part 1),” Lana and Kit decided to submit themselves to the care of Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) and Sister Jude, with Lana accepting her homosexuality as a sickness to be cured by a lurid “cutting edge aversion therapy” in which she’s made to throw up while looking at pictures of women, then to masturbate while feeling up a male inmate. Kit, having been told by Thredson that he likely made up the alien story to cover up his guilt over killing his wife, an act he was driven to by having to keep their relationship secret, confesses to Sister Jude either because he believes it or as a calculated move to protect himself.
“These people — they’re resigned to die here. We were never resigned,” Anne writes, diary-style, to Kitty from inside Briarcliff’s main room. And it’s resignation that might turn out to be the most subversive fright of them all — the by all appearances genuinely well-meaning Thredson proving an accidental antagonist chipping away at the sanity of those he’s trying to help by convincing them that they’re in genuine need of care. People in power want to stay in power, and do so by reinforcing the system that allows them to maintaint their place. “It’s their instinct to protect themselves and cover their mistakes,” Jude’s Mother Superior tells her of the men who head up their church, and indeed, even kindly Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes) turns out to have been aware of and protecting Arden’s secret. Intent only on their own escape or in convincing the establishment that they’re playing nice and that they belong, the residents of Briarcliff seem destined to remain trapped where they are — though Shelley’s gruesome fate demonstrates that selfless actions can have a terrible price.