Wednesday, December 12, 2012

'American Horror Story: Asylum' Delivers A Doozy of a Reveal But It Comes With A Whole New Theory...

We're actually a little more than mid-way through this season of American Horror Story, but once again Jennifer Salt's writing has inspired me to take a look at the show as a whole and its themes and see how it is measuring up.


A few weeks ago, I sat down with an avid horror movie fan who was extremely anti-American Horror Story this season because of how many various tropes it threw together into one show. His argument was partially that there were just too many different attempts at scaring in order to gain the widest audience possible and in some ways they were direct rip-off of previous projects (and in part, he was also upset that we saw BloodyFace, even though we didn't see his real face, right away). At the time, I did agree that American Horror Story was horror programming for the masses, and Asylum certainly had something for everyone. Fear the unknown? Great, there are aliens and an exorcism. How about doctors and surgery? Dr. Arden's "Raspers" will do it for you. Like good, old-fashioned slasher horror? There's BloodyFace. And then there's the psychological and historical horror for the rest of us. As time and episodes have gone on, though, it has become clear that even the most physical shock value scares from Asylum are coming from a psychological place, though. The show has actually taken the time to go in-depth enough with (most of) them to understand how the psyche has affected and created nearly all of these things-- the Raspers, BloodyFace, the locked away in the asylum, just not the aliens. They could not be more different on the surface, but they actually are all tied together. The real question is not who is sane and who isn't within Briarcliff but instead how perception of sanity can be used against you. And that is a fear we all have, especially in this digital age where everyone's on a platform if not direct soapbox: that our voices will not be heard.

Asylum has certainly zigged in a lot of the places you'd expect it to, including revealing the one seemingly good natured character to be the worst of them all. As much as it would have been majorly offensive to many, I was also hoping the whole Anne Frank (Franka Potente) thing would have turned out differently. In fact, when I first heard about the storyline, I got kind of twistedly gleeful that maybe they were trying to say Anne Frank never existed at all-- that some crazy woman in an asylum wrote a fictional book that just took off. Of course, the math didn't add up for that to be a possibility, considering the year this show was set. But it was just unnecessary to fake everyone out by making it really seem like Anne Frank hadn't actually died but instead ended up at Briarcliff. That actually may have been a fate worse than the internment camps, which certainly would have undercut the hopefulness of her Diary. But by not fully going there in the end, all they did was prove the power of research and that we can convince ourselves of anything if we are really desperate enough. A message that didn't make sense, given the fact that every other seemingly crazy thing we were being asked to believe had already been proven to be actually true.

Anyway, the one place Asylum certainly zagged was with Jessica Lange's Sister Jude. The entire time we were getting to know her as an authority figure at Briarcliff, we were of the belief that she was there to atone and repent for a drunken sin. Well, for multiple sins, if you count the fact that being drunk was one all on its own back in those days. She was not perfect by any means, but she at least seemed credible. And then, all in one scene, it changed. Suddenly you had to question everything you ever saw to be true if it was shown to you through Sister Jude's eyes simply because her own addled brain had convinced her she had committed murder years ago when actually the young girl had grown up with barely a scar and now had a baby of her own. Suddenly the authority figure had to bow to Briarcliff's authority, locked away with the patients she once lorded over, and to some degree, tortured. What else would now be called into question simply because it came from Sister Jude?

Well, for the audience, not a whole lot since scenes always put the viewer in a third party, somewhat omnipotent, position, rather than in Jude's shoes. Just like how we knew the aliens were not just a figment of Kit's (Evan Peters) imagination because we saw them outside of his memories of them, we know Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) is, in fact a Nazi, and Sister Mary Eunice (Lily Rabe) is, in fact, possessed by the devil. But it hardly matters what we know; we are third party observers, powerless. What matters is what can be done within the confines of Briarcliff. These claims could land anyone on the wrong side of those doors, as was perfectly proven with their former leader, Jude.

I have to say, last season American Horror Story seemed a lock for Lange for all of the Supporting Actress awards (Golden Globes, Emmys, etc), but this year, Lange, Rabe, and Sarah Paulson are all pulling out all of the stops, each with a dynamic enough storyline to give them a chance to really shine, tapping into some strong emotional character work. It's a shame the three of them might split the vote because they're all so individually phenomenal, but scenes they share are the real treats. 

Watching Lana (Paulson) and Jude confront each other in the earlier part of the season was so electric that it was equally depressing and dynamic to see how little fire Lana had left in her when they saw each other again, this time much more as equals. They have both been so beaten down, in unique ways, that they should make the perfect team, but of course, why would Lana trust someone who was such a sadist before, crazy now or not? 

Similarly, there is no reason for Lana to trust Sister Mary Eunice, even without knowing all we know about her. The woman promised to get her help with the "real" BloodyFace and then didn't. She wouldn't allow Lana to get rid of her baby. And then when Lana tried to take care of it herself, it certainly seemed like Sister Mary Eunice magically brought the baby back to life in her womb. It wouldn't be a complete stretch to say the devil could do that, right? In a show that is dealing with aliens trying to perfect the life-form by using Kit's potential offspring, it certainly seems more than possible.

Now, I'll admit my theory, initially, was that the modern day BloodyFace was actually someone from Briarcliff-- someone who wasn't "crazy" upon entering but who had "turned" or snapped due to his time there. Initially, I believed it was Kit. I can't tell you how happy I am now to have that theory proven wrong. There is so much more hope if characters like Kit and Lana don't lose their way, regardless of what they go through before their time in Briarcliff is done. It's a testament of the triumph of spirit. It almost gives you enough hope to believe that the Monsignor (Joseph Fiennes) can hold back the Angel of Death (Frances Conroy). Of course, his spirit has been so crushed by his failures with both Jude and now fake-Santa (Ian McShane), that seems a major stretch. Even for a show with aliens.

The show stayed a step ahead of me by delivering BloodyFace's voice just a few episodes later anyway. Even if you didn't recognize Dylan McDermott, you knew it certainly wasn't Peters. And there would be no reason to hire another actor to play an older version of one we've already seen; BloodyFace must be someone new. But who? By then, it was clear that Dr. Thredson (Zachary Quinto) was BloodyFace, and for someone who just wanted a mother, he sure was quick to take sexual advantage of his surrogate. For what other reason than to create a plausible way for BloodyFace to continue to exist in 2012? Yes, BloodyFace had a son, and that son grew up to commit his father's crimes. It may have been a little sloppy, a little rushed, and a little obvious, but the show had an answer for that, too.

Once again Salt was brought in to tidy things up-- to take anything that was "too easy" and answer it all quickly and succinctly to prove the show was planning to stay ahead of the audience rather than drag things out further. This was done effortlessly in the opening to "The Coat Hanger," in which John or Johnny (McDermott) revealed himself not only to be BloodyFace's son but also Dr. Thredson's son. In the mere expanse of a minute or so, this set up so much to come for the show: for one, Lana was definitely going to be able prove Kit's innocence to the world. That much was proven the minute John or Johnny said he read about his birth parents online. If Oliver Thredson went down in history as BloodyFace, Lana succeeded at her plan, even if she succumbed to Briarcliff after it.

And wasn't it just a little extra delicious that John or Johnny was confessing his compulsions about skinning cats to Brooke Smith aka "The girl who refused to put the lotion in the basket even if she'd get the hose again"!?

Two of the biggest themes this season with Asylum have been sanity and religion. Now, admittedly, I don't know a whole lot about organized religions, but I do know there is a reason that if there is a God there has to also be a devil. It's about balancing the scales and all of that "how can you know happiness if you don't know pain; you couldn't recognize good if you didn't know evil." A few years ago James Patterson published a book that was a major detour from his usual procedural cop formula. "Cradle & All" dove into religion to consider the possibility of an immaculate conception when a Bostonian and an Irish woman, each virgins, found themselves pregnant. There were other Biblical plague type things happening in parts of the world, but the bottom line seemed to be that one woman was to give birth to the next savior, while the other would give birth to the next demon. Naturally, it was nearly impossible to determine which was which, and therefore which baby had to be sacrificed in order for the world to go on without terrible fates befalling. I'm not going to spoil the book for you here, all I'm trying to do is use this as an example to set up my new theory about American Horror Story: Asylum, a theory that "The Coat Hanger" seemed to perfectly set up.

Regardless of whether the devil herself actually did bring Lana's baby back to life, he is clearly doomed by the genetics of who his father is. Though it certainly seems like the devil had an extra hand here... From well before he learned the truth of his nature, he was feeling the need to skin things; he was committing crimes that had nothing to do with his surroundings, or his "nurture." It was as if he was touched by something that really left its mark, and partial DNA hardly seems like enough.

So if he was going to be an evil spawn, there would have to be a pure, good one to counterbalance, right? Could that be what these aliens are doing-- trying to gestate a "perfect" creature? In that case, maybe they're not aliens at all but some kind of "divine intervention." If so, it kind of makes sense that it would be Kit's: he is the most evolved by a long shot-- a gentle soul who sees a person for his or her own soul, not the color of their skin or their sexuality. Kit has been open and kind, even to those who feared him in the beginning. He is certainly ahead of his time. Maybe that's even why Arden wants to help him-- because its a form of penance for his own sins.

The question I am left with, then, with so much of the 1960s Briarcliff seeming to be a lock, is what to expect for the rest of the 2012 storyline. Now we know who and where this modern day BloodyFace comes from, but it would be pretty anticlimactic to reveal him now if there was nothing coming with which to counteract him. Maybe it won't be Kit and Grace's enhanced offspring, maybe it will be Kit and Alma's or even Kit and Lana's in another crazy twist down the line-- or hell, maybe John or Johnny is mistaken and he wasn't actually Oliver's son after all but instead Kit's. That would be the truly twisted turn of events for which Ryan Murphy is so well-known...


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