Monday, September 30, 2013

TV Buff: Nazis, demon possession, and alien abduction, all in one handy place in American Horror Story: Asylum

I splurged, and went through all of American Horror Story: Asylum last week. Thoughts on how that went, after the break. Spoilers, although I'm somewhat forgiven, given that the show ended months ago.

So looking back on the blog archives, I see that I never quite got around to posting what I thought about the first season of American Horror Story. I did, however, quote its best scene, so that's something, at least. What that means at the moment, though, is that I need to give some account of the series' premise. The operating idea here is that it's an anthology series, but one not where every episode is a new thing like Twilight Zone, but one where ever season starts afresh, with a new roster of characters (though not necessarily an entirely new cast). The first season revolved around a haunted house and a number of related ghost stories: the murdered other woman, a high school shooting, a hidden early 20th century home abortion clinic, and a lovers' quarrel turned fatal. It had a surprisingly dark ending (for TV, if not for the subject matter), which was either brilliantly countered or horribly spoiled, depending on who you ask, by a saccharine coda.

But what I find so appealing about the series is the concept. Horror--with the possible exception of video games--has been dominated by the short form, in short story and in film. To be able to explore multiple, simultaneous conventions of horror in a sustained manner is a luxury that TV can offer, and, almost devoid of whether it's any good or not, I'm glad such a thing exists. (That's not entirely true; I once said I'd like any sort of ongoing musical series on television, and then Glee proved that statement to be a liar.) Luckily for me, then, American Horror Story: Asylum is good.

The title pretty much gives away the subject matter here. The story takes place in Briarcliff Mental Institution in 1964, a place run by Sister Jude (Jessica Lange), whose philosophy is start with the rod and you never have to worry about spoiling; and Dr. Arthur Arden (James Cromwell), a man who believes that it's pretty much okay to experiment on these "Darwinian rejects"; that women are either unrelenting sluts who need to be taught a lesson or untouchable saints; and may also be a Nazi. Fun guy. There's also Monsignor Timothy Howard, the ambitious father who founded the institution and hopes to use Arden and Jude's efforts there to further his own career. Most of the show takes place in the institution in the past, and it's here we meet the core cast of inmates: Grace Betrand (Lizzie Brochere) who is an alleged murderer; Kit Walker (Evan Peters), who is thought to be the murderer Bloodyface, but claims his wife was actually kidnapped by aliens; and Lana Winters, a reporter who came looking for a story on Murderface, and winds up an inmate. An episode or two in, we also get Zachary Qunto as Dr. Oliver Thredson, there to assess Walker's sanity. Many stories also start with a scene in present day, where someone claiming to be Murderface chases after victims in slasher-esque vignettes.  Lana's story is especially chilling: she goes in looking for a story about Bloodyface, but when she threatens to expose the mistreatments at Briarcliff, Sister Jude has her committed as insane for being a lesbian, using her girlfriend's fear of exposure as a pressure point to get her to sign the papers.

Like the first season, Asylum intertwines a number of different plot lines. Sister Jude slowly loses control of the asylum to Arden and Sister Mary Eunice, her demon-possessed protege. Eventually, her attempts to fight back reach such a failure that she is committed in her own asylum, and driven mad herself through a combination of electroshock and pills. Lizzie and Kit avoid forced sterilizations after being, uh, rescued by aliens. Arden becomes increasingly disillusioned with Sister Mary Eunice and himself until he meets with a suitably Pyrrhic ending. And Lana finally escapes Sister Jude and Arden's monsters only to run afoul of the actual Bloodyface, going from asylum to murder dungeon. A lot happens in thirteen episodes.

Asylum is lacking a bit of the real world punch that comes with the first season of AHS. For me, the show is at its best when it's juxtaposing real life horror with fantasy horror, and implicitly demonstrating how we use the latter to avoid facing the former. For AHS season one, that's most clear in the episodes featuring the high school shooting. Juxtaposing the shooting with ghost stories and other horror-filled stories really drove home the connection for me that this show is about what we are afraid of. Asylum's setting means it doesn't have the same immediacy; a lot of the real-world horror, such as the ability to commit people to asylums for being gay, or the social stigma on mixed marriages, is easier to dismiss with a "we're past that now" sort of mindset. The present sequences could be seen as a response to that, but like I said, they're really more a slasher pastiche than anything else. Which is fun, but not much more than that (maybe a comment on nature vs. nurture, and the foster care system).

There's also the issue that, for me, the whole alien plotline didn't really work. I'll admit that alien abduction is the sort of urban legend that should play well to AHS, but it falls flat. I think the aliens were never really portrayed as horrific--just sort of unearthly. You could argue that they were never meant to be horrific, but then the resolution of Kitt and Lizzie's story really falls flat. (Which it kind of does either way. It's really a dumb sort of resolution.) It would have been easy for the demon-possession plot to go the same way, but it’s saved by two things: the stellar performances of Cromwell and Lily Rabe; and the appearance of the Angel of Death, who adds a whole new level of creepiness to the show when she starts appearing in front of characters near death.

Where it really shines this season, though, is in the depiction of authority, and its involvement in mental health. Many of these patients are only there because someone else in a position of authority--Sister Jude, Dr Arden, Dr. Thredson--has the authority to say that they belong there. As Thredson points out, that's often authority over life and death. And when this power is placed in the hands of people with their own petty agendas and grievances, the abuses can be terrifying. In that sense, it's similar to the power relations in Orange is The New Black. The added wrinkle is that the series directly confronts the very real fear that people have over mental issues, the fear that what we can't trust our own perceptions, and the stigma that we place on those that we mark as other because they fall on a different side of our insane/sane line in the sand. As that previous quotation should convey, one of the most terrible things in AHS is where the wife's husband uses his authority as a doctor to get her committed. The entire season of AHS: Asylum is about that sort of power abuse.

While the story falls flat in places, the acting almost always is enough to keep you going. Jude, Arden, and Thredson in particular have just the right balance of menace and aloofness to carry their roles past little gaps in logic. In the end, though, a lot of your feelings for the season will depend on how much sympathy you can muster for Sister Jude's character, whether she's a good person who went too far trying to instill order after putting her life back together, or whether she’s a hubristic monster who gets what’s coming to her in a system she created—or a bit of both. I think I fall a little too far on the former side. But her character examination in juxtaposition with Lana’s is ultimately the center of the season. Tragedy is very similar to horror, in that both involve a sharp deviation from what we’re conditioned, societally, to consider as the appropriate consequence of a series of events. Both are about what happens when things go wrong, and the punishment of transgressions. The difference between the two, I think, is that tragedy is still a set of logical consequences, that tragedy still has a traceable flow of events, and we can point to where the wrong thing happened. Horror, I think, is more about a break, an ellipses. It’s horrific because it falls outside of our attempt to explain it, sometimes outside of our ability to conceive it (which is exactl why it should have been awesome if the alien scenes did work—but they didn’t.). Jude, and the whole season of Asylum, is perhaps more tragic than horrific. But the horror is always lurking, and what could be better for horror than a good lurk?

To sort of bring things to a close and bring home my point that the show is all about women and authority this season, here’s the final scene, a flashback conversation between Sister Jude and Lana, before Lana was imprisoned, before anything, almost, had started (I love the “end at the beginning” trope):
Lana: She’s talking about the maniac, Bloodyface. I heard he’s going to be admitted here today. Is there any way I can meet him?
Sister Jude: You’re out of your depth, Miss Lana Banana. You want a story? Write this down. A girl like you, you like to dream large. I’d venture you already have Briarcliff in your rearview mirror.
Lana: You make ambition sound like a sin.
Sister Jude: No, I’m saying it’s dangerous.
Lana: Well, what about you? Saving the souls of madmen and killers is a pretty lofty ambition, wouldn’t you say?
Sister Jude: And you cannot imagine what it took to get here.
Lana: I’d love to hear your story some day.
Sister Jude: No. I don’t think you and I are destined to meet again. (This is called dramatic irony.) But I do hope you know what you’re in for. The loneliness, the heartbreak, the sacrifices you’ll face as a woman with a dream on her own.
Lana: You don’t have any idea what I’m capable of.
Sister Jude: Well, then. Look at you, Miss Lana Banana. Just remember. If you look in the face of evil, evil’s going to look right back at you. (Pause, as Sister Jude looks into the camera/Lana) Please, after you.

It’s a necessary scene, as it circles the square in completing the connection between Jude and Lana, and cementing Lana’s character in the latter portions of the series (and that connection still needed to be made at that point; I think the horror of the last episode may be too subtle for its own good). But it’s also, I think, a way of highlighting the major theme of the season, a commentary on how women are forced into roles, and punished—sometimes horrifically, tragically, punished—when they try to break out of them. And to paraphrase Firefly, since the next season of American Horror Story is called Coven and features the Salem Witch trials, the days of AHS looking at the horror in gender roles and abuses of authority have come to a middle.

Later Days.