American Horror Story has returned under the new title American Horror Story: Asylum, the second chapter in this deliciously trashy, gory anthology from FX. You can read my reviews from the first season here.
And how does this second chapter fare? Has the writing improved? Is the narrative more coherent? I think so! It's hard to tell from one episode, but I do believe that the move from Murder House to Briarcliff Asylum has wrought nothing but good for American Horror Story. As hilarious as I always found showrunners Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk's original idea to just keep stuffing ghosts into Murder House until the series petered out from exhaustion, this approach is significantly more effective. It's 1964 and Briarcliff is a ghastly insane asylum run by a tyrannical nun, a peculiarly ambitious monsignor and diabolical scientist. With a rotating door of lunatics and monsters, Briarcliff already seems demonstrably more frightening and diverse than Murder House, and the stakes are much higher. No contrivances are required to explain why no one will leave Briarcliff. The inhabitants are all either employed or imprisoned there - they have no choice.
A quick recap of this large cast of characters before I continue with the review. We have faces new and old and almost all of them are terrific. American Horror Story was never short on strong performances; the writing often just didn't merit them.
Jessica Lange as Sister Jude, the tyrannical nun of Briarcliff. Last year she played the crazed, vampy neighbor, and she's always been the best part of this show. She's monstrously pious yet in love with the Monsignor, and we get a fantasy sequence of a nun seducing a priest early on in the episode, which is pretty cool.
James Cromwell as Dr. Arden, a new face to AHS and a highly welcome one. He's the diabolical physician who wants to detect the part of the brain that allows a person to commit heinous acts, and he's willing to commit some fairly heinous acts himself to find it.
Sarah Paulson, whom I love, as Lana Winters. Last year she was the fame-seeking psychic, and to my delight, her role seems augmented this year. She's a reporter who finds herself unwillingly committed to Briarcliff while she's investigating the new inmate Bloody Face - this year's Rubber Man, the ridiculously epitheted monster.
Evan Peters as Bloody Face! Well, not according to him. Kit Walker is a mechanic secretly married to a black woman (remember, it's 1964), whose house is haunted or invaded by aliens or something, and all of a sudden he's been accused of Leatherface-type atrocities, including killing his wife. He's waiting it out in Briarcliff until he's deemed fit to stand trial. Last year Peters played the super-emo teen ghost, and I loved the few brief minutes at the beginning of the episode when he is snappy and jovial, singing along to The Drifters' "There Goes My Baby." I like this actor quite a bit and I hope he'll have more to do here than all of the mournful staring he did last season.
Lily Rabe as Sister Mary Eunice. Last year she was the distraught mother ghost. This year she plays a flighty nun for whom Sister Jude seems oddly protective.
Lizzie Brocheré as Grace, an inmate at Briarcliff. She's accused of having chopped up her family; she claims she didn't do it. She's new to the show and I quite like her. She's meant to be Kit's saving Grace, as seemingly one of the only other non-insane people in the joint.
Joseph Fiennes as the Monsignor who has his eye on higher authority. He claims Sister Jude is his right hand, and that "Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin...The tonic for a diseased mind lies in the three Ps: productivity, prayer and purification." He's new to AHS and I'm thrilled, as I was madly in love with him in high school because I never seemed to understand that he and my ultimate crush William Shakespeare were not, in fact, the same person.
Chloë Sevigny as Shelley, the nymphomaniac inmate of Briarcliff. She's new to the show and has so far either blown or offered to blow every dude here.
Adam Levine as Leo, in present day flash forwards, traveling with his newlywed wife Teresa (Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who unfortunately doesn't rank a pic on the FX website). Leo and Teresa are spending their honeymoon boning in all of the most haunted spots in the United States. Seriously, three minutes into this show and we get gurney sex. They're visiting the now-dilapidated Briarcliff where we learn that 46,000 people once died. To no one's surprise except perhaps Ryan Murpy, Adam Levine of Maroon 5 fame isn't a particularly strong actor, but I like the flash forwards because they offer some variety to the narrative.
Clea Duvall as Wendy, a third grade schoolteacher and Lana Winter's lover. She sells Lana out hard core when Sister Jude threatens to expose their relationship and jeopardize Wendy's job, so Wendy signs the papers giving Sister Jude full authority to keep Lana imprisoned at Briarcliff. It's a truly terrible thing to do to your girlfriend.
And finally, we will have Zachary Quinto as a psychiatrist at Briarcliff, returning after his seriously great turn as the jilted lover ghost from last season, but he doesn't make an appearance in the premiere.
So now that you're all up to speed on who's who, let's talk quality. The premiere is notably better than last year's pilot, establishing clearly defined plot threads in which I'm already invested. Each inmate offers his or her own mystery, as does every member of the staff. Briarcliff is just such a cool set, and this complex establishment comes with all of its own rules and intricacies. The French song "Dominique" (by The Singing Nun) must be played non-stop in the rec room. Dr. Arden appears to be fostering a passel of castle freaks who eat the inmates that have no family to mourn them. Arden, as the man of science, and Sister Jude, as the woman of God, daily challenge each other's authority. Sister Jude informs him that she "will always win against the patriarchal male." The Monsignor, while appearing very kind, seems full of mystery. The credits are much cooler this year, and I really like the score on the show.
And the three inmates who all seem to belong elsewhere - Kit, Grace and Lana - provide an instant direction for our sympathy. We see the loves and home lives of both Kit and Lana, giving us a nice foundation for investment, and Grace appears so sweet yet mysterious. Sister Jude makes a wonderfully complex villain. Her kindness to Sister Mary Eunice and her genuine belief in the good she is doing strike a tight balance with the fact that she's a ruthless and often very cruel dictator. Lange is incredible in the role, as always.
But of course, there are some things that didn't work about the episode. Ryan Murphy's relationship with women continues to be suspect, in particular with the way he uses Sevigny and Dewan-Tatum. He doesn't seem to know how to write women as sexy without making it super weird. Teresa is so excited to be inside the ruined Briarcliff that she tells Leo, "You can totally put it in my ass right now." When he's investigating a noise she heard, she says, "Do it again and I'll blow you!" Sevigny's the same way with staff and inmates at Briarcliff. They both casually use sex to negotiate in a way that doesn't make me particularly comfortable.
I wouldn't even bring it up, because there are several other women in the cast. Of course, Mary Eunice is a moron, Grace is an unimpeachable savior, Wendy is a traitor. But Jude and Lana are both strong, complex characters, and I hope they remain that way. But Murphy's track record with writing women is pretty dismal, and I fear that Lana will turn into Connie Britton from last season - constantly victimized, beset on all sides, eventually giving up everything that made her strong and cool in order to grow into the sacrifice of the show, the perfect tragedy.
And while we're talking about fears, there are a lot of narrative threads inaugurated in this episode, and though they all seem to have solid potential for development, Murphy and Falchuk really blew it last year with the many disparate plots. This week's episode was written by Tim Minear, and that man knows how to write a pilot. I hope the rest of the season can keep up with its auspicious beginning.
But anyway, we'll see! I'm probably already overthinking this raunchy, silly, bloody show, but hey. That's my job. What did you guys think of the ep?