It feels like the-powers-that-be at AMERICAN HORROR STORY ASYLUM have a lot of story to get through and are wasting no time getting there; this week’s episode gave us origin stories for Sister Jude and Shelley the Nymphomaniac, not to mention confirming my suspicions that Dr. Arden is precisely the twisted, self-loathing creep he appeared to be last week. And, not only is Zachary Quinto thrust into the story this week, his character is sketched in fairly quickly as the voice of “modern” medicine at the asylum.
Last week we learned that aliens exist in the AHSA universe, and this week shows us that the supernatural is real, as well. One does not often see those two elements mixed. I am interested to see if the “superscience” and supernatural will work together.
The story picks up in the present day exactly where it left off last week – with Bloody Face chasing Teresa (Jenna Dewan-Tatum), who tries to drag Leo (Adam Levine) to safety, but has to give up and lock herself in a cell, leaving Leo to the tender mercies of Bloody Face, who answers his cry for help by stabbing him in the chest over and over. In 1964, Wendy (Clea Duvall) is sobbing with guilt over signing the commitment papers that locked her lover, Lana, in Briarcliff Manor. After emerging from a calming shower, Wendy is confronted by Bloody Face. At Briarcliff, Sister Jude (Jessica Lange) has Lana’s (Sarah Paulson) cell tossed and confiscates her story notes. Sister Jude goes to Dr. Arden (James Cromwell) and asks him to perform electroshock on Lana, which he is only too happy to do – with Sister Jude applying the electrodes.
Kit (Evan Peters) is brought before Dr. Oliver Thredson (Quinto) a psychiatrist who seems on the level and tries to analyze Kit’s case scientifically. Kit insists his wife was alive when the aliens took her, and they still have her. Thredson confronts Sister Jude about the “barbaric” beatings and malpractice at Briarcliff, but she slaps him down and goes to meet the family of troubled teen Jed (Devon Graye) who appears to be possessed by a demon. Over Thredson’s protests that Jed needs medication, Sister Jude calls in Monsignor Howard (Joseph Fiennes) and exorcist Father Malechi (John Aylward), who uses a wheelchair. Lana and Grace (Lizzie Brochere) discuss escape through the tunnel that Lana used to enter the asylum, but Grace insists they take Kit with them because he’s innocent, but Lana won’t hear of it. Shelley (Chloe Sevigny) tries to seduce Dr. Arden, who contemptuously dismisses her as a “whore.” Shelley recounts how she’s always been addicted to sex and was committed to Briarcliff by her husband. Later, Dr. Arden, using the name “Stanley,” books a prostitute (Jenny Wade) for dinner, and he is cruel and dismissive to her, as well. While putting on the nun costume “Stanley” demands, she finds his stash of S&M photos and panics, thinking he’s the man who has been killing women around town. He still tries to have sex with her, in a particularly demeaning way, but she bites him, kicks him someplace sensitive and runs off, leaving Arden curled up in a ball of pain.
The exorcism commences, and it really looks like Jed has demon powers, saying Thredson was put up for adoption and psychically hurling Malechi against a wall so hard, he requires last rights. Sister Jude is left to watch over Jed, who forces to remember her earlier life as a wanton, slutty scarlet woman called Judy who killed a child, a Girl in Blue, in a hit-and-run. Thredson and Howard return and sedate Jed, who manages to knock out the power, freeing the inmates. Lana and Grace make their move, but Grace drags along Kit, forcing Lana to stop and call the guards because she really believes Kit is Bloody Face. Jed crashes and dies – but not before the “demon” jumps into Sister Eunice (Lily Rabe) and the lights come back on. The next morning, Arden salaciously eyes a sleeping Sister Eunice. When she awakens and asks about the “creatures,” he deflects and leaves. Sister Jude has Lana brought to her office and tells her to choose the cane with which she will punish Grace and Kit. Kit insists Grace had nothing to do with the escape attempt and takes Grace’s 20 lashes in addition to his own 20 — which really makes an impression on Grace, who already thought he was innocent.
As I mentioned, things are happening fast this week. The show wasted no time getting to the ultimate horror of people who fear being wrongly committed: electroshock therapy. Specifically, electroshock as depicted in the movies: a barbaric, terrifying, painful and clearly inhuman ordeal. Interestingly, Lana seems to suffer very little from the traumatic treatment; she just seems a lot quieter and a little hazy in her thinking. But I think being locked up in a “loony bin” is a common fear. And most likely because of the loss of control: Anyone you tell that you don’t belong there will dismiss you as crazy and take your “ramblings” as more proof that you do belong.
The most important new character to enter Briarcliff this week was Quinto’s Dr. Thredson. He seems up on the latest clinical theories, but I don’t get the sense that Dr. Thredson has a lot field experience. I think his character arc might something along the lines of discovering the difference between book learnin’ and reality. In his limited screentime, Quinto portrayed Thredson as somewhat quiet, but willing to screw up his courage and make a lot of noise when he has to – as when he confronted Sister Jude about “conditions” at Briarcliff and threatened to report her. I trust that Quinto will be able to make this science-oriented character distinct from his other science-oriented character, Star Trek’s Spock. And how long can Quinto and TPTB resist throwing in a Sylar joke. Sylar, the “brain-eating” baddie from HEROES, definitely would be at home here. And Dr. Arend is experimenting on brains…
It’s also clear that the conflict between religion and modernity will be a theme this season. We saw it this week; barely was Thredson the psychiatrist introduced before he was drafted into an exorcism. And, of course, he saw things – like the levitating bed and… er, patient – so he was immediately knocked off his pins. As the supernatural stuff kept happening, Thredson was just an observer – until he sedated Jed with a drug, and then he crashed. Thredson’s modern rescue breathing was ineffective, and the boy died. So, one could take the view that while religion was trying to rescue Jed, science killed him. I don’t think that is a very good message, but we’ll see where it goes as a story device. I have an inkling that at some point, Dr. Thredson’s medical knowledge will prove to be the key to winning the day against some supernatural (or alien) big bad.
We even see religion vs. science in the alien abduction subplot. Many experts today believe that tales of being stolen from bed at night and “probed” by aliens are really just a modern spin on the stories of demons that people used to tell. The deluded person draws on his/her contemporary world, and when the alien abduction craze began in the late 1960s-‘70s, UFOs began appearing in people’s dreams and delusions. If we lived in the year 1212, the “abductees” would talk of demons and saints and other religious embellishments that were popular at the time.
So it’s gonna be a throw-down between old school horror (monsters in the night) and new school horror (aliens from space).
Speaking of old school, after a quick tease, I was very relieved that director Bradley Buecker didn’t subject us to a full reenactment of the shower scene from Psycho. Stylistically, it wouldn’t have belonged, and would have been a distraction from the story.
But I really did enjoy the way that Buecker realized the scenes when the inmates’ cell doors opened: Eerie red lighting suffused the scene as the inmates slowly crept out of cells, as if in a dream (or another delusion, this one of escape). And it was deathly quiet except for a siren in the distance, subtly reminding us of the danger inherent in such a tableau.
But there is no doubt that Sister Jude is in charge, from that whistle she used in the first episode to her collection of canes, she is dominant here. Lange is really filling in Sister Jude’s character, especially her barely-contained rage and tendency to snap at people in anger. And also her barely subsumed sensuality. For some reason, I even like her “Bahstahn” accent. Maybe because it makes her sound judgmental.
Bad things have happened in the first two episodes immediately following the playing of contemporary hit songs (“There Goes My Baby” in last week’s premiere; “Wishin’ and Hopin’” and “Buttons and Bows” this week) Coincidence?
Was “acute clinical insanity” really considered a scientifically valid diagnosis in 1964?
Did Teresa lock herself in the same cell with the… um, thing that ripped off Leo’s arm?