American Horror Story: Asylum -- Recap and Synopsis

     Chekov once famously remarked that if a gun appears somewhere in the beginning of a story, if it is not fired by the end of the story, then it should not be in the story. American Horror Story: Asylum introduces us to an entire armory in its pilot episode, and while we're wasting time watching and waiting for the guns to go off, someone hurls a bunch of grenades at us from behind and blows the entire thing to shreds.

     The pilot episode premiered with a record breaking 3.85 million viewers, and it is telling that the finale was down 40% to 2.3 million. For a story that started with such promise, this season will ultimately be remembered by many as a story of squandered potential and, worst of all, a waste of a hugely talented cast. Watching the Ryan Murphy penned penultimate episode "Continuum", I had the uncomfortable sensation of observing a group of amazing actors that got guilted into performing a script that a dying teenager wrote for the Make A Wish foundation.

     And that's what makes this so frustrating -- the elements are there for something great, and what happens instead is the biggest mess of storytelling I've seen since -- well, any other Ryan Murphy show. I hesitate to link everything to Joss Whedon, but as an example of how to handle a large ensemble cast in a story with dark themes, the comparison is useful here. Ryan Murphy's main problem is that, unlike Whedon, who would sometimes also take plots and characters to ridiculous and over the top places, the process never feels organic and comes across as incredibly contrived. There are two different schools of writing at work here: Joss Whedon's characters move the plot, whereas Ryan Murphy's plot moves his characters. The result is that it is difficult to form any bonds of empathy or attachment to anyone on the show, because they exist merely as tools to move along whatever great ideas Ryan Murphy THINKS he has.

     Within the frame of understanding that this is an idea piece and not a character piece, there was still a chance of salvaging the story if the ideas were well executed. Unfortunately, this was not the case. The pilot started with promise -- it threw a ton of things at us and it was exciting to see where it could have gone thematically and where all the different character arcs would intersect. We were introduced to what seemed to be three major storylines with the assumption that they were at some point going to connect in some satisfying or meaningful way. Oops, my bad.

     Let's examine these one by one, and track their potential for greatness and failure of execution:

1) Science vs religion: In the pilot episode, Jessica Lange emerges as the clear star of the show. Sister Jude is forceful, commanding, and incredibly flawed. It's obvious that there is a haunted and troubled woman underneath the habit (double usage intentional, look, Ryan Murphy isn't the only shitty gay writer who thinks he's clever) and there is so much there to work with. Dr. Arden is introduced as her potential foil -- a man of science, cold, calculating, and clinical. Along the way Sister Mary ( with an Emmy worthy performance by Lily Rabe) becomes possessed by the devil, and it seems like she will serve as some sort of bridge or conduit linking these two sides and bring them to something dark and terrible. Science vs. Religion is an old story, but one that could have been done in an exciting new way in a horror context. Are science and religion one and the same? Could God -- or the Devil -- or both -- even be working through religion to continue to feed off of the blind faith of mankind in an increasingly secular century? Is the true evil the repressive regime of the church, or the heartless sterility of science? The show had a chance to examine these questions in a way that showed us that ultimately, it does not matter -- in the dark, the lines between both begin to blur, and the only true evil would appear to be within the hearts of the blind extremists that become radical crusaders for either side. Powerful stuff.

     Instead, we get a bunch of stuff thrown at us for shock value. Nazi experiments, monsters in the woods, Anne Frank, Chloe Sevigny without limbs... really, why was any of this stuff there, and what purpose did it serve? I think with Sister Jude's story arc, they were sort of trying to go for a tale of redemption, but in the end it was muddled and nonsensical. Halfway through the show the Angel of Death (played by the amazing Frances Conroy) begins to make appearances at Briarcliff. If she had just appeared to Sister Jude, this would have been a powerful piece of storytelling -- it would show Jude's inner strength in that she and she alone was in control of her own destiny and the strength of her will to live, and could stare death in the face unflinchingly in her pursuit of doing what she thought was God's work. Instead, this bit of character growth is wasted because suddenly everyone at Briarcliff can see her and kinda-sorta choose their moment of death. What? Why?

     Dr. Arden was just kind of thrown aside, which means that the entire first third of the show with the Nazi sub plot was a waste of time.

     Most frustrating of all is the character of Sister Mary. Again, what a waste of one of, in my opinion, one of television's greatest actresses. It's heavily implied early on that the devil/demon/whatever that possesses Mary found its way into Briarcliff with the purpose of taking on a stronger host after its initial exorcism with some greater purpose or plan in mind. Most of the middle portion of the show deals with its growing power and influence in Briarcliff, with Mary eventually taking control after Jude's fall from grace. There are some great scenes where the human side of Sister Mary occasionally peeks through, and it seemed like this was going to go somewhere.

     It didn't. And the devil's plan seems to have been to walk around being bitchy, to take up smoking, and to play with Jude's lingerie. Another potentially squandered plot point -- if the demon was seeking an ascent up the church hierarchy, after Mary is murdered by the Monsignor, why did it not then take possession of him, and bring him all the way up the ranks of the church and finally find its way to the papacy? This would have been a really daring and controversial (read: ratings boosting) storyline for a TV show. She just dies. That's it. Next!

     2) Alien Abduction. This was the plot point that had even the most staunch defenders of the show mumbling about the beginnings of shark jumping. I heard many times throughout this season that this was the thing that made the show "too much" -- I struggle to understand the rationale behind this, as I think that any one of the previously mentioned genre tropes could easily have been the thing that put this over the edge. Oddly, in some ways, the alien abduction plotline seemed to be the only one that was researched in any way. The Betty and Barney Hill case in 1961 brought the idea of alien abduction to consciousness of the American public and the fear of abduction and UFOs was surprisingly common in the 1960's. There was a lot going on with this in terms of Cold War paranoia and some interesting themes that could have tied into the Science vs Religion thing from earlier -- could an alien abduction experience be considered both a scientific and a spiritual awakening? Again, lots of different ways this could have gone, all of them better than the way things actually went down.

     We learn that the aliens have taken an interest in Kit Walker (Evan Peters, who needs to remember that overdoing an accent doesn't necessarily make up for the scenes where you forget to use the accent) and will intervene not only to protect him from physical harm, but also his offspring. He impregnates two women, both of whom are taken by the aliens and cared for in some way until they give birth. Again, it is heavily implied by all of this that the aliens see something special in him and have some sort of breeding program/plan in mind. We eventually learn that their plan was... to create another lawyer? I guess they were truly evil after all.

     Kit's story seems to be the most throwaway of the three plot threads I'm mentioning here, and very little about it makes any sense. His motivation for not only saving Jude at the end, but letting her live and serve as a mother figure to his two children even though she is clearly dangerous and unstable seems to be "well, I'm nice to girls." Unfortunately women don't seem to benefit from Kit's protection, as all three women he has cared for die early and for no real reason.

Which brings us to,

     3) Bloodyface vs Lana Winters. Of the show's three main stories, this is the only one that is told with some degree of success, and this has nothing to do with Ryan Murphy's writing and EVERYTHING to do with the performance of Sarah Paulson. Jessica Lange and Lily Rabe rightfully earn tons of praise, but in my mind Sarah is the true star of this season. She managed to take some of the most terribly scripted scenes I've ever seen on television and worked her ass off to rescue them and make them believable, and in the process brought surprising layers of range and depth to her character that would have fallen completely flat if played by an inferior actress.

     Her story is the most coherent and the most realistic. Ryan Murphy tries for some more heavy handed "look how horrible it is to be gay!" moments, but Paulson underplays these just enough so that we do feel genuinely sorry for her rather than feeling as if we're being hit in the head with propaganda. Zachary Quinto is serviceable as Syler -- I mean -- Dr. Oliver Thredson, and has a few good scenes that come close to achieving moments of genuine horror as he terrorizes Lana, but ultimately his acting is not strong enough here to rescue his character from the doldrums of horror cliches. Thredson is a serial killer written by someone with a very casual understanding of serial killers and peripheral knowledge of the horror genre, and has a bunch of unimaginative quirks thrust upon him (skin wearing, mommy issues, even the obligatory body-part-furniture). It is ultimately satisfying to see Lana turn the tables on him, even though the moment then becomes somewhat blunted by a bunch of stupid plot twists that keep finding forced reasons to bring them both back to Briarcliff and keep them long enough to use them as filler until the last few episodes. Lana emerges as a victorious, flawed, honest, and most of all, believable heroine.

     Any one of these three plotlines could have, if properly and carefully fleshed out, been a well told and interesting theme for this season. Unfortunately it seemed like Murphy and his team of writers did not have enough faith in any of these stories to stand on their own merits, so rather than exercising restraint and attention to detail, they just threw every single thing they could think of at us with no thought to how any of it would work together and the show suffered and, ultimately, failed as a result of this. It's an insult as a horror fan and as someone that appreciates good actors and wants to see them used properly. All the rest of the stupid shit that got thrown in for no reason (Oh, let's do a Christmas episode -- hello evil Santa! Oh, the show is so dark, let's do something fun -- hello Jessica Lange dance number! Hello pointless stunt casting of Adam Levine!) just confirms my belief that Ryan Murphy should not be given creative control over a show and needs someone around to tell him "no" -- or at least scale him back a bit.

     Again, I give credit to him for surrounding himself with wonderful actors, and the show is for the most part beautifully shot and directed. Briarcliff was a perfect setting visually, atmospherically, and thematically, and unfortunately like everything else it was criminally underutilized.  Some interesting things were going on with camera work and directing choices -- in particular, the homage  to Brian DePalma's use of split screen during Lana's escape was very well done.  A lot of attention to detail was put into the look and feel of the show, and I appreciate that -- I just wish the same level of attention had been given to the script and the characters. 

     Season three has been announced, and most of the cast will be returning. He's mentioned that the theme will have something to do with "evil glamor", and will feature lighter moments and a love story. Despite all of my gripes, and wondering why he insists on doing a horror series if he thinks that it needs to be... less horrific, I'll be eagerly awaiting the premiere to see these wonderful actors, though I will be watching with the help of greatly reduced expectations. Ryan Murphy has stated that he's close to choosing the one word that will follow the show title, as "Asylum" did this year. For his sake and for the sake of all the horror fans that were disappointed with the false promise of this year, I'm suggesting this as a title, just to get rid of all sense of pretense and deceit:

American Horror Story: Glee


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