Of all of the ways I expected American Horror Story’s second season to end, I can safely say an elaborate homage to St. Elsewhere’s classic two-parter “Time Heals” was not among the ways I considered. This comparison is not strictly accurate. “Time Heals” jumps back from the present to explore the long-discussed past of the hospital at the center of that earlier series, while “Madness Ends” jumps forward from the past to fill in the gaps between that point and a present where “Johnny,” better known to us as Bloody Face Jr., stalked his birth mother by hiding out in her house when she was being interviewed for the Kennedy Center Honors (or something). What the two share is a certain mordant sense of humor about how the past informs the present, a richly textured sense of loss, and a deeply moving series of scenes that suggest the ways that time doesn’t heal but, instead, erodes.
These last two episodes haven’t so radically changed my opinion of American Horror Story as to blind me to its weird storytelling lurches and haphazard character development, but they have increased my belief in what this show is capable of. Where once I saw a goofy lark that could occasionally turn out a fun, twist-laden episode, I now see a show that has ambitions beyond simply trying to make people laugh and/or shriek in equal manner. (And, okay, the laughs have always been greater than the shrieks.) This is a big mess of a show, and every episode has moments of outright lunacy, where I wonder what Ryan Murphy and Brad Falchuk are thinking, but it’s also a show that’s got an emotional core now, a core that has a surprisingly compassionate streak somewhere inside of it. This season swung for the fences; it may have struck out as often as it connected, but when it did, the moments it came up with were indelible.
I’m trying not to oversell this, because I’m sure you know as well as I do that the experience of watching this is the experience of vacillating crazily between, “Am I really watching this? It’s so stupid!” and “This is some pretty daring television!” This happens often enough in the same scene that I find myself baffled as to what I really think of what I’m watching, beyond the vague sense that I’m mostly having a good time. Take, for instance, the long sequence in which we watched the last days of Sister Jude, which happened at the home of Kit and his two children, attempting to live a normal life with a mad, older woman who comes into their lives because Kit’s a compassionate dude. This all builds up to a sequence where the kids lead Jude off into the woods—like fairies leading children away in a fairy tale—and when she returns, she’s back to who she was, back to Judy Martin. She’s fun-loving and full of life. She’s a great surrogate grandmother, and the kind of loving figure Kit needs in his life. And then she dies, and it’s surprisingly sad.
What do you do with that? On the one hand, it’s just a big lump of exposition, no matter how evocative some of the shots (like Jude walking off into the wilderness) can be. On the other, there’s a stark poetry to some of what happens, like the way that the Death Angel and Jude are alone together at last, a couple singled out on a bare stage by a beam of light that hits them just so. (This series has some beautiful cinematography.) Anyone who’s had mental illness in their life at any point can absolutely understand what’s happening here: Jude was driven mad, and now, she gets a respite of six months to be herself again, before the aliens or death or whoever takes her away. Mental illness is a cancer that eats away at lives; wouldn’t you cut any deal you could to be rid of it for a while, to be whole? The Sister Jude sequence is incredibly stupid and deeply beautiful, and when American Horror Story walks that line, there’s nothing else quite like it.
This is one of the things I was trying to get at in that review of the Murder Santa episode, but I think that we as people who talk and think about TV a lot don’t put enough weight on mold-breaking. Shows that break the mold are sometimes wildly erratic and completely fucked up, and that can make us anxious. We sometimes over-value consistency, of tone or of plotting or of whatever, to the detriment of shows that maybe don’t always connect but are always trying to figure out new ways of TV storytelling. And, yes, a wildly inconsistent show has its own burdens to bear. I went back and tried to watch a few episodes of the first season of this show, and I still found them messy and empty and incomplete. But the second season of American Horror Story got in a zone every so often—a zone you could miss if you looked away—and it made for some evocative, spellbinding television, almost as often as it made for TV that was just completely stupid.
If I had to figure out a reason I’d wager it worked, I’d point to Sarah Paulson’s Lana Winters, perhaps the most purely sympathetic character a Ryan Murphy series has ever had. What was interesting about Lana was that everybody involved—Paulson, the show’s writers, its directors—didn’t bother too much trying to make her “likeable.” Instead, they just put her in a series of awful situations—a recipe that often becomes a poorly plotted mess—and counted on her purity of spirit and intention to shine through. The finale concludes with her laying out a kind of seduction to get her son to lay down his gun, then using that gun to put a bullet in his head, and I was surprised how momentous this moment seemed. Granted, she also killed his father by shooting him, but that was a much more fraught situation. Here, she’s just ridding herself of a bit of unfinished business, albeit one that’s threatening her life. The time at Briarcliff—even if just a small part of the whole of her life—marked her. The episode flashes back to a conversation between Lana and Jude when she first entered the asylum, and it says that when you stare at evil long enough, it eventually stares back. Lana knows that only too well now. Paulson’s work has gained a kind of wariness throughout the season, and that wariness comes through very clearly in the scenes set in the present day. She’s a woman marked as much by horror as by love, and that will do things to a person.
In the end, I think I responded to this season so strongly because it was, ultimately, about a bunch of people trying to get past a trauma and failing. “Madness Ends” is no “Time Heals”—then again, “Time Heals” is one of my favorite episodes of television ever made, so what would be?—but it plays in some of the same territory, and that sort of historical sweep is rare to see in a single episode of television. Briarcliff is closed to rot away, but it still stands, both physically and in the hearts of those who passed through there. The things that were done in the names of “health” and “science” and “God” were things that eventually came to mark those who practiced them as much as those whom they were practiced upon. Things go askew. The universe tips off balance. The wounds scab over, but they never heal. People die, and time marches on, and everything, everything, is just waiting for that last moment, that sad, forlorn kiss.
Finale grade: A-
Season grade: B+
- I really liked the use of the “vintage” footage to show us Lana’s ultimate exposé of Briarcliff, and the way that the show tied back in the tunnel into the place as the way that she accesses it. I didn’t think that would come up again, and the video footage allows for the proceedings to feel like a kind of haunting. Plus, it provided a good fakeout with the moment where she “rescues” Jude.
- I loved that little scene on the playground between Lana and the boy. It’s a kind of horrifying funhouse mirror of an idle fantasy just about every adopted kid (and, I assume, their biological parent) has about that one moment when you can connect, before sailing out of each other’s lives again.
- I still think this season was a touch overburdened, but I liked how this episode ultimately tied the mutants into the endgame (in that they were a part of how the Cardinal was finally toppled) and how it left the aliens as magnificent agents of mystery—literal angels or fairies or what-have-you. On the other hand, I’m all but certain the Bloody Face Jr., plot was probably unnecessary. The final scene between him and Lana was powerful, but it also felt as if it was trying to bring to rest a conflict that had only just begun (and, honestly, it had only just begun).
- I really liked the choice to leave all of the dead characters offscreen, focusing on the four Briarcliff survivors (five, if you count Johnny). On a show like this, the temptation is always to ladle on the ghost appearances, but Tim Minear’s script backs away from that, and the episode is the richer for it.
- And that’s all for season two! Thanks for hanging out, and for both mocking and praising the show with me every week. This really developed into… something, and I’m going to be parsing my feelings on it for a long time, I think. In the meantime, Ryan Murphy has promised a bit of a lighter tone in season three, as well as a season dealing with female power, which can only mean we’re going to get, like, 50 witches. I’ll see you in October.