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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

American Horror Story: “The Name Game”

Illustration for article titled American Horror Story: “The Name Game”
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When Dr. Arden was leaning over Sister Mary Eunice as he was about to send her into the flames that would cremate her, I was all prepared to open this review with “When is someone gonna fucking die already on this show?!” but then he rode with her into the fire, and the last thing we heard were the screams he made when he—presumably—perished, so now we’re out two of the season’s main villains. We just have aliens, mutants, a serial killer, the inherent rigidity of the Catholic Church, and ‘60s patriarchy to go!

I wondered a bit why the show took its Christmas break off a more muted episode than the Murder Santa hour, which was one of the season’s best, but I suspect it was because that cliffhanger—with the alien baby—was such a strong one and because this episode was a step up. I worried I’d have trouble getting into the series’ particular brand of insanity again, that it worked best when it was an unending momentum machine, but somewhere around the point that Peppa launched into a massive monologue about how she was now the protector of Grace and her alien baby, I realized I was so back in. “The Name Game” is a strong return for the show, or as I was explaining to someone I know shortly after I finished watching it, it features an alien baby, a musical sequence, and a demon-possessed nun giving her former superior electroshock therapy, and it’s one of the show’s less crazy outings.

Let’s start with that musical sequence, though, which gives the episode its title. It’s one of the most deliriously wonderful things I’ve seen in a long, long time, if only because it gives Jessica Lange a chance to show off her pipes, and features the great cutaway shots of Lana and Kit acting like side characters in a 1960s beach party movie, before they inevitably get with the program and start dancin’. I watched the whole thing with a kind of giddy chuckle, unable to suppress my delight that the show felt free to completely leave reality behind. In some ways, this season has turned into a battle of the wills between the showrunners and Lange, the former trying to see how much misery they can dump on her character and the latter trying to express that with a certain amount of dignity and grace.

There’s a type of storytelling I hate, called misery porn, which essentially amounts to writers dumping awful stuff on their characters because they can’t figure out how to drive the story through those characters. Ryan Murphy has been guilty of this in the past on Nip/Tuck, especially, and there’s every chance the Passion of Sister Jude could have fallen into this pattern as well. Instead, because the miseries heaped upon the woman have been so plentiful and because Lange has so committed to the idea of a woman who’s been slowly dragged down by the madness around her, inside her, and inflicted upon her, the whole thing has worked, heading straight past misery porn and on into straight-out operatic fantasia. Sister Jude spends most of this episode staggering around Briarcliff, electroshocked to oblivion, but she still manages to choke out the two words that allow the Monsignor—who’s not dead and is named Timothy—to come to grips with what he must do to rid Briarcliff of its demonic friend.

For as much as I’ve enjoyed Lily Rabe as Sister Mary Eunice/Pazuzu, this plot sort of fizzles out. She makes all of the same promises to the Monsignor she made before, in re: him being the pope, then he pushes her over a railing. The shot of her descending to the hard floor below, eyes blinking in a kind of wonder and gratitude, is really cool, part of the generally stylish direction in this episode, courtesy of experienced hand Michael Lehmann, but the rest of it amounts to so many threats that result in not much of anything, outside of the moment when, with a demonic grin, Sister Mary Eunice pours the juice into Judy’s brain, forever wiping away whatever was there, but for traces she kept buried away where the electricity couldn’t reach them. (Those traces appear to include her insistence that Lana be rescued from the asylum by a kindly older Mother Superior. This can only end well.)

At this point, I’m taking the series’ constant returns to the status quo—Thredson is back and working at Briarcliff, his escape largely unexplained!—as a kind of wacky commentary on TV series’ needs to bring everything back to a certain starting point over and over and over again. At this point, Lana and Kit aren’t just trapped in an asylum; they’re trapped in a TV show, which will constantly force them to face the same enemies and make the same mistakes, at least until the season finale rolls around. The show fitfully builds momentum this season, but there’s always something going on, and when Lana confronts Thredson, the series somehow always finds a new way to play it. It helps that Lana’s still about the most sympathetic character these writers have come up with, and if you’re like me, you’re really rooting for her to be the so-called “final girl.”


Meanwhile, Grace is back, and she’s given birth, with Peppa as her midwife. After seeing the way the show treated Peppa in the premiére and worrying that it was back to the same old “shock for shock’s sake” method of storytelling from season one, it’s nice to see that she’s, apparently, some sort of superheroic protector of resurrected women and the alien babies they carry. On the whole, I’m taking a “wait and see” attitude with this whole plot development, but I liked that Kit didn’t sell out his friends to protect his child, instead giving Lana a chance to threaten Thredson again, and providing her believable motivation for keeping the monster’s child alive within her.

The season has proceeded at such a weird, off-kilter pace and has had such strange story development that, honestly, it’s getting hard for me to write about it without making this a long list of strange plot developments, delivered with a glassy-eyed stare. And, to be sure, some of you would probably prefer that to me trying to figure out what the fuck is going on here. At the same time, I’ve started to get into the rhythm of this odd, weirdly rewarding season of television, to figure out the way that it seems to build to a season finale every other episode, then retreat into downtime. By my calculations, that means we’ll see the real fireworks in episode 12, then episode 13 will be a sort of, “What have we learned, Jessica Lange?” hour, in which Sister Jude walks us through all of the ways we should treat the mentally ill with more compassion. I can’t wait.


Stray observations:

  • Seriously, I can’t stress enough how great that musical number was. Completely unexpected, even though this show is from the people who gave you Glee.
  • After Sister Mary Eunice robbed the Monsignor of his virtue (or whatever he called it), I started reflecting on how the sexual violence this season has been almost evenly distributed between men and women. I’m not a huge fan of rape as a go-to plot point, but I think this show has mostly made that work by making it a source of sexual panic for all of the characters, not just the women. (And when the women are put in terrifying positions, they sometimes find their way out of it, as Sister Jude did.)
  • It’s also likely this is because the horrors that can be visited on these characters go so far beyond the merely physical. The scene where Jude is given electroshock is perhaps the most horrifying thing the series has done up until this point.
  • The Angel of Death is just popping up now to give everybody the information they need to help out wherever needed. She’s like an informant in a Carmen SanDiego game.
  • “Why don't you go to your whore-nun? Have her soothe your deflated ego!” Peppa knows how to hit below the belt.
  • “It's a great big music box!” Lily Rabe’s delivery of this should win her a million awards.
  • “I'm goddamn plucky, remember?” Reader, I cheered.