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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

American Horror Story: “Tricks And Treats”

Illustration for article titled American Horror Story: “Tricks And Treats”
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How much value do you place on American Horror Story being batshit crazy?

This was something I talked around in my review last week, but it’s something that’s interesting to me. For a lot of us, the fun of the first season of this show was that it so frequently failed at all of the most basic rules of drama, but in the most wildly entertaining of ways. It was the kind of show where the failures made it somehow all the more interesting and endearing, where you could sort of see how it wasn’t working, but you just didn’t give a shit because at its best, it was so bizarre and fun and all over the place. In its finest episodes, the first season of American Horror Story achieved a kind of trash transcendence, where it was beyond discussions of quality or grades or anything like that. Instead, it was like getting really blitzed on your drug of choice with a good friend, setting up seven TVs, and watching a different horror movie on every TV while howling with laughter at the preposterousness of it all.

While season two of the show maintains some of that feeling, it’s also evidently trying to tell a more coherent, grounded story. There are still things like Bloody Face popping up to kill Clea DuVall, and then nobody mentioning it for the rest of the hour, or last week’s weird montage of Jessica Lange rubbing oil all over herself while religious choral music played, but there’s also a surprisingly straightforward story about an asylum that can’t seem to help doing anything but breed evil and the people who end up trapped there for little to no reason. Considering how hard season one worked to set up characters who were sympathetic enough that their deaths would be something that made the audience feel sad, and considering how much it failed at that very enterprise, it’s all the more surprising to me that Kit, Grace, and Lana are all incredibly sympathetic. They’ve all been imprisoned in a place that stands to sap them of any will or sanity, and their only recourse is to fight back, even if they don’t yet know how.

Don’t get me wrong. There are still problems here. In particular, the show too often portrays some of the denizens of the asylum as garden-variety “freaks.” (I found the introduction of the first asylum resident in last week’s episode particularly distasteful.) It’s hard to say just how seriously this should be taken, because Ryan Murphy uses baseless provocation like other writers use the word “the,” but it’s still hard to look past when it’s in the moment. There’s less of it than last season, but the show tries to have it both ways, by portraying the horrific ways that mental illness was treated in the 1960s, while also wanting us to cackle at some of the worst patients of the asylum. Is bad treatment of these patients somehow more acceptable if they’re murderers? It’s not, to me.

All of that said, episode two really does dig deep into this season’s ongoing storyline and mythology, while also offering up some of the ol’ crazy bullshit to keep those who loved that about season one watching. I don’t want to overstate how this season’s storyline has settled down, because this is still an episode that introduces Zachary Quinto’s “BUT I AM A MAN OF SCIENCE!” Oliver Thredson to us, then makes him party to an exorcism that also reveals the hidden secrets of Sister Jude. One of my critic friends was complaining to me about the horror-movie pileup that is the show’s constant assault of monsters and ghosts and serial killers, and while I can see his point, I also think it’s just something you have to go with. There’s a demonic possession—that seems to have passed to Sister Mary Eunice, who plays this mostly as mild confusion—because there are Catholics, so of course there’s a demonic possession. What else do we even have Catholics for, in terms of pop culture? The days of friendly, singing priests are long gone. Now, they’re mostly good for casting demons back to hell.

I don’t know that I can call any of this “scary,” precisely. (That’s one advantage season one has on this season so far. It was insane, but it also had moments of incredible tension.) It’s all rather by-the-numbers when it comes to the idea of trying to put a good scare into the audience. But it’s at least interesting. I’m getting into the mysteries of Briarcliff and the secrets of what’s going on there and the need to escape from it. At the same time, I found the drama of whether Lana would trust Kit or not a little forced. Would she really give up a great shot at freedom—caused by a demon, naturally—because she was worried that Kit was a serial killer? I mean, I guess I can see it, but she seems like someone who’s fairly pragmatic and level-headed, and because Kit’s identity is already known and associated with a serial killer (though he’s clearly innocent), wouldn’t she assume the police could catch up to him afterward, even with her help? American Horror Story always runs into the “well, why don’t they just leave?” problem, and while that’s lessened here (because so many of the characters are trapped in Briarcliff), that single moment brought the problem rushing back. On the other hand, the final moment, where Grace sneers at Lana for her betrayal, was pretty great, and I’m starting to see how the show could either keep Lana the heroine she is in these first two or gradually break her down into one of Sister Jude’s acolytes. Either path is interesting to me, and that makes it fun to speculate.


But if we really want to get into why I’m enjoying this season more than I was season one at a comparable point, all roads lead to James Cromwell, who’s playing obvious red herring Dr. Arthur Arden. Tonight, he pretty much just hangs out with a prostitute (played by Jenny Wade), but in the process, she discovers he has lots and lots of photos of women being tied up in potentially terrifying positions. She gets scared. He gets mad. It’s all very spooky, and I’m all but certain that he’s in no way a threat now, outside of the whole “electroshock therapy” thing. Cromwell has great fun with characters like this, and Arden ties thoroughly into this season’s themes of how behavior is demonized and marginalized by repressive social forces that prefer only a particularly vanilla brand of sexuality. So what if Arden gets off by looking at pictures of women being tied up, or if he likes to tie women up himself? So long as it’s all consensual, who gives a shit? Well, lots of people, who would freak out if they saw his pictures, which is why he keeps them hidden. I think this is a neat misdirect, given what we know about some of the other characters, and given that it would be too obvious for him to be Bloody Face at this point. But who knows?

In the end, though, that’s the question about this show: Do you want it to have thematic coherency, or do you just want it to be a bunch of crazy shit happening? I can see the appeal in both approaches, but I very much appreciate the former, and I think the latter would grow wearying if it carried on for a full additional season. I mean, this is still a show where weird metallic bugs are pulled out of Evan Peters’ arm, so it’s not like we’re going to leave the crazy bullshit behind entirely, but Asylum, so far at least, is building a world and story I find much more compelling than season one’s. It will be fascinating to see if it can keep up that balancing act all season long, but I’m sucked in for now.


Stray observations:

  • One element I’m not incredibly excited about is Chloë Sevigny, who seems like she’s here because at some point, somebody said, “Hey, could we have a nymphomaniac?” and then the writers’ room broke into applause.
  • Our female newlywed races from Bloody Face and closes herself in a cell to keep away from him. He promptly sets upon her husband, thereby freeing him to go back to judging on The Voice. So long, Adam Levine (unless you turn into a ghost, in which case, we’ll see you around the Christmas tree)!
  • As mentioned last week, I’m digging the season’s complicated relationship with Catholicism. The priests are all assholes, who condescend to women and won’t allow them in the room when an exorcism is taking place, but on the other hand, when the demons arrive, who you gonna call? (And, to be fair, Sister Jude does cause everything to go apeshit.)
  • Seeing the episode title as I entered this into our system reminded me this was meant to be a Halloween episode. If you were looking for lots of holiday trappings, you were probably disappointed, huh?
  • Just what the hell accent is Jessica Lange trying to do anyway?