I was a little relieved that this episode wasn’t as scary as I had anticipated. I don’t mean any disrespect by saying so either; by having fed us the first five minutes and giving us a glimpse of the boogeyman frights a full week before the premiere, I was already grounded in a foundation of fear that was level for the 42 minutes (or so) of episode time. And, as is with horror, we need setup, and, boy did we ever get some.
The Asylum of Briarcliff, abandoned (but not empty) in present day, and full of interesting life in 1964, definitely has more opportunity for scares than a lush haunted house in present day LA. We meet the people running the joint (I couldn’t resist a little 1960’s jargon, as the Show definitely embodies a great feel for the era). We have Sister Jude, Jessica Lange trading in her Southern Tennessee Williams twang for a Brooklyn tinged voice, confident in her stance that “Mental illness is the fashionable explanation for sin”. She is hard but not without her own sinful yearnings, lusty for Monsignor as she hides a red negligee under her nun’s habit, and fantasizes undoing more than his collar. (And while I admit sharing a bit of the lust for Joseph Fiennes, I’m still trying to understand why he sounds like Wesley from The Princess Bride, a melodic haughty lilt in his words). I’m also intrigued by a man of the cloth being so progressive to science. Of course, this “science” comes at the bloodied hands of Dr. Arthur Arden, creepy in a way that makes me think he won’t affectionately mutter “that’ll do, pig” to any kindly animal, or person. He’s conducting experiments on the incarcerated, and while Sister Jude’s “eyes are wide open”, he has the Monsignor’s full support, and silence. He’s possibly mutated a person much like a plant he proudly showcases, but the only proof we have is blood stained walls and deep nail marks digging into the walls in an otherwise abandoned room.
Dr. Arden’s next test subject is a recent addition to Briarcliff, a poor kid named Kit Walker, deemed to be serial killer Bloody Face who decapitated three women, and apparently skinned his wife, but was found screaming about “little green men.” And yes, we get bright light images of probing (though a naked Evan Peters is, well, you won’t get any complaints from me…) and, late in the episode, a robotic insect that scurries away once released from the implant place on his neck. This may be a horror drama, but this year it looks like we get a sprinkling of sci-fi too!
We also meet an anxious reporter named Lana (“like the movie star”) who tries hard to infiltrate the asylum and manages to walk into a possible creature in the woods, being fed by Sister Mary Eunice, and then stumbles right into being another Briarcliff occupant, courtesy of Sister Jude’s blackmail.
Did I also mention that it seems our newlyweds in present day also learn that Bloody Face is alive and well and still roaming the halls of the asylum complete with human flesh mask?
It’s interesting that the Show this season is a sign of times that spotlights not only the awkward cohabitation of science and religion, but also a bigotry that was accepted as much then as it is shunned now. Kit’s wife is “chocolate” as one character mentions, in secret pretending to be his maid and both keeping it a well-guarded secret, even from family. I feel for poor Kit, mourning his wife who was killed by someone else (or something else) and also fighting in a place where, no matter what he does, his sanity will always be at question. I’m also extremely impressed that Evan Peters is such a capable actor, having no other point of reference for his career but AHS Season One; although he’s brunette this time around it wasn’t just a change in hair color that separated him from the tortured Tate – it took me a while to recognize his face in the guise of this new character, and I think that speaks volumes for his talent.
The other element of bigotry is the closeted Lana, whose girlfriend is coerced into agreeing that Lana stay at Briarcliff under the threat of exposure by Sister Jude. How horrid to live in a time like that, and my heart aches for the past and people having had to endure that, even still in the present day that homosexuality is still considered a hot button issue where the fear of being who you are can make you agree to bad things at the cost. That is what I respect of Ryan Murphy – he won’t shy away from the ugliness of people that don’t require anything more than a skewered frame of thinking, which may be more frightening than a Bloody Face…
I’m looking forward to the season with this preamble. The characters, as in Season 1, are multifaceted; for example, while Sister Mary Eunice comes off as naïve and afraid of her superior, her first line is a curt reply to Lana’s dismissive of a “harmless” patient who hands her a flower:. “She’s not harmless. She murdered her sister’s baby and sliced his ears off” as she briskly hauls her towards the asylum. I’m also interested in seeing more of the minor (but surely major in the overall arc) characters of nymphomaniac Shelley, greaser Spivey and fellow inmate and potential Kit ally Grace. I do want to see what happens to our hapless modern day duo, as it looks like Leo’s not gonna make it much past Episode 2. Perhaps they should have headed Grace’s warning: “There’s rules for everything here” at Briarcliff, and I’m sure B&E isn’t allowed. I’m looking forward to see who and how every one of those rules gets bent and broken this season.