American Horror Story
“Welcome to Briarcliff”
October 17, 2012
O HELLO, American Horror Story fans! Long time no blog!
Between being a little rusty at writing about something that doesn’t involve intoxicated self-absorbed housewives, and Ryan Murphy feeling the need to shove every possible plot point into the premiere (Aliens? Sure. Discrimination against homosexuals and interracial relationships? Why not? Some sort of Dr. Moreau/Frankensteinesque evil shenanigans? Absolutely. Catholic hypocrisy? Might as well while we’re at it.), I struggled to get this entry done. APOLOGIES. I will try to do better in the future.
A quick editorial note before we venture into this season’s insanity: As you probably know if you are reading a week-late blog about American Horror Story, this season’s story is unrelated to the first season, “Murder House.” This season takes place in a completely different time (the 1960s), at a completely different place (a mental institution in Massachusetts) and appears to feature completely different scares (aliens, psychotics, man-made monsters of some sort?, nuns). That said, many of the characters are portrayed by actors from the first season, notably Jessica Lange, Sarah Paulson, Zachary Quinto, Evan Peters and Lily Rabe (and reportedly Dylan McDermott sometime later). While I have a tendency in my blogs to refer to characters by nicknames, often the names of characters that they have previously played in other projects, rest assured I will not call these returning characters by their names from the previous season of American Horror Story because 1. that’s confusing and 2. it’s lazy. (As lazy as calling them by their actual names which I do a couple for a couple of this season’s characters? Maybe not quite that lazy, I’ll grant you.)
SO OPEN THE GATES, AND LET’S GET OUR HORROR ON.
O, hi there, Adam Levine! So this is how you spend your downtime from The Voice? Taking pictures in an abandoned mental hospital of your “wife,” who you keep saying is sexy because if you say it often enough you might be able to convince us it’s true? Interesting choice. So what are you two wacky kids doing in a building that is most certainly not up to code? A Ghost Hunters-themed honeymoon? Where you visit the most haunted locations in America? Cool, I guess, but personally I’d much rather hang out poolside somewhere and have cabana boys fetch me drinks and snacky things while I read trashy novels, because your honeymoon sounds like way too much driving around and not enough rum. And I guess you think it’s sexy to talk about “Bloody Face” and make teh sexes on that old restraint table, but all I can see is a tetanus shot waiting to happen. Also, you probably shouldn’t go investigate that sound coming from the solitary confinement door down the hall, and you most definitely shouldn’t stick your arm through that observation hole in the solitary confinement door while your “wife” puts her mouth … places … because that’s just going to distract you and now OOPS, you’re suddenly missing an arm. Now how are you going to push your “I WANT YOU” button?
At some gas station in Massachusetts somewhere, Tate-but-not-Tate, let’s call him “Kit Walker,” deals with a jerky customer before locking the place up for the night. As he’s counting the monies, someone drives up to the station. As Kit goes out to shoo them away, the lights inside the station suddenly go out. He runs back inside to protect the cash box, and suddenly Giovanni Ribisi pops up out of nowhere startling poor Kit, because no one expects The Giovanni Ribisi. Giovanni Ribisi and his generically thuggish friends are here to “borrow” Kip’s gun, for some reason. When Kit reasonably refuses to let them borrow his gun, because how can that possibly go well, Giovanni Ribisi sneers at Kit about a maid and something apparently deeply insulting about chocolate. TENSION. And then Giovanni Ribisi, et al, leave.
Kit heads home where his secret African-American wife is cooking him dinner. Kit wants to tell the world they’re married! Secret African-American wife does not! Blah blah blah painfully obvious political statement about how it just was not all that long ago that people of different races couldn’t be married in some states and less obvious attempts to tie it to the current status of the homosexual marriage issue in our day and age and you have to kind of get there on your own but that is clearly the point of all this blah, let’s have teh sex!
Sexing sexing sexing. That taken care of, Secret African-American Wife hops up to check on the roast while Kit remains in bed, enjoying a cigarette in his tighty baggy whities. Suddenly, the radio goes staticy, there are bright lights shining through the window, and Kit jumps into his pants, shotgun in hand because OOH, THAT GIOVANNI RIBISI!! Kit yells at Secret African-American Wife to stay inside as he heads out to confront Giovanni Ribisi, et al. But once outside, Giovanni Ribisi, et al, are nowhere to be found, and instead, overhead, ERMAHGERD, FLIN SERCER! From somewhere back in the house, Secret African-American Wife screams for help, and Kit runs back inside only to met with deafening noise, windows being blown out all over the place, and no Secret African-American Wife to be found. In one particularly creepy moment, Kit watches as a pencil levitates up to the ceiling, followed by a lampshade, and then Kit himself. He falls to the floor, there is a flash of white light and Kit is on a table being poked at by an alien hand and then all goes white. Rough night for Kit!
Onto our new home for the season: Briarcliff Mental Institution for the Criminally Insane. One Harriet Hayes Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! is here to interview the nun that runs the joint, Sister Jude, about the institution’s bakery/expose the whole abusive system. She is led inside by Mrs. Alby who is now Sister Mary Eunice, and told to ignore the extra from Freaks who is more dangerous than she looks: she drowned her sister’s baby and sliced off his ears. Sister Mary Eunice leads Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! up the stairs (“Sister Jude calls it her stairway to heaven!” chirps Sister Mary Eunice.), past the blithering inmates and right into Sister Jude’s office where the good sister is amusing herself by shaving Chloë Sevigny’s head, because if you could shave Chloë Sevigny’s head, wouldn’t you shave Chloë Sevigny’s head? (You’d totally shave Chloë Sevigny’s head.) Sister Jude, who is not Constance and we know this because she has a rahring Bahstahn accent, is irritated that Sister Mary Eunice and Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! interrupted her styling session with Chloë Sevigny mid-shave. Sister Jude sends Chloë Sevigny back to the common room to show off her new Skrillex haircut, and Chloë Sevigny is all SO WHAT! I’M STILL SUPER-HOT WITH MY REGRETTABLE SKRILLEX HAIRCUT, I’LL SHOW YOU! before scurrying away.
Sister Jude grudgingly gives Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! an audience, and Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! immediately asks what Chloë Sevigny did to deserve being Skrillexed. Sister Jude grouchily explains that the official diagnosis is sexypantsemia nymphomania, but she knows that modern psychology is a bunch of bunk: Chloë Sevigny’s real problem is sin, pure and simple. Sister Jude then goes on and on about how wonderful the true visionary of Briarcliff is: Monsignor Timothy. It is Monsignor’s philosophy that guides Briarcliff: Productivity, Prayer, Purification, and these “3 Ps” somehow gave Sister Jude the idea to open the bakery (pies and pastries being the other two “Ps” I suppose?) Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! asks Sister Jude if all the patients are remanded from the state, and while Sister Jude smirks that no, not all come from the state, Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! writes the following in her reporter notebook: HIDING SOMETHING! LIES! Great notes, Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! That is some excellent journalism right there. ALL OF THE PULITZERS FOR YOU.
Sister Mary Eunice bursts in, again, and whispers something about the “bad person” before hurrying out, and Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! is all, WAS THAT ABOUT BLOODY FACE? I WANT TO SEE BLOODY FACE! I hear he’s decapitated three ladies and then wore their skin as a mask! I WANT TO TALK TO BLOODY FACE! Sister Jude assures Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! that she’s out of her depth, Donnie, but then allows her to watch as “Bloody Face” is lead into Briarcliff, and whaddya know, but “Bloody Face” is actually Kit, who hardly seems the type to be a Bloody Face, but then what do we know, right?
Kit is taken inside where he is showered (and that sound you heard was a thousand fan girl tumblrs gifsploding), powdered and then put down for a drug-induced nappytimes. When he awakens, Sister Jude is waiting at his bedside to assure him that he’s got some repentin’ to do. Kit protests that he didn’t kill anyone, ERMAHGERD, FLIN SERCER! and Sister Jude is like, yeah, no. She calls him a monster and then makes a gross racial comment about Secret African-American Wife’s “dark meat sliding off the bone” which deservedly earns her a faceful of Kit spit. And so Sister Jude whacks his bare bottom with one of her canes (and that sound you heard was a thousand S&M tumblrs gifsploding).
Kit bears his wounds in the common room, where Chloë Sevigny is all, O HI, YUMMY, how about we go to the hydrotherapy room for a little Brown Bunny? But Chloë Sevigny is soon distracted by something, craziness, I don’t know, and Kit realizes that the music being played in the common room is the soundtrack to madness. He goes to turn it off when he’s stopped by a French girl who warns him that Zees, eet ez not allowed. Ze music, eet stays on, oui? Kit wonders why he should trust her, and she explains that she ees not crazy. This conversation is interrupted by Mateo Santos who punches Kit in the face because: crazy. Fight fight fight, punch punch punch, and soon Sister Jude and her orderlies are in the common room, whacking Kit upside the head and stopping all the fun.
When Kit wakes up this time, he’s straightjacked up and in a darkened solitary confinement cell. Frenchy slips him some food and a cigarette, what zou put in zee world comes back to zou. Frenchy then explains that zey say zat she chopped up her familze, but she did not do zis. She then asks him if he killz his wife? No, and, furthermore, Kit is not crazy. Zat ees too bad, because eef zey decide he ees sane, where he weel go ees mooch worse. Also, ze electric chair. And as she is about to leave, Kit asks her name: Obvious Metaphor was already taken, so she goes by Grace.
Meanwhile, Sister Mary Eunice is all hysterical and weepy over some patient that has recently died and was taken away by Briarcliff’s Doctor Moreau in Residence: Dr. Hoggett. Sister Jude, alarmed that she knew so little about this development, marches into Dr. Hoggett’s office and demands to know what happened. After explaining that the bodies have been cremated, so don’t bother looking for them, Dr. Hoggett insists that he and Monsignor and he had a gentleman’s agreement that he’d be allowed to do his doctoring without anyone looking over his shoulder and ASKING PESKY QUESTIONS. So. The two broadly argue science versus faith because OF COURSE THEY DO, this is Ryan “Subtlety” Murphy we’re talking about, before Sister Jude notes that she’s well aware that Dr. Hoggett is preying on patients who have no family to keep track of them. With that Sister Jude barks something about the “patriarchal male,” and stomps out of the office while picking the splinters of the scenery out of her teeth.
Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! comes home from Briarcliff, where her secret lesbian girlfriend is waiting to encourage her to follow the Briarcliff story, even if it means she take time off from her Lady Reporting job. When Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! goes in for a kiss, Secret Girlfriend Who Happens to be a Teacher, tsks that the blinds are open. She has to fight just to teach evolution in her class, can you imagine the response if her kids’ parents found out she was a lady kisser? (Here’s the point where we are supposed to sigh “the more things change…” or we would if we weren’t unconscious from being BEATEN OVER THE HEAD.)
Sister Jude puts on her reddest, laciest underpanties and makes some coq au vin for Monsignor Timothy Fiennes, because why should Ryan “Tell Don’t Show” Murphy hold back now? At dinner, Monsignor Timothy notes that Sister Jude is a “rare bird” in that most nuns deny themselves sensory pleasures, but that her cooking suggests that she is an exception to the rule. Sister Jude shares her concerns about Dr. Hoggett with Monsignor Timothy, noting especially that he is not a “man of God,” but he dismisses this as nothing for her to worry her little habit over. And anyway, one mustn’t fear science: scientists are divinely inspired, it’s a new age of miracles, Catholic president, and so forth. As Monsignor details his grand plan — Phase 1: Make Briarcliff the awesomest mental institution evar, Phase 2: Become the Cardinal of New York and make Sister Jude Mother Superior, Phase 3: ???, Phase 4: Profit Become the first American pope — Sister Jude fantasizes about stripping off her robes and climbing into his lap, obviously. OBVIOUSLY. But she snaps to attention just as Monsignor concludes: And that’s why you have to get out of Dr. Hoggett’s face.
Outside of Briarcliff, Sister Mary Eunice has been sent by Dr. Hoggett into the woods with a bucket full of meat, and instructions to feed “them.” She sees something in the woods, and begins running back to safety, only to run into Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! who wonders what Sister Mary Eunice is doing out here at this time of night. Sister Mary Eunice pleads with Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! not to tell Sister Jude, and upon hearing some sort of moan from the trees, hurries Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! inside through a secret tunnel. Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! sniffs out Sister Mary Eunice’s fear of Sister Jude, and promises not to report the younger nun’s excursion if Sister Mary Eunice will let her into the institution to poke around a bit. DEAL.
And so they poke around the hallways a bit, but have to hurry into the men’s ward when they notice that Sister Jude is on her nighttime rounds. There, Mateo Santos throws some of his mierda on Sister Mary Eunice’s face — which is NOT NICE, MATEO SANTOS. HALEY WOULD BE SO DISAPPOINTED IN YOU — and Sister Mary Eunice hurries away, leaving Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! on her own, because sure. Absolutely this would happen. So Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! continues down the hallway until she finds Chloë Sevigny brown bunnying an orderly. Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! threatens to tell on the orderly, sending him fleeing, which gives her a chance to tell Chloë Sevigny she’s sorry about the Skrillexing, and to ask her where Kit Walker’s cell is. Chloë Sevigny explains that he was sent to solitary, before hearing Sister Jude’s footsteps approaching. RUN! Chloë Sevigny darts one direction and Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! finds an empty cell to hide in, managing to allude Sister Jude’s giant flashlight.
MEANWHILE, Kit Walker isn’t in solitary at all, because Dr. Hoggett has come to the cell, shot Kit in the neck with something, who even knows what, and brought him to his secret lab. There, he explains that his name is Dr. Hoggett and he runs this institution, despite what Sister Jude might think. Blah blah blah MAN OF SCIENCE! MY TIME! NO MORE FAIRY TALES! THE DARKNESS OF THE HUMAN PSYCHE! NOW I’M GOING TO PUT THIS CLOCKWORK ORANGE HEAD THINGY ON YOU AND PRY OPEN YOUR EYES FOR NO PARTICULAR REASON! ALSO, NO ANETHESIA, BECAUSE THAT’S HOW EVIL I AM, MWA HA HA ETC! As he pokes around on Kit’s body, giving Kit some serious alien flashbacks, Dr. Hoggett finds a hard spot in Kit’s neck and slices it open with a scalpel. And out comes a small metallic chip which promptly sprouts several long thin legs and scurries off the table. Huh.
Back in the men’s ward, Lana Winters, Intrepid Girl Reporter! slips out of her cell and finds solitary confinement, where she peeks in through the food slot, only to have a hand reach out and bonk her head into the hard metal door, knocking her unconscious. So not terribly intrepid after all.
The next day, Sister Jude berates Sister Mary Eunice for completely screwing everything up, and wonders why she’s defended the young nun when everyone else told Sister Jude she was stupid. Sister Mary Eunice goes to Sister Jude’s closet o’ crops, pulls out the biggest one, and flings her robes up over her bare behind, begging Sister Jude to punish her for being so weak and stupid. For some reason, this gives Sister Jude pause, and she sends Sister Mary Eunice away uncropped, and with a warning to never call herself stupid again. And then Sister Jude has a sad because: DARK BACKSTORY FORESHADOWING.
Lana Winters, Idiot Reporter! wakes up strapped down to a bed with some sort of hair-mussing contraption on her head, and Sister Jude leering over her. OH GOOD, You’re awake! Seems you had an accident last night, explains Sister Jude. Lana Winters, Idiot Reporter! protests that something attacked her, but Sister Jude dismisses this as Lana Winters, Idiot Reporter’s! fertile imagination. Anyway, Lana Winter, Idiot Reporter! will be staying here with Sister Jude for a spell, while she “recovers.” Lana Winter, Idiot Reporter! insists someone will come looking for her, and Sister Jude laughs it off. Oh, honey, no.
You see, at some point, it is very unclear when exactly because how long has Lana Winter, Idiot Reporter! been out cold? Overnight? A day? A week? These are things that we don’t know. But at some point while Lana Winter, Idiot Reporter! was sleeping off her concussion, Sister Jude paid a visit to Secret Girlfriend Who Happens to be a Teacher, and blackmailed her into signing involuntary commitment papers — even though both Sister Jude and Secret Girlfriend Who Happens to be a Teacher are in agreement that Secret Girlfriend Who Happens to be a Teacher has no legal standing to do so. But who needs logic? THE POINT IS: overwrought homophobia + Secret Girlfriend Who Happens to be a Teacher betrays Lana Winter, Idiot Reporter! = Lana Winter, Homosexuality Conversion Therapy Patient Prisoner! You’re welcome!
In the hallway, Sister Mary Eunice passes some pilfered keys to Sister Jude, who uses them to open the stinky solitary confinement cell. There, Sister Jude finds Dr. Hoggett scrubbing clean the walls with some powerful disinfectants, so as to use the cell as extra storage. Sister Jude finds the whole business suspicious, and promises to ferret out whatever he is up to. Dr. Hoggett notes that he had a pet ferret once, until he broke its neck after biting him. Hmm. I don’t remember a ferret on Hoggett farm …
Listen, Mrs. Adam Levine, you’ve got to think this out. I do not think you’re going to be able to drag Adam Levine out of the building (it’s going to be hard to get a good grip on him for one thing). You’re going to have to run for help, and try not to trip and fall in all that debris and most definitely not get caught by Bloody Face oops you just got caught by Bloody Face. Oh well, maybe The Voice can hire Purrfect to fill Adam Levine’s chair.
Where last season’s ghosts worked as a symbol of the psychological process of being haunted by guilt, regret and one’s past, this season is clearly going to be all about how The System tries to define normality. Briarcliff represents the Powers That Be: the church, the government and “science,” and their efforts to make what is different, or outside of society’s norms (homosexuality, female sexual desire, interracial relationships, etc.) into something monstrous. While the doctor appears to literally be creating monsters in his lab, this is a metaphor for how society made (and still attempts to make) those who live on the fringes feel as though there is something wrong with them, that they are crazy and dangerous, but this is something that can be fixed either through “science,” enough prayer, or simply by being taken away and hidden from sight. In this episode both Kit and Lana are literally abducted by sinister forces (aliens and then the institution), and then told that they are “monsters” even though their only crime appears to be loving people that society deems unacceptable. But good news! Sister Jude and the good doctor intend to “fix” them. One way or another.
It’s not that this is a bad conceit for a series, it’s that the way Ryan Murphy chose to introduce it felt like a nun rapping our knuckles with a ruler. There is no subtlety, no nuance, people literally are running around screaming at each other that they are “monsters!” Repeatedly! This is a thing that happens repeatedly in a single episode! That is not an example of good writing! That is the definition of telling and not showing which is a bad writing thing to do!
That said, I’m more than happy to give this season more time; time to breathe, time to assure itself that we’re “getting it,” that we understand that it is An Important Political and Social Metaphor, and then move on with the scares already. Last season’s pilot episode similarly felt the need to jam every possible plot point into the first hour, and I didn’t care for it either. But then over the course of the season, American Horror Story grew wackier and wackier and I and the writers all relaxed a little and it became the best funhouse ride on television. Here’s to hoping this season will similarly lose its sense of self-importance and allow itself to go off the rails.
So, who do you think is Bloody Face?
American Horror Story airs Wednesday nights at 9 p.m. on Bravo.
This post originally appeared on the Hearst site Chron.com.